Some think the nickname ‘Taliban Khan’ is well deserved. He has spoken with admiration for the Taliban’s system of justice and with some sympathy for their gripes. He has admitted a number of undesirables and bigots into the party to expand his vote bank, a recent example being Aamir Liaquat. His personal life has been a mess and his latest marriage to a ‘peerni‘ raises all kinds of questions about his reliance upon superstitious beliefs. Some were offended by his recent comments about feminism and the traditional role of women. He has limited experience of governance and international relations.
But Imran Khan’s path to being a real contender tells us a lot about who the man is and what he could do for Pakistan. When Imran Khan founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, few gave him a chance of making significant inroads into the large electorate bases of the major parties. Undeterred, he has plugged on for more than twenty years, gradually chipping away at the establishment, and now on July 25 stands a realistic chance of him becoming the next prime minister of Pakistan. He has taken few shortcuts and has stuck by his principles, turning down senior roles in past governments. After boycotting the 2008 elections, it was only in 2013 that the PTI received a significant share of the national vote — many of these votes were cast in K-P where the PTI became the ruling party and had a chance to demonstrate its capabilities. By most accounts, the PTI’s tenure in K-P has been a big success, with a healthcare scheme which could be replicated at the national level, improvements in policing and counter- terrorism, and progress in education. In other words, K-P is a much safer and better managed province since the PTI’s election. Along with his success in building and expanding the Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital, establishing Namal College, and his contributions to the game of cricket, he has shown that he is a man who not only cares deeply about the people of Pakistan but can also get things done against the odds.
Meanwhile, it should be obvious by now that others are more interested in preserving their wealth and their dynasty than saving the nation — they have had many opportunities to take Pakistan forward but have largely failed. Let’s look at their economic record, an area where they are supposedly strong. Their latest term has left the economy in a dire position, the extent of which perhaps even they do not fully appreciate. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan ran a current account deficit of $16 billion in the first 11 months of the year, with foreign exchange reserves at around $10 billion, barely enough cover for two months of imports. The rupee has been spiralling downwards, currently at 122 against a US dollar. During the PML–N tenure structural problems were not addressed and the rupee was kept artificially strong, weakening exports and encouraging imports. In the first 11 months of this fiscal year, Pakistan imported $50.7 billion worth of goods but exported only $22.8 billion. This kind of gap is the result of many years of mismanagement. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has long-term potential but it is not a solution to the grave situation Pakistan is currently facing — and China is not about to resolve this issue for Pakistan (they may help at the margin). Without a huge IMF programme, Pakistan will soon run out of foreign exchange.
And this is the key point about the Sharifs — their vision and competence, or lack thereof. They have been found guilty by the courts, but Asia and Latin America have produced many leaders who have been corrupt yet moved their countries forward effectively. The main problem with the Sharifs is that they have done little to address the structural issues that are now haunting Pakistan — for example a lack of vision or strategy around developing agriculture, or expanding manufacturing so that imports can be substituted, or developing the textile industry in their backyard of Punjab. The same can be said about the lack of progress in healthcare and education. This is what voters should consider foremost: on and off, for decades, the Sharifs have run Pakistan, but their “greatest” achievements are around spending large amounts of money with uncertain economic benefit — for example with the yellow cab scheme in the ’90s and now the Lahore Metro. Pakistan needs a visionary leader with competent lieutenants to execute upon a real vision which the good people of Pakistan deserve to see achieved.
As Imran Khan keeps reminding us, electing the same leadership that has failed to change a corrupt and inept system will lead to the same outcome. Pakistan has had many decades of the PML-N, PPP and the military. And few of the fundamental problems have been addressed. From being a high potential emerging market only 25 years ago, Pakistan has fallen far behind neighbouring India and has made limited progress in education, healthcare and raising incomes above poverty levels. And that, plain and simple, is a consequence of failed leadership. Imran Khan has done enough to deserve a chance to lead and has shown that he is a man of principle. In order to have a fighting chance of a future better than the past, Pakistanis should swarm to the ballot box to vote for his party.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2018.