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The Covid threat to Imran’s regime

The sticking point was Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to strike any deal short of a free and fair election immediately and an explicit understanding that the Establishment would henceforth pledge to stay out of politics.

RK Kaushik | New Delhi |

It is perspicacious that as the world reels from the Corona attack, economists and political scientists are already weighing in with projections of adverse socio-economic consequences far and wide. The most common refrain is that “the world will change forever” in so many unimagined ways.

The impact of prolonged worldwide lockdowns on rich and poor societies will devastate the global economy by disrupting manufacturing, diminishing trade, travel and tourism, and overwhelm health facilities.

Indeed, even if the virus is “controlled” in due course, quite apart from diminished disposable incomes, consumer demand for a variety of goods and services available in shopping malls, stadia, cinemas, theatres, hotels, restaurants, holiday resorts, airplanes and such like will not pick up for some time because of a lingering fear of catching an infection in crowded places.

The Covid-19 outlook for Pakistan is depressing. In the midst of this unprecedented crisis which requires a national will and ability to overcome, the country remains bitterly divided.

The Civil-Military Establishment, that includes the judiciary and organs of “accountability” like NAB (National Accountability Bureau), Election Commission, etc., have abandoned all pretext of political neutrality; the “selected” prime minister Imran Khan and his ruling party are still focused more on hounding the opposition than tackling the challenge of Covid- 19; the rich are demanding new perks and privileges to offset their “losses” through lockdowns even as the poor are scrambling to eke out two bare meals a day.

The philosophy of poverty that defines the health of a nation is abysmally lost in the poverty of philosophy of the ruling classes. Imran Khan admits that 25 per cent of the population, or over 50 million Pakistanis, barely survive below the “poverty line” of Pakistani Rs 300 per day (less than $2) per person.

Yet, in the last budget, Imran was only willing to allocate a pittance to their welfare – his government’s various poverty alleviation and employment generation schemes didn’t amount to more than Rs 200 billion (less than 3 per cent of total projected tax revenues) – while he was happy to fork over as much as 42 per cent for “Defence” (which doesn’t include health, education and social welfare), “because of Pakistan’s tough neighborhood”, never mind the mass squalor and deprivation across the country.

Pakistan’s total budget is of $45.6 billion. The foreign debt is around $110 billion. Pakistan borrowed $61 billion. In the last five years, the internal debt is Rs 30 lakh crore rupees. On many occasions over the course of his political life, Imran Khan has expressed his admiration for the US-style presidency where the incumbent is free to name any one to key positions in the administration.

This when, in a parliamentary system, the elected leader of the house, that is the prime minister is restricted to mostly choosing his/her cabinet or ministers from among elected parliamentarians with a limited number of unelected ‘advisers and special assistants’ allowed by law.

Not only Imran but even the most potent political force in the country – the Powerful Establishment has also made public its preference for a government of technocrats as a panacea for all that ails Pakistan. A decisive and intelligent leader – had there been one in Pakistan – would have enforced a national emergency nay lockdown at the very outset in February and quickly delivered a relief package for the poor.

By end- March he might have flattened the curve at a low level. Imran’s government faces a humongous challenge. The quality and calibre of a true leader are tested in times of national crisis. That is when clarity of thought is translated into decisive action. For such action to be effective, it must be underpinned by a national consensus so that the nation rises collectively to the challenge.

Yet in ten recent media addresses to the nation, Imran Khan has demonstrated a confused and rigid mind that refuses to acknowledge credible, evidential realities. Worse, his attitude to the opposition parties remains petulantly vindictive – he wants to eliminate them all rather than hold a constructive dialogue with them in national interest.

Strangely, the government has allowed mosques to remain open for congregational and Taraweeh prayers during Ramzan, making Pakistan the only Muslim country in the world to do so according to a number of international media outlets.

If people interact, even if it is for prayers during Ramzan, they only increase the risk of the virus spreading out of control and infecting too large a number of people for the country’s healthcare system to deal with. Indeed Pakistani doctors have warned of a situation where they might have to treat people on the streets.

At present Pakistan has around 50,000 Covid patients with over 1,000 confirmed deaths. The tally is increasing, and Imran has discontinued the lockdown. The effect is slowly becoming visible. Three months ago, the media was rife with speculation that the clock was ticking for Imran Khan the Establishment had seen the error of its “selection” and was looking to redeem the situation via a national unity government excluding him.

The sticking point was Nawaz Sharif’s refusal to strike any deal short of a free and fair election immediately and an explicit understanding that the Establishment would henceforth pledge to stay out of politics. But the sudden arrival of Covid-19 put paid to all that. The virus outbreak could tip the scales either way.

If Imran Khan’s antilockdown strategy works, he will live to fight another day. But if it does not – if hunger, joblessness, strikes, riots and anarchy break out, or the economy sends out an SOS – it will be back to the drawing board for the Establishment. In Pakistan the Establishment (Army & ISI) controls Defence, Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Policy, Internal Security, Press and Media. Civilian leaders and even the Prime Minister are not allowed much say in these matters.

Recently Imran dropped Information Advisor Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan and the Establishment sent Lt. Gen (Retd.) Asim Saleem Bajwa in her place along with Shibley Faraz as Information & Broadcasting Minister. The conclusion is inescapable. Imran Khan obsequiously obeys the powerful Establishment which for the present has no proper alternative. However, the future looks precarious for Imran and his government.

(The writer is a senior IAS officer of the Punjab cadre)