Would Imran Khan make a good prime minister for Pakistan? It’s a question that draws strong views from all sides of the Pakistani political spectrum. He’s a polarising candidate: you either love him or hate him. For many, the cricketing hero, turned social justice campaigner, induces paeans of passion. Others deride him as a Taliban stooge. However, there are a few of us still vacillating over his suitability as a leader.
He was in Britain this week, promoting his new book, Pakistan: A Personal History and gave an in-depth interview to The Guardian. The interview displayed all the best and worst of King Khan. On the negative side, we saw the egotism, stubbornness and political naivety. Yet, he also exhibited passion (and compassion for his countrymen), purpose and immense bravery. One suddenly realised what an immense toil this man’s decision to enter politics has had on his life. He has sacrificed his marriage, and thus access to his two boys, for the sake of his country. Life after cricket could have been an endless merry-go-round of endorsements, commentary and Chelsea homes. Lord knows he had earned it. That would have been the easy option. Instead, he chose “Kamran Khan kay sath,” Islamabad and the grubbiness of politics. For that he should earn our respect. He is clearly a decent, honourable and a good man, in a country lacking few genuine inspirational role models. Yet, I, like many, still find it hard to support him.
Firstly, let’s take the egotism. Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are interchangeable. Without the former, there is no latter. In the 15 years since its inception, he has failed to make the party anything other than a party for his political aspirations. So closely are the party and its leader aligned in the public image that the PTI may as well call itself the Imran Khan party. Unlike a Lincoln or an Obama, he has failed to reach across the aisle attracting real political talent. Could Imran open his arms to the Pakistani equivalent of Hillary Clinton or Robert Gates? (And I don’t count Shireen Mazari as talent.) This is not a party of intellectuals or political heavyweights. It’s a party of yes-men, doing the bidding of their chairman. This is not leadership. Instead, it demonstrates either a fatal inability to attract talented people, or insecurity in one’s own ability. How can he prevail in negotiations with fellow statesmen when he’s unable to attract people of serious calibre?
Flashes of the same egotism that he displayed after winning the World Cup — talking about himself rather than his team — were also present in The Guardian interview. Here he was discussing cutting deals with other parties: “The old parties are all petrified of me now. They all want to make alliances with me and I say: ‘No, I’m going to fight all of you together because you’re all the same.’” This is a serious problem for Khan. His pronouns need to change if he’s truly to inspire — more we and less me. For all his talk of being a radical outsider fighting a corrupt elite, he often comes across as just another strong man out to save Pakistan. A Bhutto or a Musharraf could have uttered that very same sentence. We need leaders who can develop teams, parties and institutions, not another man with a messiah complex.
Then there’s his political idealism, bordering on naivety. He wants to cut foreign aid, cut expenditure, tax the rich and fight corruption. All admirable goals, no doubt, but somewhat politically unrealistic — at least in the short-term. Withdrawing 20 billion of foreign aid overnight would be potentially calamitous for an economy already perilously close to bankruptcy. Improving Pakistan’s infamously low tax-to-GDP ratio above nine per cent will not be aided by a tanking economy. And how would his party achieve the goals of fighting corruption and taxing the rich without the money to invest in the necessary infrastructure?
On foreign affairs, he displays similar inexperience. He’s no Taliban supporter or stooge. That is clearly ridiculous. But he is woefully naïve when he claims he wants to withdraw from the war on terror. Fair enough, you may think. It’s unpopular and has cost Pakistan dearly in terms of lives and lost investment. But would retreat actually stop the killings in Pakistan? The Tehreek-i–Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba will not suddenly shut up shop once the PTI is in power and just because the US becomes persona non grata in Islamabad. Instead, Khan would be sending a dangerous message to such groups. Violence against your own people works. And when it came to promoting his own policies, such as regional peace with India, eliminating unchecked power to state agencies, or achieving 100 per cent immunisation for children against preventable diseases, could he count on the support of such regressive and militant organizations? That’s the problem with Khan. He lives in a Chomskyite fantasy world, which assumes all killing will cease upon the withdrawal of those nasty neo-imperialists in Afghanistan. His party’s manifesto conspicuously fails to mention Pakistan’s homegrown problem with terrorism or, for that matter, the ethnic and sectarian violence that is currently plaguing the country. Nor does he have a solution to any of these problems. Withdrawing the support for the US war in Afghanistan does not constitute a counter terrorism strategy for Pakistan.
Let’s give Khan the benefit of the doubt here. His policy statements could be the announcements of a wily politician. Perhaps he’s performing the old trick of canvassing on idealism — attracting students and the disaffected — only to govern with pragmatism and realism upon election. However, this is unlikely. Imran Khan does not do wile, guile or irony. He is a man who says what he believes and believes what he says. Good for a doctor, less so for a politician. Like the Liberal Democrats in the UK, or perhaps the unworldly Obama supporters, is he really ready for the responsibility and concessions of government? Or does he secretly prefer his perennial outsider status, untainted by the grubbiness of compromise?
So would this courageous, decent and good man make a first-rate prime minster? Time may tell. But leading a country is a lot more difficult than leading a cricket team.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2011.