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May 4, 2021

Imran Khan vs Ziaul Haq?


May 4, 2021

Some of the more effusive opponents of the current regime are prone to exaggeration. A most amusing bit of hyperventilation is when some claim with great confidence that the current era is worse than the Gen Ziaul Haq dictatorship.

This is pure nonsense, but not because the protagonists of the current scenario are necessarily trying for things to be any better than the darkness of the 1980s. The comparison with the 1980s is nonsense because turning down the volume of the national discourse in Gen Zia’s era was just so much easier than it is today. In an era of a seemingly unlimited number of newspapers, television channels, social media feeds and angry, underserved citizens, the feeble attempts to ‘manage’ the national discourse only expose the limited imaginations of the protagonists of this unique time in Pakistan’s political history.

The comparison with the Zia era is pure hyperbole, of course. Today’s impotent political opposition and the dead-end resistance they have put u, are as much a function of the skewed incentives of the rabble-rousing scions of political families, as they are of the incompetence with which the current regime is being run. But not all comparisons with Zia should be dismissed so readily. Indeed, Prime Minister Khan would be well served to reflect on just how badly he has managed his turn at running the country, as far as finding good people to surround himself with. It is here that the comparison with General Zia merits some deeper reflection. Consider the kind of people Ziaul Haq managed to get into his cabinets versus the parade of underwhelming talent that PM Khan has immortalized in the annals of the Cabinet Division.

For all his limitations, Gen Zia favoured competence and talent. That’s why he had Dr Mahbubul Haq, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan and Sartaj Aziz in his cabinets. Now consider Team Imran Khan. Four ministers for finance, not one that scratches the surface of the Zia All Stars. A foreign minister that may be described as many things, but not as a substitute to the Great Sahibzada. A planning and development function that is split across a retired bureaucrat, an army general and the closest thing to an Imran Khan replica – with a sugar mafia boss tossed in on occasion. The best that PM Khan can call on is a short list (Asad Umar, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Shaukat Tarin), and nowhere near as impressive as General Zia’s.

Over halfway through his first term as prime minister, how can the Great Imran Khan be compared with General Zia, and that too unfavourably? The partisans that continue to believe in the potential of PM Khan should now begin to reflect on at least some of the reasons why such comparisons will be made.

In any Pakistani regime, five things determine failure and success. All Pakistani regimes are a mixed bag, and no regime has ever really been a success (this is why Pakistan is a poor country with a bloated and unaccountable state apparatus and millions of fragile, emaciated, and broke citizens). The five things that determine a regime’s success and failure are delivery, managing the elite, manging religious sentiment, sustaining the narrative, and external relations. PM Khan and his core allies in the post 2018 election power equation have thus far established a compelling track record of failure, with very few, and very negligible successes.

Let’s begin with the successes of this regime. On the delivery front, PM Khan’s compassion for the poor has been a key theme in governance since 2018, and renewed efforts to serve the poor through programmes like the Sehat Insaaf health insurance programme, and the rebranding of the Benazir Income Support Programme as the Ehsaas Programme stand out. The Covid-19 support provided to individuals and businesses were crucial in helping sustain Pakistanis through the pandemic. Several changes to how the Securities and Exchange Commission and the State Bank of Pakistan treat the flow of money, especially for the technology sector and start-ups, all reflect the instinct for good public policy that informs almost all long-time PTI supporters’ passion.

Sadly, this is a short list, and is massively overshadowed by the competing list of failures. Issues like inflation, the handling of vaccination for Covid-19, the management of the Higher Education Commission, the piles of garbage that rise ever higher in cities governed by the PTI, all comprise the catch-all notion of ‘delivery’. PM Khan has repeatedly acknowledged his failures on the delivery front.

On managing the elite, this regime’s greatest strength has been the strong convergence between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, so PM Khan’s management of the most elite among the elite has been rather spectacular (so long as we assume this to be an accurate portrayal of the direction of management). Some among the business elite are managing PM Khan, not the other way around. Some political elite are in a holding pattern, hoping for enough missteps that more powerful quarters than Bani Gala will turn towards them (hello, PPP). Others still among the political elite are banking on people power, without any realization of how badly the levers of people power have been eroded by easily manipulated broadcast and social media, and a judiciary and bureaucracy that are more ductile and malleable than copper wire.

If most elite groups in the country seem to be up in arms, it is not because they hate PM Khan, it is because they hate uncertainty. The PTI faithful gullibly lap up the nonsense about how this is because PM Khan is fighting all the mafias at once. The truth is that without the invisible hand of politics (ever present in Pakistan), the PTI’s own coalition partners would not even talk to the PM, or his oft-dysfunctional cabinet.

Religious sentiment in Pakistan has adopted a menacing tone, and though the establishment is keen to bottle up the more toxic elements that inform the national discourse, neither PM Khan nor his powerful backers have any idea of how to tackle the sustained and irrepressible Barelvi aggression that they themselves had stoked and stimulated in 2016, 2017 and even 2018. Combine this aggression and swagger with the buoyancy of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and some chickens seem to be coming home to roost. How do we say cock-a-doodle-doo in countering violent extremism? Nobody knows.

PM Khan has maintained his single line item narrative about corruption, but most polling, as well as recent by election results amply demonstrate that only the most virulent and self-effacing supporters of the PTI take the regime seriously on corruption. That’s the price of treating public financial management like a topic that can be tackled with the teenager-like zeal or ‘junoon’ of uncles in their sixties and seventies that owe their interest in politics to Zaman Park’s favourite son.

Finally, external relations in the post 2018 dispensation have been a sine wave, constantly disrupted, swaying wildly and unpredictably. The fact that all of the most vital relationships Pakistan has (Afghanistan, India, China, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) are not managed from within the old Scherezade Hotel compound was supposed to be a luxury for PM Khan. But it seems to be growing into a liability.

In the midst of all this, some foolishly seek a disruption that will replace PM Khan with someone else. For some this is a desperate plea: “Someone, anyone. Anyone but Khan”. But what magical powers will another PM bring to bear on a system facing the profound institutional challenges that Pakistani governance faces? None.

Even more foolishly, this prompts others to call for an elimination of parliament altogether, and the renewal of a presidential system. The last three presidential systems in Pakistan delivered, respectively, the partition of Pakistan in 1971 (thank you President Ayub & President Yahya), the establishment of religious extremism as a public good (thank you President Zia), and the TTP and BLA’s wars on Pakistan (thank you President Musharraf).

The TLP must be licking their lips.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.