History is what has happened or is happening. But sometimes it is what does not happen. So, the other day I had a meeting with Imran Khan that never happened. Given Pakistan’s critical...
History is what has happened or is happening. But sometimes it is what does not happen. So, the other day I had a meeting with Imran Khan that never happened. Given Pakistan’s critical situation and my frustration over my inability to do anything at my age, other than to talk and write intemperately, I called a close relative of Imran who happens also to be a friend to say I wanted to call on him and waste half an hour of his time in chiding, deriding and guiding him towards whatever potential he may still have in him.
The relative was not in regular contact with him but agreed to see what could be arranged. Lo and behold, a few days later I was informed the great man was amused enough to say “why not? I need some distraction anyway, and surely he cannot be more of a nuisance than what I now have to put up with every day.” And that is how the call I never made led to the meeting that did not happen.
Imran greeted me warmly and recalled that I had distanced myself from him but never announced leaving his party, and so he still regarded me as “one of us” even if it was difficult to discern from my articles, some of which he had glanced at, whether I was for or against him. I confessed I was similarly confused about what I thought of him, but considering those arrayed against him today I simply could not bring myself to write him off altogether. So, I had come to find out where I would go from here which would depend on how he thought he would go anywhere. I recalled the lost tourist asking an Irish farmer the way to Dublin and being told “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here!” So, I asked Imran if I wanted to get to Naya Pakistan could I still start with him given how lost we were the first time we followed him.
With his usual courtesy (we are old Aitchisonians, and I am a decade his senior) he freely admitted he had got some things wrong but one lived and learned, and there were reasons why the people still trusted him and no one else. He knew he had to do things very differently to keep that trust. I felt emboldened to tell him that many of his relatively more genuine erstwhile long-term colleagues and supporters claimed it was his lack of ‘sympathique’ and genuine political commitment that had finally alienated them, even if they continued to have no respect for his enemies. They would return to him if only they could believe that he believed in himself.
Unfortunately, apart from some worrying charges against him, his claim to being a jilted lover of the military establishment – which was primarily responsible for Pakistan’s predicament – suggested he could never be a radical reformer which was the only way to free Pakistan from its current death trap (including its debt trap). He could not even pick his ‘electable’ team which, as things have turned out, have no stomach to face the powers that be, or any interest in undertaking reforms essential to building a people’s Pakistan in place of the establishment’s Pakistan.
Imran smiled indulgently and said he was often accused of being “a 70-year-old teenager” but it seemed I was “an 80 year old child”. No matter how urgently reforms were needed, they required time to be successfully implemented. Otherwise, they would be immediately derailed, and nothing would get done. He had to concentrate on first things first. He had to win the elections by a decisive margin, and no matter how popular he may be, he could not do so by declaring war on institutions that have evolved into coherent and self-contained constituencies trained and incentivized to see narrow institutional interests as identical to the national interest, no matter how comical or evil that might appear to ‘retired bureaucrat intellectuals’ such as myself.
Accordingly, he did not need an intellectual or moral compass as much as he required a political path to get us all where we wanted to get to. He needed realistic practical advice which he could understand, support and implement. He then looked me squarely in the eye and said he may at times have been a fool, but he was never a crook. That was an effortless extra-cover drive of immaculate class.
I decided if I could not push him on to the back foot the meeting might as well not happen – which it hadn’t. Accordingly, I said far from him declaring war on the institutional status quo it had declared war on him knowing that chauvinism and corporate interests would overwhelm any constitutional, progressive or democratic impulses in the body-politic of Punjab. The Supreme Court should be the guardian of the constitution no matter what the circumstances, but was it? Even if he escaped disqualification, imprisonment or assassination, and won an election without again selling out to the ‘miltablishment’, he would have no more than six months in which to prove his radical reformist credentials. Otherwise, his support even among his besotted young tigers would irretrievably evaporate.
Meanwhile, he would need to immediately begin building mass awareness and political support for a range of specific radical political, economic and institutional reform measures instead of fanning ‘jiyala’ support against his political opponents which had proved self-defeating. He may be physically prevented from doing so, but he should get his messages out to the people ASAP including the middle-class intelligentsia. Despite this bowling change, he showed he could play spin as well as seam.
So, I bowled a ‘flipper’, emphasizing his populist mantra of ‘Tabdeeli’ needed to manifest itself in substantive and sustained transformational time-lined action programmes including administrative reform, land reform, tax reform, corporate management reform, budgetary reform, health and education reforms, mass K12 literacy and numeracy, women’s empowerment, press freedoms, effective anti-corruption campaigns, and not least, a Pakistan Green New Deal.
Foreign policy, I added, would need to facilitate such comprehensive governance reform to improve Pakistan’s image enabling it to successfully negotiate one last economic space providing IMF package, like Manmohan Singh and Montek Ahluwalia had earlier done for India.
In conclusion, I unleashed a dipping ‘yorker’ saying only a veteran teenager like him could undertake such a Herculean task! Imran laughed heartily as he hit that one out of the ground. But then suddenly looking concerned for the first time, he said the opposition had made a blatantly dishonest appeal and the umpire had raised a crooked finger against him, the video replays were patently phony, and he was none too sure about the third umpire. Finally, bidding me an amicable farewell, he looked forward to continuing our discussion, which had not happened.
PS: Breaking news: Imran Khan has had a praetorian, or if you prefer, kinetic epiphany on the road to Islamabad and left the PTI. He will now stand against Imran Khan from any party willing to field him as their candidate. That this has not happened makes it no less historical. So, if there is a vacancy at the top of the PTI, I might just consider my chances. But then some things just do not happen.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan. He can be reached at: ashrafjqazigmail.com