PAKISTAN’S governments have been variously arrogant, condescending, incompetent, steeped in self-interest, mired in corruption. They included constitutional contortionists and presidential despots anointed with the unholy oil of judicial dispensation. Most are best forgotten. Prime Minister Imran Khan can claim a unique title for his period in office — governance by naiveté.
Having had “greatness thrust” upon him, he has struggled manfully to show that he possesses the vision, the skill and the tenacity to pull our nation out of the pitch dug up by previous spoilers.
Over the past three years, Imran Khan has shown that he is the right man — for the wrong job. To his adoring admirers, he is still a flawless messiah, hindered by defective disciples. He has 28 cabinet ministers, four ministers of state (more are planned to free ministers to strategise the next election), and 19 special assistants — a motley lot, responsible for various disciplines. What they lack is ministerial discipline.
Halfway through his term, Imran Khan decided to identify 10 ministries and divisions as examples of efficient governance, worthy of public commendation.
The timing of the Russia visit is fraught with implications.
How, some asked, does one measure ministerial performance when each is responsible for disparate aspects of Pakistan’s radial activities? If ministers are to be judged individually, then where is the concept of collective cabinet responsibility?
The criteria used for preferring some ministries/ divisions over others laid itself open to question, worse, to derision. Nevertheless, the prime minister, following his instinct for doing the wrong thing for the right reason, persisted. He justified this exercise as something he had benefited from himself at his alma mater Aitchison College. (The PM’s frequent references to his student days makes many wonder whether he ever left Aitchison.) According to him, its pupils’ rewards and punishment (known as ‘stars and daggers’) were announced in assembly, in Voltaire’s words “pour encourager les autres”.
He announced the results of the ministerial assessments at a public ceremony held on Feb 10 in Islamabad. His foreign minister — also an Aitchisonian — obviously had not paid attention in his school assembly. His foreign ministry came eleventh in the race — ahead certainly of 22 other ministries/ divisions which obtained a score of 80 per cent plus above, but still not good enough for inclusion in the PM’s Top Ten Hit Parade.
The foreign minister and fellow underachievers, warned off by a premature leak of the results, expressed their resentment by pointedly abstaining from the awards ceremony. Undeterred, the prime minister announced that such ministerial ‘appraisals’ would in future be a quarterly affair, and that “bonuses would be given on its basis”.
And how will such bonuses be computed, paid to whom, and out of whose exchequer? The public suspects that this largesse will simply make some rich ministers even richer.
Was such an exercise necessary? All the PM achieved was to present to the nation an image of a cleft cabinet: on one side, 10 smiling scraping sycophants; on the other, disgruntled, demotivated disloyalists.
The PM, like other leaders whenever wobbly at home (eg Nixon/ de Gaulle/ Thatcher), believes that he has a higher role to play on the international stage. He is convinced that his brief visit to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics reaffirmed China’s ‘iron brother’ relationship with Pakistan, and an endorsement of him personally.
His chilly reception in Beijing, though, by Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Wu Jianghao was degrees below the protocol extended to his predecessors.
As if on the rebound, he is now in Russia to meet President Putin, the same Putin who 10 years ago cancelled his own trip to Islamabad, citing the insecurity caused by PTI’s container dharnas. The PM has gone to Moscow ostensibly to strengthen the ‘ropes of sand’ that bind us.
The timing of this visit is fraught with implications. Russia has confronted the US and Nato over Ukraine. The PM, before leaving for Moscow, tried to allay the suspicions of our ‘with us or against us?’ Western allies by insisting that we are not part of any bloc. Seventy-five years of alignment belies this assertion. We do belong to a bloc — of debtor nations whose economies are governed by US dictates.
At home, Imran Khan cuts a Caesarean figure. As the Ides of March near, he fears political assassination by a conspiracy of unforgiving opponents, disaffected allies and ambitious subordinates.
In his factional autobiography Pakistan: A Personal History (2011), Imran Khan narrated how, at the age of four, he saw a swimming pool for the first time. Heedlessly, he jumped in and “sank straight to the bottom”. Later in life, he plunged equally daringly into the dangerous depths of national politics.
To some, Imran Khan, now almost 70, is again out of his depth, and still floundering.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2022