It was an entrance many had waited years to witness. The trumpet blared, the imposing doors majestically parted and in walked Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan. The audience gathered in this grand chandeliered hall of the Presidency, rose to its feet and broke into thunderous applause for the man, and for the magic of his moment.
And yet it was apparent that the real Khan was ill at ease with this pomp and glory and sherwani-ed formality. The real Khan couldn’t give a fig that he had to awkwardly fumble inside his kurta pocket to look for his spectacles while the world watched; the real Khan couldn’t care less that he bungled what was probably the most important oath of his life; and the real Khan couldn’t give a hoot that he didn’t make nice with the two gentlemen sitting on the dais with him. It was him being him and exuding the lack of pretense that has endeared him to millions of his followers.
This hall, where he stood revelling in his finest hour, reeked of purana Pakistan and stank of its suffocating status quo. The liveried guards and uniformed staff; the pretentious protocols and ossified procedures; the oath’s archaic language and convoluted idiom — all harked back to an era that Khan hungers to dismantle to make way for a naya Pakistan. But today, here inside this granite monstrosity, Khan was hostage to the system that birthed this pomp and show, designed this ceremony, and penned this oath.
Hence his unease.
The unease will linger because the system that birthed this status quo — or the wretched status quo that vomited this system — is entrenched not just in granite, but festers inside the bowels of state structure — and is woven in the fabric of our way of life. So Khan doesn’t have to look far to wage war against it. He can see it flowing through the veins of those around him — all those who are salivating at the governmental goodies up for grabs and state jobs waiting to be plucked like sweet ripe fruit. Khan recruited an army of electables; mercenaries ready and willing to fight for a cause — any cause — that pays well. This army has fought and won. Now it will demand its share of the booty.
Before Khan fights the Sharifs or the Bhuttos or the MMA-types, he may need to vanquish the traditional political bloodlust of his rented electoral warriors. Khan is out to make naya Pakistan, but they are out to milk naya Pakistan. This milking starts at the thana-katchery level. It is here that the MNA/MPA of the ruling alliance will flex his muscles in transfers and postings of local police and administration because this is accepted as legitimate spoils of the electoral war. Punjab has always been run and won through this system.
What will Khan do? Say no from Day one? Or wait for the police reforms to kick in? Reforming the Punjab police needs to be one of his foremost priorities because this constitutes the foundation stone of critical reform in the country’s largest province. It is also this reform that will touch the lives of the common citizens the most. But the system will resist. And not just the system. Khan will need to battle an entire way of life that has grown organically around this ossified system.
Our Gulliver is surrounded by a horde of greedy Lilliputians.
To truly break free from the stranglehold of such hordes, Khan must take transformational decisions. Babar Sattar and Mosharraf Zaidi have penned their latest columns on the critical need for Khan to take such decisions if he wants to succeed in truly dismantling the status quo. But what are these decisions? Let’s start with what they are not.
They are not decisions based on optics or symbolism. So while staying in the Military Secretary’s House within the Prime Minister’s House has good optics, it really doesn’t mean much if it is not part of a larger reform for austerity, as argued by Babar Sattar. Same holds true for demolishing the walls of the governors’ houses (inadvisable) or converting them into public places (advisable). Sattar is absolutely correct when he says populism cannot be a substitute for policy.
They are not decisions based on policies aimed at improving the basic sustenance of the state. So while it’s important to tackle the fiscal deficit, the decision whether to go to the IMF or acquire a hefty loan from the Saudis or Chinese does not make for a transformational decision.
They are not decisions based on projects. So while Metros, flyovers and highways are fantastic projects, they do not fall within the category of truly transformational acts.
The truly transformational decisions are those that can reshape society, alter the way the state and government work, and create institutions that are subservient to laid-down rules and not to the whims and fancies of individuals. Can Khan go beyond the optics, and beyond the projects to delve deep into the belly of this system and surgically cleanse it from the inside?
Ah! This is where tabdeeli gets a reality check.
To reform Punjab, Khan needs to reform the police. To reform the police he needs the best of the best cops as IGs and DIGs. Khan will find a handful of these no doubt. To reform the thanas these officers will need to create new systems through which thanas are run. To do this the SHOs will need investigators who will need investigative skills that do not include pulling people’s fingernails out or dispensing instant justice with a bullet in the back of the head. To do this, every thana in the whole of Punjab will need policemen trained in forensics, etc. If this system is not reformed, the prosecution will remain flawed. Which means the courts will get substandard evidence and arguments, which in turn will mean a higher chance that the innocents will go to the gallows and the guilty will walk free.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. And that too in only one area. The foundations of our social and political structure remain weak because we have been unable to implement the rule of law. Transforming Pakistan for ever will require ruthless application of law. No leader has ever displayed the will to do so. Khan has. But will is just the start. To be truly transformational, Khan will need to smash this iceberg regardless of its political cost. And he will need to smash all such icebergs floating in the mucky waters of this system, regardless of the cost.
But here’s a thought. Khan became the prime minister by bagging 176 votes in the National Assembly, just four more than the 172 required. If the cost of his big decisions goes beyond four votes, there will be no tabdeeli, no transformation.
And no Khan.
Five votes bridge the gap between change and status quo. What would you do?
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2018.