HERE is the biggest problem Imran Khan now faces: he has wedded his political fortunes to a promise he can neither fulfil nor betray. Shouting “I will not spare any of them” from the container tops made for catchy opposition rhetoric, but it’s a losing gambit in politics once in power. It commits one to an endless witch hunt with no clear end point. And the stakes grow exponentially as one climbs higher up this pole. Sooner or later something will give.
What happened all last week, leading to the eventual departure of Nawaz Sharif from Lahore airport, was only the beginning. From here on, Khan has to either double down behind his promise or change course altogether. The worst thing he can do at this time is to start trying to claw back elements of his wounded pride.
He told his audience at the ceremony meant to mark the opening of the Thakot Havelian section of the motorway that “nations rise from their passion”. No, they don’t, Mr Prime Minister. Nations rise on their accomplishments. The fact that he was inaugurating a highway begun by the government of Nawaz Sharif and built by the Chinese was the most visible irony of the moment. The facts smiled at the words. Pakistan lacks the money and the expertise to build its own infrastructure, and no amount of passion is going to change this.
By this point in their respective terms, both the PML-N and PPP governments had embarked upon what eventually became the signature accomplishments of their governments.
Who’s really adding those numbers up anyway these days? This is government by retweet only.
The PPP government had called for the creation of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms in its 12th month in power, and almost exactly one year later, in April 2010, it signed the 18th Amendment into law. The most far-reaching reconstitution of the structure of the federation was achieved and one year later the NFC award followed this up by devolving the material resources of the state accordingly.
To this day the legacy of that act is being debated. Whatever one’s opinion of it might be, it is no longer possible to deny its enormous significance.
Likewise, within its first year the PML-N government set the ball rolling on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), sealing the deal eventually in an MoU signed between Nawaz Sharif and Xi Jinping in Beijing in November 2014, 17 months after the formation of the government. The bidding for Pakistan’s first LNG terminal began six months after the formation of the PML-N government, and the first contract was awarded by April 2014, less than 12 months after the government’s formation.
Again, whatever one might want to say about the move, the fact that a decade-long struggle to initiate LNG imports finally achieved a breakthrough in the first year of the PML-N government cannot be ignored.
So today, a full 15 months into its term, what are the signature achievements of the government of Imran Khan? What ball has it kicked into motion that can reasonably be expected — at a point months down the road — to yield as large of an impact as the 18th Amendment did, or as CPEC and the initiation of LNG imports did? What signature legacy is Khan now working on building for himself?
The answers to these questions are obvious. The only achievements the government is currently touting is narrowing the current account deficit. And even there it cannot be said that what they have achieved is something extraordinary. Here, for example, is what the IMF said about the current account deficit back in July 2009, about eight months after accession to the programme in 2008. “Despite lower exports, the current account deficit is estimated to have declined by $5 billion (three percentage points of GDP) in 2008/09.”
Now for those not well versed in the numbers, this is in fact a larger contraction of the current account deficit than what the present government is touting. I mention this not to set up a ‘whose contraction was larger’ type of debate, much as the PTI champs love that sort of thing. I bring it up simply to point out that one of the core grievances of this government and its leadership when asked about their achievements to date is to mention that they inherited ‘the worst crisis ever’. It wasn’t. Expressed as a percentage of GDP, the current account deficit in 2008 was much larger. But who’s really adding those numbers up anyway these days? This is government by retweet only.
There is something deeply broken in the government and its leadership today, and better than pursuing vengeance, Imran Khan should focus his energies where they are badly needed.
For one, the PTI government suffers from high levels of factionalism, far higher than what any other government has seen. Khan’s idea of leadership is to deliver inspirational lectures, but he buckles easily in the face of opposition from powerful vested interests.
Look at how the GIDC controversy played out. Look at how they reacted when the FBR bureaucracy rose up against the ‘reform’ plan sought by the prime minister himself. Look at the endless extensions being granted to the traders in the documentation drive. The finance ministry tells us there will be no further extensions. The traders for their part are steadfast in their refusal to cooperate. We will see who has more spleen for the action here.
Fact is for all his tough talk, Khan caves in when faced with real opposition, and his cabinet colleagues are not really in this for the fight anyway. The only ones willing to slog it out with him are the lightweights, those with no real stakes in the game. And none of them knows how to fight beyond Twitter, so they don’t matter. Khan has painted himself into a corner, and the best way out is to start work on building something big.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2019