IMRAN Khan’s victory declaration laid out the broad contours of his party’s agenda in office over the next five years. Parts of it were encouraging in so far as they signalled a verbal departure from the vitriol that had marked the PTI’s electoral campaign, especially over the last three months. One hopes this trend continues beyond the course of one 15-minute long speech.
The substance of the speech itself was ambitious, as one has come to expect from Khan and his party. However, the governance challenges that need to be overcome for ‘Naya Pakistan’ to come into existence are clear, and have been laid out in detail by a number of other commentators. These include an impending balance-of-payments crisis precipitated by a yawning trade deficit and mounting external debt, along with kick-starting domestic investment that is so essential to sustained economic growth.
Similarly, combating inflationary pressures that will accompany impending belt-tightening reforms, while creating meaningful employment growth serve as additional headaches.
Tackling these problems in a sustainable manner requires both technical knowhow as well as political capital. The former, as Khan has repeatedly stressed, can be drawn in (though not in the quantity or quality PTI supporters tend to believe), while the latter exists in the shape of a fairly comprehensive mandate awarded to the party by the electorate. The fact that Khan has stepped in with no track record of being in government is both a curse — as it amounts to a lack of experience — but also a blessing as it may yet manifest itself in increased trust in the federal government. At least in the short run.
The fundamental problem with the messianic mode of politics is that people expect you to follow up on it as well.
Arguably, though, the PTI faces two political challenges that need to be addressed with the same urgency as what’s forthcoming on the governance front. The first is the accusations of rigging, and the general air of mistrust that has tainted the electoral process. Taking a proactive, conciliatory stand as Khan did in his speech is likely the right approach, and it is already showing some results. With the PPP apparently content with its gains, and agreeing to take its reservations up through the parliamentary route, a strong source of discontent has already dissipated.
The PML-N has legitimate concerns pertaining to the pre-poll phase in particular, but it does not have the appetite nor the organisational depth to undertake the politics of agitation at this point. Its haul in Punjab while considerably reduced remains in line with what the surveys were predicting, and provides it with a base to rebuild for the next five years.
The second political challenge might seem less immediate, but has far greater consequences for both the party’s time in government, and the country as a whole. For the lack of a better term, one can call it the challenge of recalibrating expectations.
Over the last seven years, Khan has cultivated a messianic air about himself and his party, which is now breathed in by a very large number of young people. We don’t have exit poll data from this election, but it’s safe to assume from past trends and surveys that the young (and upwardly mobile) across urban Pakistan — from Peshawar to Karachi, via Lahore and even Quetta — have overwhelmingly vested faith in the PTI and its leadership. They might not be primarily responsible for catapulting the party into office — that privilege rests with rural voters who’ve undertaken factional realignments — but they exercise an outsized influence on media discourse as well as on the party’s image.
The fundamental problem with the messianic mode of politics is that people then expect you to follow up on it as well. If the aspiring messiah repeatedly tells you that Pakistan’s problems can actually be fixed by one honest person perched above the compromised, then the countdown to salvation begins the minute that perch is occupied.
Khan now sits on this perch, with millions of his supporters waiting for Pakistan to turn into Malaysia or Dubai or whatever else Narnia fantasy has been peddled in the last few years. The truth is that many of Pakistan’s problems are structural in nature, and relate to it being just a poor country. There is a crisis of corruption, sure, but there is also a crisis of incompetence, of ossified bureaucratic structures, of embedded political economy interests. You can appoint the most honest individual you can find as the head of the FBR, but does that negate the fact that choosing to tax a particular sector or demographic remains a political decision?
Similarly, tackling the fiscal deficit — something Khan mentioned in his opening salvo — also requires cutting back on development spending in key sectors, takes away subsidies people are so used to, and generally reduces the growth rate. How is any of this then reconciled with the 10 million jobs or 5m affordable houses that many expect to crop up in the course of five years?
Politicians across the world oversell during their campaigns, and underperform in office. Khan’s experience, like that of Nawaz Sharif just before him, will likely be no different. However, in Khan’s case, the challenge is qualitatively different because he has positioned himself and his party as being starkly different from all that’s come before, even when the differences on many things are marginal, and the structural constraints facing everyone are the same.
So here’s an idea for Khan’s second speech. Let the public know the scale of the development challenge facing Pakistan. Tell them about the accumulated rot set in for 70 years, how being a poor country causes much of it, how reversing it will be difficult and painful, and how it will require patience from the electorate. All of this is crucial because, fragile and under duress as it is at this point, Pakistan’s democracy might not be able to sustain another round of mass disillusionment.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2018