The Pied Piper

Updated February 08, 2020

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irfan.husain@gmail.com
irfan.husain@gmail.com

THERE are times you have to feel for Imran Khan: here was this glamorous socialite having fun on the London party circuit, who now has to contend with issues like fiscal reforms, inflation and IMF conditionalities.

When he was manning containers and leading his youthful followers like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would never have guessed that being prime minister was such hard work. As it is, many would say that apart from playing cricket and fund-raising, he had not done any actual work to this point.

In fact, it has been one long party thus far: the prime minister says he doesn’t run a kitchen or own a car. So popular is he that his friends provide everything he needs. He did raise some eyebrows when rich pals underwrote his expenses to Davos where in his speech, he informed his audience that without a little help from his friends, he couldn’t have made it. One Dutch minister was reported to have remarked that in his country, senior officials were not allowed to accept expensive gifts.

But here we are, in the midst of a tanking economy, with a leadership that appears incapable of understanding the nature and depth of the economic crises we face. And why should it? If the prime minister has never run a kitchen, can he possibly gauge the pain that inflation is inflicting on ordinary people?

The Imran Khan story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Imran Khan has spent over 20 years plotting to become the prime minister. You might have thought that some of this time would have been devoted to preparing for the job. But I suppose that dharnas and rallies take up a lot of time.

For years, he struggled in the wilderness without much support until out of the blue, he apparently caught the eye of our political managers. His opponents were ruthlessly brushed aside, and against all odds, he was duly installed as the prime minister. The rest is history.

But this story doesn’t have a happy ending: the establishment was convinced they had bought a winner, but their horse continues to stumble at every turn, and appears to be incapable of ever taking the lead. All that this government is good for is making speeches on Kashmir. So now our political engineers are faced with the choice of this dispensation running the economy into the ground, or sending its leadership to the knacker’s yard.

If you think I am exaggerating, here are the facts: revenue targets have been missed by miles; inflation has gone through the roof; the deficit has exploded; and exports are far lower than the IMF had led our negotiators to believe. Without a single silver lining, people are being told to hang in there because somehow, someday, things will get better.

But it appears that Khan continues to believe that once he has thrown all his opponents into the slammer on corruption charges, milk and honey would start flowing across the land. His administration is now learning the hard way that there is more to governing than making speeches, jailing political opponents and strangling the media.

Hard work is needed on a sustained level. When I worked in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat years ago, I found Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to be a workaholic: no matter where he was travelling in the country, a courier would return every day with the current files he had taken along, meticulously annotated with the green ink he used. His daughter had displayed a similar work ethic.

With Imran Khan, I’m told, it is very different: apparently he turns up late at office and returns early.

This would have been fine if he had a decent team he could delegate to. But as it is, the lack of talent available to him has been cruelly exposed time and again. They either don’t brief him properly, or have no clue themselves. Our managers had parachuted in ‘experts’ to help them, but they have proved just as incompetent as the rest.

Without any real answers, the current leaders are left to rave and rant about conspiracies and plots against them.

Inwardly, the prime minister may long for the good old days when he was in the opposition, manning the barricades, and criticising the leadership of the PML-N and PPP. Now, he even has to spend time in the very parliament that he abused. Ah, those were the days…

Fast forward to 2020 when the PTI is having to find an accommodation with the establishment and placate an increasingly restive populace. Apart from those supporters who aren’t bothered about inflation, the government is taking a lot of unaccustomed flak. Nobody told Khan that being prime minister was such hard work. Nevertheless, having the top job (apart from the army chief) has an allure of its own.

As the lines from a musical go: “Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.”

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2020