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October 20, 2020

Can PM Khan survive the PDM?

Opinion

October 20, 2020

People don’t want complicated answers. They want simple ones. This is for two reasons. First, complicated answers take time, discipline and patience to process and understand. No one has time, few have discipline, and even fewer have patience.

Second, complicated answers (and the experts that give them) have a poor track record. Think of all the ‘conspiracy theories’ that came true that were poo-pooed by experts. Think of the expert consensus that mocked the simpleton religious or political leader that inspires. You don’t have to go back very far.

During the first few months of Covid-19, PM Imran Khas was roundly criticized by almost everyone other than his strongest supporters for adopting and arguing that in the ‘lives versus livelihoods’ debate, he couldn’t just choose ‘lives’ or privilege the public health outcome, without taking into consideration the impact that a strict lockdown would have on the ‘livelihoods’ of the poor. Six months later, it turns out that PM Khan’s analysis of the challenge is broadly now the global conventional wisdom – blanket, across-the-board lockdowns are now almost unheard of. And ‘smart’ lockdowns, of the kind that PM Khan espoused as a go-between to mediate the lives versus livelihoods dichotomy, is now the global standard.

Experts aren’t always right, but the reason experts are often wrong has little to do with science or maths. The reason so many ‘experts’ were wrong on lives versus livelihoods (including this writer, by the way) is not because they got the science wrong. In fact, the experts had the science exactly right. They got the lives versus livelihoods wrong because they were not open to including other vectors in the analysis. Yes Covid-19 is deadly, and no, nothing is worth risking one’s life for. But this analysis, whilst valid for those that are not at risk of death by starvation, is invalid for those that are.

Taking a cumulative macro view of the economy as a whole, and the absolute centrality of transactions to the economy, PM Khan took the right approach on Covid-19. If Pakistan has been incredibly lucky (and every scientific measure indicates that luck has been absolutely crucial), then at least some of this luck may be due to the correct, compassion-rooted, and winning approach of the PM.

Now this was a complicated answer to the question: did PM Khan get his core response to Covid-19 right? The easy simple answer would have been one of two. One: “yes, he got it right because he is a proud Pakistani and he would give his life for Pakistan and he love Pakistan”. Well: Wow, Grape! Two: “no, he got it wrong, because he is selected, and his supporters only like him because he is handsome”.

We are well into October 2020. The Covid-19 challenge is far from over, but as a storyline, it has already ceased to be salient. From here on in, even a more spectacular performance than thus far on Covid-19 will earn PM Khan, the PTI and the ruling structure that backs this government very little by way of political capital. Of course, any missteps will put severe strain on it. But barring a reversal of the Pakistani Covid-19 miracle, the Covid-19 story is unlikely to move the political needle very much.

The next big question for this government and its backers is going to be whether it can handle the pressure that the opposition plans to put on it. In less than six months, PM Khan’s government, a unique experiment in Pakistani governance, will be halfway through its tenure. The ‘please don’t put my dad in jail’ opposition will have us believe that this tenure is as good as over. But what really determines the fate of the PTI government?

I will list the simple answers that we seek for this question, just to get them out of the way. No, it isn’t the quantum of electoral legitimacy this government enjoys or does not enjoy. The opposition can keep teasing PM Khan for being ‘selected’, but it doesn’t make an iota of material difference (yet). No, it isn’t how much pressure the military leadership can be put under. The opposition can keep poking and prodding to test the tensile strength of institutional resolve to back the current dispensation. It will not collapse under the weight of a few speeches or jalsas or opeds. No, it isn’t even the poor quality of governance manifest in Punjab. The woeful and pathetic figure cut by the chief minister of the Punjab has stood the test of much more powerful critics than the opposition, and yet he survives. Punjab will survive him.

No. What really determines the fate of the PTI government from here on in are two things. The first is the state of the economy, and the second is the PTI’s ability to make political accommodation and deals. Both PTI economy and PTI politics are complex, and maybe people don’t want to hear it. But the only thing that can sink the ruling structure, and the PTI government that is propped up by it, is a combination of a continued economic crisis and a political landscape in which the PTI continues to have no friends other than those that are arranged for it by the ruling structure.

Pakistan is not on the verge of any kind of economic calamity, but it is fast approaching relatively new territory as far as living through a sustained economic crisis in which three things are happening at the same time: prices are increasing, joblessness is growing, and confidence is shrinking. The last major crisis of this nature was in 2008/2009, when the global financial crisis converged with the transition from the Musharraf era to the PPP, which converged with a dramatic rise in international pressure, lower international aid and assistance, and to top it all off, a major conflict (the Rah e Rast Operation to free Swat of the TTP).

If any of the three – inflation, or joblessness or a lack of confidence – somehow metastasize into a deeper moment, such as a major shortage of wheat, that lasts for longer than a couple of weeks, the downward political pressure on the ruling structure may become irresistible. But it may not necessarily take such a moment to threaten the ruling order. Sustained economic stasis can also threaten the ruling order if it converges with a sustained political crisis.

It is exactly this kind of political crisis that the PDM seeks to create, establish and sustain over the next four months. The PDM’s key leaders have been pushed to a point where some, if not all, have come to believe that they have less and less to lose. James Baldwin once wrote about Elijah Mohammad, that “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose”. The relentless campaign to defang Nawaz Sharif, the desperate wilderness of office that Maulana Fazlur Rehman occupies since 2018, and the growing absence of options available to the PPP leadership may or may not turn these men, their progeny and their parties into “the man who has nothing to lose”, but if you listen carefully to PDM speeches by leaders like Mohsin Dawar and Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the hazards of continuing down the path that this country has been on since 2016 should be obvious.

Can PM Khan (and the ruling structure that supports him) absorb both the economic desperation of the average Pakistani, and the political desperation of the electoral elite of Pakistan – at the same time?

This question, unlike others posed above, does have a simple answer. The answer is no. No, he cannot. They cannot. We cannot. To survive the PDM, PM Khan will need to make dramatic gains on the economic front, and he will need to dramatically increase the number of allies he has in the political spectrum.

But make no mistake, it is PM Khan that is in the driving seat. The path he chooses from here on in will determine the duration and quality of his tenure. Economic recovery and political reconciliation, or just more trolling and hounding of the opposition? The choice is PM Khan’s.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.