In January 2021, the grief-stricken families of the ill-fated Hazara coal miners had refused to bury the bodies of their slaughtered kin until the prime minister visited them to apply balm to their deep wounds. In response, Imran Khan had thundered that, as a man of principles and adhering to an upstanding code of conduct, he would not bow to this unacceptable form of “blackmail” and the burial must precede his visit.
The poor families meekly complied with this prime-ministerial edict and only then the honourable prime minister deigned to grace them with his presence. Now, when the same families see the mighty Kaptaan scurrying desperately to try and save his sinking ship by offering the Punjab chief-ministership to a man he had once firmly labelled as the biggest dacoit of the Punjab, they could be forgiven for being more than a tad confused about the bearings of the prime minister’s moral compass and his claim to practice conviction politics.
Politics, by its very nature, is a game of compromise, deals (often sleazy) and pragmatic give and take. This concept of politics is not exclusive to Pakistan, rather in varying shades it exists in every country of the world. However, even within a field as besmirched as politics there is scope for adherence to principles, ideology and values. This is often referred to as conviction politics, or politics which eschews populism, playing to the gallery and the making of U-turns.
A fine exemplar of the art of conviction-based politics was Margaret Thatcher. In 1990, she introduced a new system of taxation called the Community Charge, commonly known as the poll tax, in England and Wales. The poll tax was extremely unpopular, many people refused to pay it and protests broke out in various British cities against the tax. However, Thatcher stuck to her guns and refused to scrap the tax, which was part of the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Eventually, she faced a revolt in her own parliamentary party, since many of its members were nervous at the growing public sentiment against the tax. Yet she did not flinch, and eventually she had to resign from office. One can agree or disagree with the poll tax, but there is little doubt about Margaret Thatcher’s adherence to the principle of conviction-based politics.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s politics has been quite complex. On the one hand, his avowed political philosophy has been very much conviction based, since it revolves around the doctrines of good and evil, morality and immorality and right and wrong. After all, he could scarcely do otherwise because the remodeling of Pakistan on the lines of the Riyasat-e-Madinah has been his stated mission.
On the other hand, the prime minister has, during his three-and-a-half year tenure, made many shifts, i.e. U-turns, in his long-held views on policy matters as well as about individuals. The classic case of such a volte face pertains to the vow he often made in his opposition years to the effect that once in power he would never approach multilateral financial institutions for loans, rather he would break the begging bowl altogether. As prime minister, this promise has been honoured only in the breach but never in the observance.
With respect to the prime minister’s revised view on persons, Chaudhry Pervaiz Ellahi’s case is the obvious example. The dictates of conviction politics would have required Imran Khan to outrightly deny the Chaudhry’s claim to the Punjab chief-ministership. After all, it is hardly befitting to have the PML-Q leader nominated as chief minister by a prime minister who places great stress on the moral dimension of politics and who sermonizes day and night on his anti-corruption agenda. Yet, the same prime minister has, without batting an eyelid, conveniently sacrificed his convictions and principles for the simple reason of clinging on to power. This has badly exposed the legitimacy of the prime minister’s claim to being a man of principles.
Then again, many would say, and not without justification, that Imran Khan’s claim to being a politician of convictions was shot out of the water back in 2018 when he first broke bread with the PML-Q and the MQM in order to cobble together a coalition government. For a truly ideological politician who dreamt of building a Naya Pakistan, it should have been anathema even back then to form a government with two parties whom he had roundly criticised in the past, one for its corruption and the other for its fascistic/militant past.
Similarly, the prime minister’s moral authority and uprightness has been considerably eroded by his conflicting and confused statements on the matter of the potential PTI defectors. He has oscillated between accusing them of having switched loyalties for the sake of lucre, and virtually in the same breath offering to forgive them and welcome them back into the fold as an act of fatherly clemency. The contradictions in the prime minister’s approach are breathtakingly obvious.
The problem with conviction-based politics is that one actually has to practice what one preaches. Mere lip-service to this high cause really does not cut any slack with anyone; rather it only tarnishes and corrodes the very concept of conviction-based politics. Sadly, this truth has been lost on the prime minister, and he has particularly been found wanting during the ongoing episode of the no-confidence motion.