Is Imran winning?

Updated 19 Nov 2019


The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.

I HAVE in my earlier articles noted Imran’s main advantage over his competitors. He has actually worked for a living. Working for a living in any field whatsoever, particularly if successfully done, gives one the ability to judge the environment through the complicated prism that balances self-interest with accommodating others. This is a much-needed political skill.

The Imran Khan government’s move to set a potential ransom for Nawaz Sharif was politically brilliant. If Sharif had given an indemnity bond he would for posterity be labelled a thief. And now that the Lahore High Court has overturned the move, the judiciary might be perceived as having to shoulder part of the responsibility.

A political analysis could easily interpret the court decision as either a humanitarian gesture or a decision legalising two Pakistans: one for the rich convicts whose treatment takes place abroad and one for the poor who die in prison. In both cases Khan shall appear uncompromising on his anti-corruption agenda.

It is a good lesson for his competing parties to look again at the edge that Khan’s diverse advisory base provides him. This time it enabled him to play a difficult situation well. Perhaps instead of sticking with continuity that has kept them on a downward slope, his competitors should also develop the capability to analyse results of the advice they receive.

The PM may have had the optics win but serious challenges remain.

Unfortunately, all is not well in the state of Pakistan and continued questions remain. Overnight TV anchors who waxed eloquent on Sharif’s corruption supported his leaving in the name of humanity or political stability. The same track resonated with the government’s allies leading to speculation whether Nawaz Sharif or actually Shahbaz Sharif had again made friends with the masters.

Imran Khan may have had the optics win but the more serious challenges remain. Khan, much like Mr Bhutto, has come to power by polarising the country with his rhetoric. But very much like what happened to Mr Bhutto, whose polarisation was driven by economics including nationalisation and an attack on established elites, Khan is running the danger of powerful societal forces ganging up to eliminate him politically.

Mr Bhutto realised the dangers of the polarisation he had created a couple of years into his term and tried to retreat. Greater reliance on the landowning elites rather than his fiery socialists and reining in of reforms together with appeasement of the religious lobbies was the hallmark of the latter half of his term. The result was that he was left stranded. He had not strengthened the left wing and the downtrodden to the extent where they would launch a struggle for him and despite his overtures to the established elites they would never trust him. In the end, when Zia moved he was a sitting duck.

Perhaps Imran Khan’s realisation that he will be a sitting duck if he compromises on his anti-corruption agenda made him put up a last stand. His main problem is that, unlike Mr Bhutto, he does not have an economic vision to break the economic stranglehold maintained by purana Pakistan.

The current structure of purana Pakistan has concentrated money in the hands of people whose skill lies not in innovation and business development but in buying cheap from government and selling at a margin to the people. If one goes through the business models of the top 30 businessmen that the chief of staff met to discuss the economy, one does not find a single business leader whose innovation is recognised internationally or whose R&D spend was a visible percentage of their business. Their skill sets lie primarily in negotiating an uncompetitive, highly regulated state economy and their interest lies in keeping it that way.

The people of Pakis­tan at an instinctive level grasp the business model of purana Pakistan and are not willing to be taxed for it. For them, each day remains a negotiation with a bloated state. Return­ing home from work without being fleeced by the cop, getting water in a bucket from a tap nearby by appeasing the local bullies against which the state provides no security, trying to obtain healthcare, acquisition of slum housing and water for agriculture are just a few daily negotiations forced by the current economic stranglehold.

Khan’s economic mantra should be generating growth, increasing participation in the economy and rolling back big government, but he is doing just the opposite. Instead of a visible programme to jump-start a growth economy by breaking the stranglehold of the established elites exercise, he is being led down the path of more taxes and more FBR to sustain or even further a big, unwieldy and incompetent public sector that uses its powers only to extort from the public and businesses on the pretext of regulation. This is an unsustainable economic situation and Imran Khan’s Achilles heel.

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister of Sindh.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2019