Pakistan lies at the pivot linking China, India, Afghanistan and Iran, influencing happenings in South Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia. It has long profited from its geographic position, aligned with the US for decades and now turning to China for economic and political support. What happens in Pakistan is of immense significance for the world order and regional peace. More so it is a matter of survival for 200 million Pakistanis.
A popular election in 2018 brought a new party to power. Pakistan Tehreek–e-Insaf (PTI), led by Imran Khan and driven by the enthusiasm of youthful urbanites for a promised new (Naya) Pakistan. Can Pakistan reinvent itself?
Imran Khan has the aura of sincerity, incorruptibility and passion for improving people’s lives. He has presented himself as a new face in politics, though he had been struggling since 1996, when he founded the party.
The 2018 elections proved to be the breakout event for him nationally. He became the prime minister with a narrow majority in the national parliament and his party rules in two provinces. His success took away the chokehold of the two dynastic parties on electoral politics, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML) of the Sharifs and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the Bhuttos,
The military is another political force in Pakistan. It has ruled directly for 33 of the 71 years of Pakistan’s history and has been an arbiter for almost the whole of its existence. It is a common belief that Imran Khan’s parliamentary majority came with the blessing of the army. His becoming the prime minister was hailed as an opportunity to put Pakistan on a new trajectory. The Sharifs and Zardari-Bhuttos had largely exhausted people’s trust, though their parties retained pockets of followings.
The ‘new’ Pakistan is turning out to be the same old state and society. The country’s balance of payments account is nearly bankrupt. Imran Khan is frantically seeking aid from the Gulf Emirates, Saudi Arabia and China to shore up the foreign exchange reserves. The rupee continues to fall in exchange value, fuelling inflation. People are groaning under the burden of rising prices. The Consumer Price Index has increased by about seven percent during the past one year.
Though terrorism had been contained by the military before the election of the PTI government, periodic acts of terrorist attacks on security forces, sectarian and ethnic minorities and targeted killings continue to occur in tribal areas, Balochistan and to a lesser extent in Karachi. Journalists, bloggers and critics of national policies towards India, Afghanistan and the internal security ‘disappear’ to return chastised. Recently, the army has branded the movement for Pashtun’s rights to be under foreign influence.
These conditions add to the sense of insecurity and denial of human rights. They particularly alienate the urban youth who have been Imran Khan’s primary constituency.
Pakistan’s problems are woven into its structure. There is no magic wand that Imran Khan can wave to resolve them in eight months. What is disappointing is that his actions hold little promise of a break with the past.
He followed the familiar tactic of blaming Sharifs and Zardaris, the previous rulers, of corruption and money laundering and bankrupting Pakistan. His public meetings have been spectacles of wild promises of recovering the looted billions and punishing the corrupt.
The PTI is a person-centred party, steeped in the messiah complex, where the great leader has the answer to all problems. This is not different from the past regimes and other parties. One had expected otherwise. Instead of filling the national coffers with the recovered national wealth, Khan’s government has set a new record by about 14 percent increase in the national debt, raising it to 27.57 trillion rupees.
The PTI has a thin second tier of leaders and provincial/district level organisations to help build grass-root representation. The party is built on Khan’s charisma, populism and mass rallies. It attracted local power brokers who bargain their political loyalties for power and personal enrichment. There is little talent as well as ideological and organisational depth in the PTI.
Imran Khan talks the talk but has not walked the walk. He is good at putting his finger on national problems, be it the need for billions trees, protecting agricultural land, pollution and environmental degradation, poverty reduction, minorities’ rights and acknowledging ethnic and regional discontent. Many of these issues have been brought in the national discourse for the first time.
Although ideologically Khan tends to have a modern-liberal outlook, personally he has embraced more mystical Sufi beliefs and practices. His public meetings have included legions of young women, faces painted with party colours, standing side by side with men – a new norm for Pakistan. Yet he evokes the religious images as ideals.
He has been forthright in acknowledging shared concerns about the cross-border terrorism, particularly with Iran and Afghanistan. He kept a lid on the border skirmish with India recently. In foreign relations, he has shown a realistic outlook, breaking away from the past jingoism.
When it comes to programmes and actions, the PTI government falls back on tried and formulistic strategies. It promised to insulate the administration from political pressures, but has moved around high officials on political grounds.
Currently a much publicised housing programme aims at building 150,000 flats in high rises when 10 million houses are needed. It is almost a global precept that building public housing, except for special needs, does not solve housing problems. Assisted self-help and creating an equitable and efficient housing market are the suitable strategies. Pakistan has rich examples of successful low income community housing projects, e.g. Orangi and Khuda-ki-Basti, to be the basis of housing policies. Yet the lure of cutting ribbons and announcing mega projects with foreign loans has proven irresistible.
The PTI could lead towards a New Pakistan if it concentrates on building accountable institutions through administrative reforms, including police and judicial reorganisation. The reforms should appropriately distribute authority, reduce discretionary powers of officials, legislate answerability to clients, simplify rules and regulations, establish transparency and enact a citizens bill of rights that include protection from arbitrariness and freedom of expression. This would require no foreign aid or technical assistance, but persistent intellectual and moral commitments.
Also Imran Khan and the PTI should not invest their energies in the politics of revenge. It should leave the task of bringing the corrupt to justice for the accountability agencies and courts. It should create an environment of mutual collaboration in legislatures and in politics in general to address the pressing need for reforming civil and criminal laws, streamline property rights, clarify inheritance laws and establish stringent criteria for the enforcement of blasphemy laws. Justice should not only be accessible to all but also reduce the need for litigation. The point is that institutional changes can transform Pakistan. Pakistani society is resilient and its people enterprising. Unshackle their entrepreneurial energies and Naya Pakistan will emerge on its own.
The writer is the author of the book Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation