Imran Khan as Prime Minister is a reality. He was sworn in last month. His rapid ascent from political periphery to the PM’s office has left both his detractors and followers astounded. The humongous and sincere support of the establishment – which he got – and subsequent elections played a conspicuous role that is surprising for many because initially he was taken to be the perennial angry young man of Pakistan with only some populist hard talk to show for himself.
However, time and circumstances changed as the traditional heavyweights (Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari, Fazlur Rehman, Chaudhry Nisar and some others) of Pakistani politics became pygmies in front of establishment’s resolute onslaught on them.
His rise from a star cricketer to celebrity philanthropist and now, finally, as Prime Minister is public validation of what can be achieved through the support of Establishment in Pakistan.
Imran’s federal cabinet of 21 members has 12 who previously served under General Pervez Musharraf while five were part of the last PPP government. This surely undercuts his claim of ushering in a Naya Pakistan, notwithstanding the fact that people are needed for their experience in navigating the corridors of power.
No doubt as PM, he has fascinated a section of the urban populace. People are romanticising every move that he makes. When he jogs people find motivation for adopting a healthy lifestyle. He gives speeches extempore. People express their jubilation that this time their PM does not read from a piece of paper (which Nawaz Sharif used to do). He has promised to make Pakistan a real welfare state. His decision of taking austerity measures is appreciated. Many are impressed by his promise of promoting simplicity in every walk of life. His decision of not residing in PM House is a harbinger of a new era for Pakistan.
The reality of governing a security state with huge presence of the Establishment will slowly and gradually become clear. The Establishment is not prepared either to adopt simplicity or have frugal lifestyles for its officers. Nor will it allow Imran to dare to reduce the Defence Budget (which is almost 40 per cent of the total Budget at present).
Imran gave the impression to many that he means well. That is the sole reason why he got some support despite misgivings about his “end justifies means” approach and controversial personal life choices and standards. If he succeeds it will have been worth the price paid in mocking democracy and constitutionalism as he repeatedly ridiculed the previous Parliament and leaders. But if he fails, there is no back up except takeover by the Army (Establishment).
Pakistan suffers like other weak democracies from commercialisation of power, which means it is only those with money who can get into power. One face of this is the “electables”. Even seasoned politicians can remain relevant provided they are in a position to spend lavishly as the recent elections demonstrated. The urban Sind party called Muttahida Qaumi Movement has been an exception to this rule. They have been fielding politicians who are from the middle and lower middle class by using party funds. However, there is a question mark over the party’s source of funding.
Imran has been lucky in the past and emerged unscathed from a battery of perfectly reasonable cases challenging his morality, his declaration of assets, his contemptuous remarks about the Election Commission of Pakistan, and other “careless” omissions and commissions, while Nawaz Sharif and Mariam Sharif got assigned to prison and disqualified from Parliament for failing to declare “unreceived” incomes (construed as assets), doing forgery in trust deeds and not giving money trails of property in Britain.
Nawaz Sharif comes out of jail only to attend court hearings for other corruption cases. The problem with him was that he was often arrogant towards his colleagues. He wanted to act independently without bothering about the Establishment’s concerns. One reaps what one sows. Imran Khan must always remember Nawaz’s fate and the fate of previous rulers too. If he falls prey to sycophancy, nepotism and favouritism, he will end up the same way those before him have. It is often those who surround the leader who lead him into trouble and downfall.
He faces vexatious crises. The economy needs an IMF bailout package of at least $15 billion immediately, a huge sum given the fact that Pakistan’s total Budget is about $45 billion. If it happens, this will the 21st IMF bailout since 1950. The prices of essential food stuffs, gas, petrol and diesel etc are rising with alacrity.
Lord Salisbury, who served as Britain’s foreign secretary, remarked in the 19th century that “the only bond of union that endures” among nations is “the absence of all clashing interests”. His salient comment is as relevant today as it was in the past. Salisbury advocated quiet diplomacy that is devoid of jingoism, avoids geopolitical controversies or upsetting the balance of interests, and maintains the balance of power. His prudence contributed immensely to the British Empire’s arguably successful foreign policy during a challenging period of history. How much Imran follows this paradigm is yet to be seen especially when he has an extremely pro-establishment Foreign Minister.
The rocky relations with India and Afghanistan are not so simple to tackle. The world knows that foreign policy, defence policy, internal security and nuclear policy are the domain of the Establishment.
President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet accusing Pakistan of lying and being deceitful, and his South Asia policy, has brought Pakistan-US ties to a new low. It is even worse than what it was in the 1990s when Pakistan was under all kinds of US sanctions. US has recently cancelled a $300 million aid under coalition support fund. The animosity is unprecedented. Washington’s demand for unquestionable compliance remains unchanged. Pakistan’s only support in the region is that of China and its $60 billion CPEC project.
Against this backdrop, US Secretary of State Pompeo’s short stopover in Islamabad on 5 September made it clear that the US requires Pakistan to ‘do more’ in fighting terrorism on its soil, bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and force the insurgents to work with the Kabul government. Time will tell how much Imran succeeds.
The writer is a Senior IAS officer of the Punjab cadre and is working as Secretary to Government of Punjab.