Imran Khan’s empty glass

IK got entangled into pursuit of corrupt which chimera held for a while but then found himself stuck in the rhetoric


Shahzad Chaudhry April 09, 2021
The writer is a retired air vice marshal and a former ambassador. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

Let me begin with what has surprised me the most in Imran Khan’s tenure till date. That he did not choose to go for early or snap elections during his tenure. He had all the reasons to. The opposition cried a rigged poll and soon began to question his credentials as the elected prime minister of the country. A perception of IK being establishment’s proxy began to take root amidst allegations of electoral manipulation. Let us assume that there was a nudge if not a push in his direction by the all-important military influence in our national affairs. And three, it was a given that the opposition would call him names and not let him function in the parliament while ham-fisting him in government.

Yet IK chose not to go back to the people for a fresh mandate. There is a time for it when the credibility is still in place, the romance alive if it indeed has been a factor in someone’s elevation as was in this case, and the trust that people held in the person is being thwarted by forces and factors inimical to any change of the status quo. His compelling plea to the people could have been that a fractious mandate is disabling and his bona fides as the undisputed leader were under question. That he could only fulfil the agenda if the people delivered to him an unquestionable mandate and an enabling majority beyond any reproof or aspersion. He was poorly advised against it, failed in his political judgment to avail of the benefit of as established political practice, and ended up being a lame duck right at the beginning of his tenure. A few suggested this recourse but were dismissed under hubris of populism.

As such what did he find as he kept on to, what he thought was, govern in a grievously fractious political environment and a deliberately paralysed parliament? He found that the administrative machinery was unresponsive for it wasn't sure if indeed the new political masters actually carried weight or should they bide time for those who seemed to have the government in strangleholds and may soon return to power. He found that the economy was in shambles and structured in peculiar ways which only permitted one kind of management against which he had campaigned and which went against his political grain. He found that he had no money in the treasury as the piled debt loomed. He found that not one in his team could help him make sense of what was at hand particularly in the fiscal and economic domain. He found that he and his team were ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with governing an oversized yet superficial state structure and a failing economy — jin pe takiya tha wohi pattay hawa denay lagay. His own failed him with inadequate comprehension and inept competence.

Yes, a bit of social safety net here and a little there but Covid provided the context for what would otherwise be a poor economic choice. Handouts will serve a meal or two but will not subsist. Consider the global experience in poorer economies with micro-credits and how those add to the economy. Saving lives makes for a compelling argument but how many and for how long remains unanswered. In the meanwhile many continue to lose jobs, food on the table and ultimately lives. Governments don't do charity. Private enterprises do. That is where charisma should have lain the social responsibility at if indeed this was the only way possible out of a challenging social and economic strife. President Joe Biden can undertake such handouts because he knows his economy will and can payback. Where the economy itself is in question you only hasten its end when one panders to band-aid. 

So what does the future offer in prospects for IK and his government? What may be possible in the remaining time of his tenure now that some divine help and juvenile politics of the PDM has provided the government space? Will his glass fill, even if only slightly? He has some significant challenges to his remaining time in government — some made of his own and his government’s misplaced will, and some bequeathed through mis-governance of decades which had now hit the backstop. These should broadly be categorised as economy, reforms and efficacious administration which inordinately will include rule of law. Perhaps one other question that we need to investigate is how may another government have fared given the same set of challenges.

IK got entangled into the popular pursuit of the corrupt which chimera held for a while but then found himself stuck in the rhetoric. Early enough he should have realised there are multifold aspects to the problem of corruption. The system which is based on hefty appeasement through both legal and illegal avenues functions only when it is greased adequately with graft. Then there is the persistent crisis of the rule of law which is not only selectively applied it also refrains from touching the rich and the powerful who wield influence and benefit from corruption. The laws of the land leave numerous loopholes permitting the corrupt to escape the dragnet. When IK cries over the system not supporting him in bringing the corrupt to the book at the hands of a compromised criminal justice system it only means that his entire effort and the time spent over it has gone to waste. He has paid the price of this failed venture in inattention to reforms, administrative efficiency and economic restructuring.

The economy is mired in steep inflation and heavy indebtedness. Depressing demand through currency manipulation was regressive. In a consumer economy it meant dwindling revenues even if expenditure remained flat. A lack of fiscal capacity disabled relief or inflated subsidies. So even when economy struggles to reinvigorate its benefit to the common man remains a long way off. All forecasts point to a sluggish recovery, so little ‘good news’ may be expected on the economy front in relief. Being entangled in sugar when a system is already manipulated by the big-wigs will mean taking on an entrenched mafia which has fangs all over. A simple resort to controlling ‘futures trading’ or ‘speculative buying’ could have been better handled through targeted legislation and creating mechanisms to manage market forces. Changing systems and structures rather than going after personalities will correct distortions. Similarly, eliminating money-laundering and its inimical effect on the economy needs legislation which can close the loopholes. More time cannot be wasted on what a government has no control over. A government can only legislate and prosecute, the proceedings are better left to the courts.

In its remaining tenure the government may be able to entice the opposite enough to coordinate on electoral reforms. Beyond that may be delusionary. The government should quickly graduate to understanding the market and manage the supply-side better to control price hike and inflation. Improvements in administrative efficiency at all levels can be a good fillip to some seemly governance. That might save the PTI and IK some blushes and engender hope for their sustainable political role as a party if not another term.             

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