“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multitudes” – said Walt Whitman. There is much about Imran Khan’s life and conduct that has been contradictory.
We can argue about his past, when he was aspiring to become prime minister and making marketing speeches. Or we can analyse what he is promising now after taking oath as PM, and hold his feet to fire when his actions and policies don’t match the promises he has made as PM. The first speech to the nation provides a good starting point.
As someone who finds the use of populism and gimmickry as substitute to policy dangerous for a country facing challenges as serious as those that Pakistan does, one finds much of the PTI’s PR drive about Naya Pakistan irksome. Building up IK as messiah, the talk of not staying in the PM House, rejecting security protocol, selling expensive cars or the projection of self-congratulatory zeal and some amorphous concept of hope as manifestation of change sound like pettifoggery at best. And refusal to join this giddy party invites the charge of being ungrateful and unpatriotic.
That said, IK’s first speech provided context even to critics of how his populism could possibly be linked to policy. A leader has the power to use the bully pulpit to flag issues that he wishes to make the focus of public debate. Did IK pick the right theme? IK’s speech being primarily about citizens’ right to dignity and the state’s obligation to function as a just service provider was a breath of fresh air. The imperious character of our post-colonial state as the bane of our democracy has been the focus of academic literature but not public debate as much.
IK spoke of the need to fix the state’s distorted relationship with the citizen (and the imperious mode of interaction between state officials speaking for the state and ordinary citizens), the need to reduce public expenses, enhance revenue, curb corruption, reform the bureaucracy and ensure that social safety networks take care of the most vulnerable segments of our society. The symbolism might have been populist as before. But all focus areas fit within the larger theme of revisiting and redefining the compact between the citizen and the state.
The problem with the PTI’s anti-corruption mantra has been almost zero focus on institutional structures and behavioural ethos that have entrenched corruption. Projecting political foes as the cause helps produce political dividends but takes focus away from structures that sustain a state’s rentier behaviour. We have had spells of democracy and dictatorship. But the rents ordinary citizens have to pay to receive basic services from the state did not diminish even during spells when corrupt politicos had been hung out to dry by ‘honest’ dictators.
IK’s speech in question was different in that it recognised institutional structures that sustain corruption. He spoke of reforming the FBR and the resistance he expects to face. He spoke of babus’ primary obligation of treating ordinary citizens with dignity and creating appropriate reward and censure mechanisms to ensure the same. He spoke of strengthening local governments to grant citizens control over day-to-day decision-making, ending rent-seeking development grants to legislators, and also emphasised the need for behavioural change to make this happen.
There seemed recognition for once that pursuing change will require more than good intentions. The emphasis on austerity and its link to fiscal accountability was logical. Populist bits such as shunning symbols of pomp (palatial houses, cars, servants etc, which reflect the colonial relationship between the state and its subjects) were linked to reducing public expense as a means of responsibility to taxpayers, which was then linked to enhancing tax receipts by providing guarantee of efficient use of tax revenue. As a fiduciary, the focus on not lavishing people’s money on the personal lifestyles of trustees was spot on.
And then there was emphatic focus on taking care of the most vulnerable segments of society: street children, out-of-school kids, widows and pensioners. The character of a society is defined by how it treats its most vulnerable. We are not a humane society. Our predatory state has a history of treating its most vulnerable citizens in the most oppressive manner. As a polity we are so disillusioned by the state that we have begun to force the private sector to discharge the basic obligations of a faltering state (re health, education, and now infrastructure development).
None of what IK said is rocket science. This is how things are in civilised societies (where ordinary Pakistanis seek to migrate to look out for their loved ones) and ought to be in Pakistan. In these societies you don’t need to be part of a patronage network, get cosy with public servants or pay rents to get everyday services. You don’t need special access to enrol kids in school or get healthcare or garbage collected or utilities provided or disputes adjudicated. In its day-to-day dealing, the state is benign and exists to facilitate the citizen. Politics is still dirty. But its impact is at a higher policy plane.
Many of us believe that our civil-military imbalance is the bane of both our existence and democracy. From this perspective, the question many ask is whether IK’s resolve to end pomp will be limited to politicos and the civil bureaucracy or whether it will be all-encompassing to include the cushy lifestyles of others as well. There are two main explanations for the civil-military imbalance. One is the vacuum theory: as elected governments sitting atop civilian structures don’t perform, the military (with the judiciary as a junior partner) is forced to step in.
The second is more Machiavellian: once the military succeeds in assuming control of state power (for historical reasons), it deliberately keeps civilian structures weak and discredited to retain and entrench its power. Whether it is due to vacuums or deliberate design or the continuing post-colonial character of the state, the fact is that the fruits of democracy haven’t really trickled down to ordinary folk, who don’t see themselves as stakeholders when it comes to tussles between elected and unelected elites. And thus we see little grassroots opposition to praetorians when they are in our faces.
Notwithstanding which explanation one finds more plausible, how does one get out of the gridlock? The vacuum theory is just about to get tested. Even if you disregard allegations of hands-on engineering, the message from the military and the judiciary in Election 2018 was unequivocal: choose untainted leadership that can steer the country out of the storm corrupt politicos have pushed it in. So now that we have an honest PM who is all about empowering and serving folks, can there be any justification for unelected institutions stepping beyond their jurisdictions?
Let’s move to the Machiavellian option. If you know you have received help from the unelected, and that the moment you try and wrestle power from them they will turn on you, would you grab your rightful share of the pie the day you take oath? Or will you wait to begin service delivery to get more public support behind you and become stronger and acquire more leverage to begin reclaiming your rightful space? Isn’t that the much-advocated Turkish model: deliver first and then insist on civilian control of the military?
As a proponent of such civilian control, one has only this to say: for IK to flag the opulent lifestyles of personnel from all institutions, the sizes of their residences or to count their cars and guards would have been folly. Charity begins at home. If you can’t put your own house in order, you will have no authority or ability to force others to reform. And that has been the bigger tragedy of Pakistan. Each of our institutions has been more interested in fixing other institutions or taking over their jobs instead of performing its own while engaging in introspection and self-accountability.
Did IK emphasise the right things as PM in his first talk with citizens? Yes he did. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. While we take his words and promises on face value, let his critics give him the benefit of good intentions and let his fans pay heed to what he asked them to do: support him in pursuing his agenda, while holding him to account for his promises.
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.