What does Imran Khan stand for?

Khan, it seems, is lost in his own maze of Tabdeeli

Fahd Husain March 31, 2019
Prime Minister Imran Khan. PHOTO: FILE

Sometimes who you win against is more important than how many you win against.

1992 Cricket World Cup: Pakistan wins the tournament. Nine teams competed. The nation’s joy knew no bounds.

1986 Hockey World Cup: Pakistan came second last in the tournament. Twelve teams competed. India came last. The nation’s joy knew no bounds.

Happiness is, after all, relative. So is performance. So when we take stock of PTI government’s performance in the first seven months of its tenure, we may want to keep things a bit relative. Put simply, should we compare PTI’s track record with what it promised, or compare it to the performance of the PML-N government? Framing the comparison makes all the difference in the world.

Framing, for its part, requires a bit of context. In this case, the context is the key factors that paved the way for Imran Khan to become the Prime Minister. Broadly speaking, the three factors were:

First, the guaranteed vote of the core PTI supporter (and solid election-day turnout of this voter); second, the undecided or ‘leaning-towards-PTI’ voter who opted to stamp the bat symbol on his ballot; and third, the pre-poll ‘help’ for PTI that convinced many electables to eagerly embrace Imran Khan.

What did these three different subsets of people expect from an Imran Khan-led PTI government?

The core PTI supporters expected everything and nothing. Maniacal adulation of Khan meant that this breed of voters actually, genuinely and honestly believed every single word uttered by Khan and his flunkies. These core voters (regardless of their educational, occupational or social status) were convinced that all Khan had to do was to become the Prime Minister and everything would work out beautifully. Blinded to reality, these men and women were true believers of tales that overseas Pakistanis would send billions of dollars as soon as Khan had taken the oath; that common citizens would open up their hearts and wallets for Khan and fill the coffers of the State Treasury within days; that all social ills would disappear in a flash, all problems would melt away in a jiffy and all lions would drink water with all goats from all rivers of Pakistan. All that the Glorious Leader had to do was to become the Officially Elected Glorious Leader. And if Khan failed? Well how could he fail? He being him was all that this breed wanted. So they expected everything from him. And they expected nothing from him.

The undecided and ‘leaning-towards-Khan’ voter made the real difference. This was the floating voter who may have polled for the PPP or PML-N in earlier elections and was now disillusioned and ready to experiment with choices. Pollsters say in the last stages of the campaign the bulk of this undecided voter crossed over to PTI. The most common reason cited was this often-heard remark: “We have tried everyone, so let’s give Imran a chance”. Giving a chance, however, is a temporary, non-committal behavioural action. It is also fickle and denotes more disillusionment with the other parties than a strong preference for PTI. It would be rather unwise for PTI to take this voter for granted.

The Establishment’s help was also possibly predicated less on a belief that Khan could perform miracles and more on the need to shove PML-N out of power and cut its leadership to size. With Khan in power, the Establishment could — at the very least — expect a smooth working relationship and smooth governance on the back of deep-seated structural reforms.

Here’s the problem though: none of these three groups seems to have thought things through. The core voter was not required to think, the undecided voter’s thinking ended at giving PTI a chance regardless of what that quantified, and the Establishment thought driving the Sharifs out was what the mission was mostly about.

With this context, let us frame the original question again: do we measure PTI today against the change that it promised? Or do we simply compare it to the last PML-N government? Both questions are hinged on a singularly gigantic failing that very few have noticed: It is hard to tell what Imran Khan stands for?

Did you just gasp in horror? He stands for change! That is what you would shout back. Right? But what does change stand for? The vagueness of the Tabdeeli concept is its biggest strength, and most obvious weakness. How do you measure a man against a concept that is so impossible to define? Turning the economy around is also Tabdeeli and President Arif Alvi sprawled across an airport lounge is also Tabdeeli.

Khan, it seems, is lost in his own maze of Tabdeeli.

In seven months, he has tried to do everything, and ended up doing very little. A million task forces and a gazillion briefings later, we still do not know what his government’s key priorities are. This problem is manifesting itself in the randomness of what PTI ministers and parliamentarian are saying and doing: just this, that and the other. There is no coherence in their message and no central direction in their action. It is almost as if ministers have been sent to their ministries with the orders to do something, anything that can be called performance.

Confusion is percolating from the top. The Prime Minister needs to cut through the maze of generic Tabdeeli and carve out a prioritized agenda for his government. This agenda needs to be specific, timelined and outcome-defined. The selfie-mode of governance should end right about now.

The priorities of the PML-N government were clear: Infrastructure and Energy. For five years they relentlessly pursued these two sectors at the expense of many others. Right or wrong, the Sharifs threw their weight and resources behind these priorities and got their entire government to focus on them. What did the Sharifs stand for? The answer was simple: build roads and end loadshedding.

What does Imran Khan stand for? If the answer is longer than one sentence, PTI has a problem. Pakistan has a problem.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2019.

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