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Soft and squishy?

August 26, 2018

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EMERGENCY, emergency, emergency. Everything is broken, disaster is upon us, it’s now or never, great haste is needed. But the pace of decisions itself — there are, in fact, none of positive substance so far — tells a different tale.

Ordinarily, that would be fine: politics is about selling the gaudy and settling for the average. Imran’s problem in this new version of an old experiment is that he is, in fact, different to what has come before.

Imran is a populist with actual popular appeal.

The lazy comparison is between Imran in 2018 and the other chap in 1990. But the comparison only extends to being settled on to block an opponent deemed undesirable and unworthy to rule.

Imran is a populist with actual popular appeal.

Imran has been running around doing his thing, his political thing, for so long that political Imran is older than the youngest semi-sentient Khanista. At 22, political Imran was eligible to vote four years ago.

That political Imran is a veteran is an advantage for Prime Minister Khan — initially. The rabid Khanista base is genuine and it insulates him from immediate political attack. Give him a chance, huh.

But it will close in.

Look closely at what Imran has done so far: he’s laid out what he wants to do and he’s picked the people to do it. The latter everyone can already agree, they aren’t the best people. Khanistas will argue that subordinates matter little when Imran is there.

Unlikely, but back to that in a bit.

Start with the first part: what Imran has said he wants to do. The speech on Sunday sent supporters into raptures and temporarily muted even the fiercest of opponents. Which makes sense: if it wasn’t all quite new, Imran’s agenda is mildly reassuring after a wild and bruising run-in.

But listen to the speech again and then once more. It is surprisingly small bore. No, really. Small bore in a Pakistani political sense.

Think of it this way: no one was going to remember all the bits in a speech that had promises peppered all over it, but a week removed how many can you already remember? Telescope out to a month, year, two years and three — you can already see the highlights and enumeration fading away.

Khanistas will sneer, but it will become apparent in time.

Sure, all political speeches fade and what remain are some memories of how it felt and maybe what it went on to mean. In that sense whether they were 20 points or four doesn’t matter.

It is the cumulative promise that matters.

But what was the promise? It’s a good promise all right and it hit some of the right religious notes for the centre right. But promise here is rooted in muscular nationalism too.

If you zoom out from the specific points and adjust for partial and uneven delivery — the Pakistan that Imran has promised is a vague version of an Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand. Great countries to even aspire to be like over the medium-term, but not exactly thrilling politically.

Not for Pakistan.

And roar their approval as the Khanistas have, child malnutrition, public schools and public hospitals aren’t exactly issues that move the PTI’s core. Urban success is measured in not using those public services — and that won’t change quickly.

But the agenda is now laid out. Small bore it is. What can and likely will change the agenda are unexpected events — and those are rarely of the good kind here.

The other consequential decision Imran has made are his picks for the cabinet and in the provinces. He didn’t really have a choice. Allies exist to extract their pound of flesh and that pound is always more than the number of seats they have.

When you’re 70 or 80 per cent of the way to the finish line, the maths suggests you need the allies more than the allies need you. Usually, hardly a problem to dwell over.

Politics is what politics is.

But Imran’s problem is that he’s a populist with fierce anti-corruption rhetoric and he’s clambered to the top decrying his political opponents.

Anti-corruption rhetoric in opposition becomes a headache for all who eventually attain high office but because of the people Imran’s picked and the enemies he’s long made, the space for Imran to manoeuvre is minimal.

The obvious options are to push hard on optics — simplicity in high office, pretending to trim waste and other such silliness — and keep pounding away at the enemies — it helps that Imran seems to genuinely detest the folk he’s railed against for decades.

But that will only go so far.

A politically small-bore agenda that doesn’t have true red meat for the base plus the carving up of red anti-corruption meat for the base blocked by a status quo heavy cabinet and provincial picks — all well and good when politics is about selling the gaudy and settling for the average

Imran’s problem in this new version of an old experiment is that he is, in fact, different to what has come before. Imran is a populist with actual popular appeal.

But the dream he’s laid out is soft and squishy — a mostly social agenda for a hard nationalist politics. And the people Imran has picked will quite obviously dent his transformative, anti-corruption political rhetoric.

So, what does a populist do when his popular appeals start to slip?

Probably nothing very good.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2018