In recent months, I have had several conversations with my fellow diaspora Pakistanis in the US about the dumpster fire that is Pakistani politics and economy. To my incredulous amazement, many of them still support the artist formerly known as the “Kaptaan.” Imran Khan continues to have a firm hold on the imagination of these diaspora Pakistanis.
To wit, a very successful, and intelligent Pakistani finance professional told me “IK is the only person who will stand up to the military and save Pakistan from default.” Never mind that IK was a construct of the military in the first place (indeed the overwhelming majority of Pakistani politicians are) and was unable to bring it to heel when he tried during his first unsuccessful term as PM. Pakistanis who think this way although passionate and well meaning, seem to be in-denial of the fact that a large part of the reason we are facing default is because of the fuel subsidies Khan revived a few days before his ouster. Those subsidies further depleted the Treasury at a critical time and effectively tore up the IMF agreement. It made no economic sense and was an act of pure pique to sabotage the subsequent government and curry favor with the masses. This was not the act of a leader who puts his country’s interests before his own. The successive government had to reverse this but the damage was already done. This is the same sort of irrationally misplaced good will that afflicts Trump supporters, who still think he will “drain the swamp” when, in actuality he moved the swamp to DC with him after his election. Just like Trump supporters are convinced he is the answer, many Pakistanis still think that IK will somehow save the Pakistani economy. This is a defensive retreat into fantasy in the face of the unpalatable reality that IK is perhaps even more narcissistic and incompetent than the other inept and feckless fools who have tried and failed to run Pakistan.
Another group of less sophisticated expats think that IK will be successful because “he is not corrupt and is not looking to enrich himself” as opposed to the shamelessly kleptocratic Bhutto/Zardari and Sharif clans. True, IK may not be corrupt but a person is known by the company he keeps. In IK’s case, this consists of the same corrupt, bandwagon careerists in bed with the military who have been a blight on Pakistan’s iniquitous politics ever since its inception. They continued to loot the country in cahoots with the military, under his watch and then abandoned him as soon as the going got tough and he ended up on the wrong side of the military establishment.
However, what both of these Pakistani expat types get right is that if elections were held tomorrow, IK would sweep to victory. He is doubtlessly the most popular politician in the country and has activated and vitalized countless numbers of young people who would not have been otherwise interested in politics. At the same time, he has unwittingly exposed the real puppet masters of Pakistan – its insatiable and pretorian military – and focused the ire of the masses against the top men in khaki behind the curtain for the first time in Pakistan’s history.
IK’s supporters have legitimate grievances against the failed ruling class and establishment elite, and see Imran as their last best hope. This is similar to the effect that Bernie Sanders has had on American millennials and Gen Z. The difference is that Bernie Sanders actually has a progressive, pro-worker, truly populist policy agenda. IK is an inept, incompetent, socially conservative, right-wing populist figure. He is a cult leader, whose track record proves that he cares for his ego much more than he cares for the country. We can be sure that, if accepted back in the fold by the military establishment, instead of confronting it, he will turn out to be even more compliant, because like all narcissists he cares more about power and assuring his own ascendancy and legacy.
Also, unlike Bernie, his politics excludes a class analysis of the problems that afflict Pakistan. Pakistan is at a crossroads. Instead of looking for solutions in another authoritarian strong man and the same old neoliberal policies, the answer to Pakistan’s travails lies in returning power to the working class people of the country, through, for example, the local grassroots organization of truly leftist and socialist political parties like the Mazdoor-Kisaan Party, the Awami Khalq Party, and the Awami Worker’s Party. No one who belongs to the elite that IK belongs to, which includes myself and my friend in finance by the way, can be expected to fix Pakistan.
Pakistan is financially, politically, and philosophically bankrupt. What it needs is a new paradigm: a truly people powered government, led by leaders from the working class, a la Lula in Brazil, that will have the mandate of a super majority of the people to enact progressive policies like raising the taxes on real estate speculation which is the most secure and profitable form of investment for Pakistan’s elites. Such a movement will also institute much needed land reforms to break up antediluvian and anachronistic agricultural monopolies. It will invest in the health and education of the working people of Pakistan instead of F-16s and it will confront the neoliberal institutions that have a stranglehold on Pakistan’s economy by, for example, reversing the disastrous terms of business with the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) which are the central reason for recurring power shortages resulting in an untold number of work days lost, and loss of profitability of private enterprises, and has plunged Pakistan into darkness and creeping de-industrialization.
True change only takes place when millions of working people demand it and when they demand justice. Then, the people at the top have no choice but to respond. In the end, the only force that will save Pakistan are the people of Pakistan, not the military, not the elite, not the businessmen, not the neoliberal economists or a cult of personality but the working-class people of the country. Otherwise, like all Potemkin villages, it will fall apart.
As one of those diaspora Pakistanis I will say that I have no faith in IK or any other Pakistani leader. So long as the military holds the lion’s share of power and the country limits the ability of its citizens to speak their minds freely, Pakistan will always be corrupt and backwards. The author is correct that systemic reforms are needed but incorrect in assuming that progressive policies are the remedy. Aside from those designed to educate the masses, most progressive policies end up being counterproductive.
The analysis is spot on? Trenchant and intellectually robust. Very well written. If and when Imran Khan returns to office, the very people who are his devotees will realize that he is no miracle worker. He’s just a populist demagogue and little else. He failed to deliver on all his big promises in the first term. The disillusionment will set in fast as they seem making one U Turn after another.
Yet another word salad analysis with zero practical advice. How do millions of working class folks go about achieving this better functioning system? Is it a call for class struggle? Or is there a version in Islam? Here is the thing: if people really wanted it, they would be in the streets burning the whole thing down by now. Remember the crowds whenever an insult to the Prophet or the holy book occurs? More functional government is just not a priority to people.
IK deserves a full term to finish off the real power holders of Pakistan.
We do have a storm but only time will tell whether it’s a perfect storm and a revolutionary change will emerge.
We have the failure of Ancient Regime. We have the First estate the common people tired of carrying the burden on its back of the second estate the bureaucracy and the third estate the military and judiciary duo. We have an open discourse among public that status quo is no longer acceptable albeit a popular uprising is missing.
What else can the universe throw at us to catalyse it? Let’s wait and see. After what happened in November 2022 this beast is headed towards an election extravaganza that ought to return some of the Regal power to the parliament but only if the winner and the loser both respect how close we came to another dark period of martial law.
Present system of govrenment suits the Netas of Pakistan.
Then why should they change the system.?
Excellent analysis! I am a licensed US attorney and never liked this Kuptaan mania. He is no incorruptible, and honest politician. I can agree that comparatively a lesser corrupt politician. Anyone who had heard the former Principal Secretary to former Chief Minister of Punjab (Mohammad Hussain Bhatti, now under arrest) how he made millions dollars (not proverbially speaking) giving and procuring construction contracts. Imagine, his principal i.e. Pervaiz Elahi palm would have greased multifariously. Now, this corrupt to the core individual has become the president of PTI. Imagine the decadence. Kuptaan think he is above the law and what happened to his rhetoric ——“jailan bhurr dey gain” however, he resisted to his arrest to the utmost sacrificing a worker, 25 police cars and motorcycles burnt and at least 20 or more police officials injured. This proclaimed Nelson Mandela is afraid of going to jail even for one day.
It’s a well known fact among political circles that Imran Khan is a cocaine addict. Once he’s arrested, a drug test is certain and that’s exactly why he’s going to such lengths to avoid arrest. He may be relatively less corrupt but he’s an incompetent narcissist with authoritarian tendencies, which in my view is worse than your average garden variety corrupt politician.
Even though they might be in the US, Pakistani diaspora is still, well Pakistani. They may be relatively more literate than their countrymen home but match them in ignorance & hypocrisy. Nevermind the fact that Imran Khan tanked the economy, the Pakistani Rupee, polarized the country and destroyed the country’s relations with pretty much everyone, many think that he’s some kind if a messiah who will turn Pakistan into a paradise. Many like him just because “he’s good looking”. That’s the level of the shalowness & understanding of our supposedly educated diaspora.
How is this grassroots change that you say is needed going to come about exactly? Such a lot of elite intellectual posturing about what is needed but no suggestions on how it is to be achieved. IK has been able to expose the real power players of Pakistan. That is a huge achievement. Don’t let’s go back to those spineless toadies of PMLN and PPP who will do nothing to change the status quo
I don’t think there’s been anyone in Pakistan who hasn’t always known who the real power players in Pakistan are. Imran didn’t expose anyone. In fact he himself is the creation of those power players and was languishing on the side lines until he got in their good graces. And what status quo will Pakistan change when 99% of his party members are from the same parties that he’s vehemently against. The only thing Imran Khan will do is bring more polarization, weaken the institutions while destroying the country’s economy & foreign relations.
The polarization already exists : between the small elite and everyone else. And every political party has been allowed to succeed by the good graces of the military. The difference between IK and the others is that instead of going into a corner and licking his wounds quietly like Zardari and Nawaz he decided to take the establishment on head on. It’s not the smartest move if you want to be a political player in the long run but IK has decided to put his long term future on the line to follow his heart. He has started a movement that Pakistanis have never seen this before.
Everyone tried to take on the establishment but it never gained traction like its doing now. I agree with you there. In fact Imran had become quite unpopular by the end of his regime & his popularity has sky rocketed since being removed. Maybe the people have finally had enough with the khakis and their games.