The highly mediatised ‘rise’ of Imran Khan is promising because it engages the country’s largest segment of population i.e., the youth. This could potentially herald a new beginning in the political sense. This asset of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) — the ability to connect to the youth — cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, sections of the non-voting urban population are also joining the PTI bandwagon. This is a monumental development because the last time it happened was over 40 years ago, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto captured the popular imagination in the cities.
Much has been said about the great Khan’s sympathies for the militants who are resisting ‘America’s war’ in our region. Never mind that they also kill Pakistanis, attack mosques, shrines and funerals and are in bed with a global ideology that wants to decimate the ‘un-Islamic’ Pakistani state. The odd relationship between the PTI and the self-declared defenders of Pakistan — the ragtag Islamist parties, ex-servicemen and known terrorists — has also been highlighted. I will not dwell on these issues as several commentators have indicated the dangers of this populist discourse and the larger, intrinsic relationship between populism and authoritarianism.
My real worry is that Mr Khan is yet to offer an alternative agenda. His charisma, cricket connection, philanthropic record and the use of social media are at work. When it comes to policy, the plan ahead is almost farcical. Haven’t we heard of elimination of corruption in 90 days before? Corruption, as a slogan, has been used by almost every Pakistani government to undermine political opponents. As early as the 1950s, laws to disqualify politicians were enacted.
The 1990s saw the military establishment orchestrate a ridiculous anti-corruption charade. Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure had a Himmler-wannabe as the chief of accountability, who turned anti-corruption efforts into medieval witch-hunts. Former President General Pervez Musharraf’s illegitimate rule was welcomed by the same urban middle classes, which now cheer for Imran Khan to eliminate the ‘corrupt’, old guard politicians.
Tackling corruption is not a 90-day job, for it will only result in high-powered accountability operations stuck in a dysfunctional legal system. It is a medium to long-term process involving restructuring of institutions — laws, formal and informal rules and conventions — which shape societal interaction and determine state behaviour. Pakistani politics and economics are defined by the military’s hegemony. The biggest expenditure items — defence and debt servicing — are virtually unaccountable. Has Mr Khan thought about these issues or will these disappear through ‘moral legitimacy’ — another wooly construct cited like a totem. ‘Clean’ civilians will make the khakis give up power. One has to live in wonderland to accept such postulates as even half-credible.
Similarly, have Mr Khan and his advisers considered that Pakistan’s servility to the US war machine cannot be detached from class interests of its elites, which need global markets, military equipment and unlimited supplies of ‘aid’?
Politicians, civil servants, judges and state officials are required to declare their assets according to existing laws. There are anti-corruption establishments in each provincial government and offices of national and provincial ombudsmen exist. How about looking at these laws and institutions instead of ending corruption through the ouster of individuals alone. We are told ‘clean’ men at the top will lead to a revolution. This top-down, autocratic approach with an arrogance of knowing all the technocratic solutions is most worrying.
It is not even clear how much electoral support Imran Khan’s charisma will translate into. I personally don’t want Imran Khan to fail. Khan’s failure and the absence of popular alternative narratives may make the future of democracy even more dismal. However, Khan must realise that this is not the managing of a hospital or a game of sport. Governing Pakistan involves the future of millions and restructuring of a national security state. Without achieving the latter, promising an Islamic welfare state is a cruel joke.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 25th, 2012.