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Wednesday February 08, 2023

Inside the Red Zone: The problem with Imran

January 21, 2023


There comes a time when reality must bite. And bite hard. That time is now. PTI Chairman Imran Khan has become a larger-than-life reality. But the reality of his reality has over the last nine months gotten shrouded in a self-generated fog of make-believe.

Just like in the movies, the gloss of the hero’s screen avatar matches little with his behind-the-scenes personae. Here too in our long-running soap opera, scripts spawn characters that sell stories to spellbind the audience inside the theatre and enrapture them with an imaginary world that exists only in the minds of those present.

But eventually the lights come on.

The lights inside the political theatre too will come on sooner or later. However, some harsh realities have become visible even in this semi-darkened environment, and none more so illuminating than the contradictions that define and constitute the real problem with Imran Khan.

This problem begins with the fact that no one has any idea what Imran stands for. It is easy to tick mark the long list of items he says are his key positions – yes we have heard them over and over again for years – but how does one reconcile these positions with his actual actions? One of the many damages that Imran’s stint in power has done to his politics is to prove that he is unable, for whatever reason, to do what he says.

So what does Imran stand for?

It is not anti-corruption. If it were, two successive Punjab governments would not have indulged in the wide-scale corruption that they did. Hard to believe? Just spend a few days in Lahore and you will hear stories of corrupt practices that will make your ears burn. And mind you, the scale of this corruption ranges from small amounts (in relative terms) for transfers and postings to billions of rupees in mega-scandals. Even PTI people acknowledge this. Many of them have had to grease palms in Punjab to get their work done. They may be a bit sheepish about this but have over the years stopped denying the harshness of this reality.

Oh, but Imran himself is not corrupt, you might say. One can argue about the merits of this claim, but this is less important than the grim fact that he has shown over and over again that he is okay with corruption as long as he believes it serves his larger goals. Some may justify this by arguing that oftentimes smaller ills have to be tolerated for grand noble goals, but before you swallow this logic like a bitter pill, pause for a second and think. Think of how you would feel if you applied this logic to yourself.

But Imran did not know that his governments in Punjab were deeply mired in corruption, you might retort with indignation (as many of his supporters still do). Allow me to puncture your innocence with the noblest of intentions. As prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan was regularly presented with Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports that contained detailed and vivid details of how deep and widespread corruption had spread in Punjab and which people close to him were directly involved in such corrupt practices.

And what did Imran do? He looked the other way. The lesson is simple: Imran’s anti-corruption stance is merely a political slogan and will remain just that even if he were to return to power.

So what does Imran stand for?

It is not reforming the system. If it were, his nearly four years in power in the centre and Punjab and eight years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would have seen radical changes in governance and structural reforms. Instead, Imran succeeded in failing spectacularly as a leader with unchallenged executive powers. Try as he might, he could not shrug off the label of incompetence that stuck to his government within a few months of coming into power.

Then he picked the worst possible people for his cabinet. In their eagerness to show that these ministers were in fact doing something/anything, they would come to the federal cabinet meeting with half-baked ideas stuffed clumsily in PowerPoint presentations and demand approvals to proceed. Many would strut in the meeting with a USB in hand, plug it in, show the presentations and then smile triumphantly about their performance. Until some senior officials had to explain to them patiently that this is not how the government worked.

These PTI ministers had to be tutored about having proper summaries made that would then need to be processed through laid-down channels, vetted by the relevant ministries and finally brought before the cabinet. They were told they could not insert a USB in a federal cabinet meeting, get a verbal nod from the leader and then demand immediate execution by the bureaucracy. Many threw hissy fits.

Tutoring could only go so far when intentions were suspect. The story of the travesty that took place in one such cabinet meeting is now the stuff of legends. The federal cabinet approved the deal that redirected the 140 million pounds that should have gone to state coffers. The cabinet was not even allowed to open the sealed envelope as PM Imran ordered that the approval should be given verbally. Like sheep, they all nodded. The crime was legitimized.

If Imran stood for reform, the Punjab police would not be in the state it remains today; the education sector would not have been in the pitiable condition it is in, and the tax collection machinery would not have witnessed the magnificent failure that it did during the PTI years.

So what does Imran stand for?

The economy? Recall the four disastrous years under a rotating line of finance ministers who were constantly changing policies and sabotaging the IMF deal while Imran himself had little clue what to do.

Inter-institutional harmony? Recall how Imran went from the ‘one-page’ boasts about the military leadership to outright abusing them. Now he’s on a self-declared crusade to weaken the military. This isn’t for any notions of a belated love for civilian supremacy but for petty political reasons.

Accountability? Recall how his idea of accountability as PM focused only on throwing his opponents in jail. Imran and his team continue to pretend they do not know the difference between being accused and being convicted. The concept of due process, Imran believes, is an unnecessary irritant once he has declared someone to be corrupt.

Successful foreign policy? Recall how Imran alienated the core group of Pakistan’s friends. Just listen to what Beijing, Washington, Riyadh and Istanbul have to say. The emotionally immature notions of “absolutely not” and “breaking the shackles of slavery” have been epic disasters that betray a mindset that is either unwilling to grasp the nuance of statecraft or refusal to elevate this above the petty requirements of political one-upmanship.

So what does Imran stand for?

You stand for nothing when you are willing to break free from the limitations of fact and truth to conjure fantasies that will garner no outcome other than partisan cheers; you stand for nothing when you are ready to say what you do not believe in and believe what you cannot say publicly while remaining comfortable in this contradiction; and you stand for nothing when you cannot translate you stated stance into any coherent policy with substance and depth because your fiction on jalsa circuit has little connection to the reality of governing a country.

People say Imran has changed since being thrown out of power. Has he? In any of the issues discussed above, does he have a different approach? The fact is that beyond his inflammatory populism and inflammable vitriol, he remains an angry and deeply polarizing figure who will shape Pakistan in his own image were he to return to office – a Pakistan that is bitter, vengeful, intolerant, regressive, globally isolated, and at constant war with itself.

So go ahead and ask again: what is the problem with Imran?

The writer is the special assistant to the prime minister on public policy and strategic communication. He tweets @fahdhusain

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