Past choices

Updated 20 Nov 2018


The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has created quite a stir by presenting U-turns as a hallmark of leadership. His political opponents have gone to town ridiculing him. But might there be something more profound in his remark than a mere attempt to dodge the issue? Perhaps.

Shortly after the PTI government took office and Khan began to go back on his policy stances, I commented on a TV talk show that he must get comfortable with being called the ‘U-turn prime minister’ if he is to deliver.

My logic was simple. Imran Khan’s rhetoric in opposition was populist and devoid of substance. His simplistic solutions to complex problems, his regular use of anecdotes as facts, and of misinformed statistics, embarrassed even his closest political confidants. Yes, one could argue that this isn’t any different to many other conservative populists who have risen to power in recent years. But the problem was the sense one picked up that he truly believes in much of what he says. If so, and if he was going to try and turn his political rhetoric into action when in power, we’d be toast.

Consider the Imran Khan who led the 2014 dharnas and the PTI jalsas since. Politically, his rhetoric was all about using the street to paralyse the government and about heavy-handed accountability that could easily spill into victimisation in contexts like ours. Economically, he was the ultimate nationalist: no begging bowl; no loans; complete economic sovereignty. How? By miraculously eliminating corruption and getting the rich to cough up taxes. On foreign policy, he hadn’t a clue. He was going to be the inward-looking prime minister who was going to put things in order at home so that we wouldn’t need the world as much. We’d look them in the eye; pull away support from the US; and tell China to treat us as an equal.

Was the U-turn comment an admission?

All noble ideas, and yet, given Pakistan’s realities, if there was ever a way to crash the system, this was it.

No surprises then that wherever the prime minister has tried to stick to his old rhetoric, he’s run into problems. The political domain is an obvious example. Khan has stuck to his aggressive rhetoric on taking his political opponents to task on corruption. But the politicised manner in which the process has progressed has sent the bureaucracy into a freeze, if not silent rebellion, and has brought the system to a near halt. You talk to any member of Khan’s cabinet and they’ll invariably crib: our institutions are so rotten and the capacity so depleted that you can’t get anything done, unless you find ways to go around the system, circumventing rules where you must; but the bureaucracy is so scared of how NAB is handling their peers, who were in the limelight under the Sharifs, that they are refusing to put their signatures to anything. Result: total inertia.

On the economy and foreign policy, the desperate situation, and perhaps the security establishment, seem to have forced Khan out of his shell — thankfully so. Khan’s instinct was on display at the outset: separate the foreign agenda from the domestic and let me focus on the latter first. Case in point: the public explanation for the prime minister deciding not to attend the UN General Assembly session in September was that he had too much on his plate domestically; and that he would not travel abroad during his first three months in office in order to address internal issues.

Anyone well versed in Pakistan’s challenges knows that the foreign and the domestic are inseparable. Given the contours of the economy, constant injection of external funding is a must even to deliver domestically. On the security side, Pakistan’s near-term fortunes are linked to the war in Afghanistan and the leadership’s ability to balance the relationship with the US over Afghanistan and the partnership with China. How well Khan does here will have a direct impact on his ability to keep the domestic situation in control. This implies clocking many more air miles to cut deals with everyone willing.

Back to his U-turn comment. If what he was getting at is an acknowledgement that he is going to have to separate his past rhetoric from his choices as prime minister, this is not only positive, but necessary. Public acceptance of this compulsion is all the better; it’ll avoid him having to justify every U-turn.

But how do we know he wasn’t just dodging a bullet? Watch the coming days. If the remark was based on genuine introspection, we should see his populist rhetoric decline; the link between whatever is left of the rhetoric and his policy decisions weaken; and consistency in his position on issues he has already made a U-turn on since becoming prime minister.

And all of us watching should judge him on this basis. The goal must be to encourage U-turns where he was wrong rather than raising his costs for doing so. Otherwise, we’d be forcing him to continue preferring populism over statesmanship.

The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2018