SHEHBAZ Sharif’s government is inching close to default. Hindsight is 20/20 but what was the point of the no-confidence vote, many are asking, if there was no economic plan? Why jump on to the Titanic when it was already sinking? Why bear the political fallout of IMF-mandated measures when those measures were assented to and then reneged on by the previous government?
Answers, of course, aren’t straightforward. Had the no-confidence vote not gone through, there was always the chance, as Khurram Dastgir recently recounted, of Imran Khan appointing a partisan army chief and barring opposition leaders from contesting elections en masse, thereby turning Pakistan into a fascist one-party state and assuming the role of a civilian dictator.
There is also the possibility that Shehbaz Sharif saw this as a unique opportunity to become prime minister and couldn’t resist, even as the more politically astute brother, Nawaz, cautioned against it. For their part, the kingmakers have always looked upon Shehbaz as an efficient administrator who is relatively innocuous compared to brother Nawaz, who, along with daughter Maryam, are not to be trusted.
Yet what difference do palace intrigues and political machinations make to the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, who are rapidly losing faith in the current government’s ability to manage? In light of this bleak and dire political scenario, could Imran Khan make a comeback? The short answer is: no, he cannot.
The former PM had made some politically fatal moves.
Regardless of how popular or unpopular he may be (depending on who one talks to), or how well he spins his own failures and his opponents’ misfortunes, in his final days, Imran Khan made some politically fatal moves in his desperation to hang on to power.
Not only did he go after the “neutrals”, but he also ensured that he crossed the most powerful country on earth, the United States of America. The Americans were never particularly keen on Imran, even when he came to power in 2018. He was viewed as a stooge of the military, and given the uneasy relationship between the Pakistani military and the US in the aftermath of the war on terror, US engagement with Imran Khan wasn’t going to be smooth.
“Pakistan’s military has its fingerprints all over the elections”, ran a headline in the Washington Post back in July 2018. But Imran had insisted that he knew the West better than any other Pakistani and had convinced the kingmakers that foreign policy would be his forte. After all, he had played an English game, cricket, all his life and excelled at it. He had not only beaten the gora at his own game but also managed to marry an aristocratic ‘gori’. If anyone could explain the point of view of the Pakistani state and get it the respect it deserved, it had to be him.
Sadly, there were no takers for his explanations in the US. Imran Khan was seen as sympathetic to terrorists and he solidified this view by calling Osama bin Laden, US’s enemy par excellence, a martyr. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he visited Moscow on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He really didn’t think that Putin would invade, he offered, in an interview with Aftab Iqbal recently.
Really? The CIA had called it a good five days before he made the trip. Western embassies had packed up and left Kyiv prior to his visit, and he still had no idea that Putin would invade that week?
So while there is absolutely no truth in the assertion that the US conspired against Imran Khan’s government, it is true that the US chose not to engage with him at the level that Pakistan is accustomed to and requires for its economic survival. In the four years that he was prime minister, the US did not appoint an ambassador to Pakistan, and despite Moeed Yusuf’s efforts, Biden never called.
After the Russia trip, he left no doubt that he leaned against US interests, but was nevertheless unable to issue a joint statement with President Putin, proposing how he and his Russian counterpart intended to move the bilateral relationship forward or detailing what benefit Pakistan would accrue.
It is easy to spin it now as Pakistan would have gotten cheap Russian oil, but there was no such agreement. In fact, had Pakistan stood with Ukraine at that important juncture and played it smart, it may have been in a position to revive its pipeline with Iran, as even some voices in the West were calling for relaxing sanctions on Iran in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its negative impact on global energy supplies.
In short, Imran Khan will remain a media star and a demigod to a powerful domestic minority, but internationally, he does not have the credibility to resuscitate Pakistan’s economy.
The writer is a lawyer who lives in London.
Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2022