When Imran Khan was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister on August 17, 2018, some Pakistanis saw him as the the best option, but others saw Khan as a messiah, and followed him like blinkered members of a populist cult.
Khan’s victory was the triumph of Pakistan’s self-righteous and self-serving affluent urban middle class. They were aided internationally by a well-meaning but naive diaspora, and domestically by the leadership of the politically dominating and psychologically impatient judiciary and military.
Khan’s supporters agreed on his prescription for treating the ills of Pakistan’s economy and polity: i.e. moral answers to material questions and administrative solutions to structural problems.
Both have failed to work. Rather than providing relief to common citizens as promised, the past year has added to their misery.
In 2018, the narrative that was sold to the public for a “new idea of Pakistan” could be summarized as a corruption-free economy and a justly governed country. This narrative was realized through Khan’s rise to power, along the rise of his political outfit, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in national and provincial general elections.
The July 2018 general elections were marred by accusations of pre-poll manipulation and vote-rigging. But those who understood that a nascent democracy constrained by a colonial structure would stumble before finding its feet were willing to give Pakistan’s new democratic dispensation a serious chance. Even the main opposition parties were cautious and feared that their non-cooperation could have brought an end to the democratic order altogether.
Therefore, Khan’s government began with even better support than two of his predecessors — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972, and Nawaz Sharif in 1990. All powerful institutions of the state were on his side, opposition was reluctant to agitate and a large part of the affluent middle class — having sway over both market and media at that time — saw him as a savior.
One year into this government, not only do we find all the promises made for improving the economy and governance unfulfilled, the path forward seems to have been lost as well.
Capitalism works in a certain way in a developing country, and the PTI claims it can fixed the system without knowing how it works.
The PTI’s rhetoric about curbing corruption and ending financial debt was turned upside down sooner than imagined. The cluelessness, and therefore poor performance of PTI’s economic managers appointed at the outset, brought their unceremonious ouster within months.
A late agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not only put more pressure on Khan’s government, it also meant the IMF could exercise more control over Pakistan’s financial decision-making.
In the name of bringing macroeconomic stability, growth has been stifled, currency is majorly devalued and markets have lost their trust. Hyper-inflation and unprecedented power and energy price hikes coupled with sharp decline in incomes of middle, lower middle and working class have brought extraordinary hardships on common people. Poverty indicators soar and under- and unemployment rise as a consequence of this economic slowdown.
On top of this, there have been major cuts introduced in spending on health and education directly hitting the disadvantaged. As far as public debt is concerned, a recent report in The Express Tribune newspaper revealed that more than two-thirds of what the previous Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) government had borrowed in five years has already been acquired by Khan’s government in less than one year.
Foreign relations and domestic policies
In terms of foreign relations, Khan’s government is finding it hard to create a balance between the US and China for its own benefit. The pace of investments and development under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is caught up in uncertainty, while the US seems to be reluctant in offering any substantial support unless Pakistan fulfills the role Washington envisages for it in the ongoing Afghan peace process.
Bending over backwards to woo Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the past year has brought limited dividends to Khan in every quarter, including support to Pakistan’s economic stability.
The Arab countries’ response was cold when Pakistan expected them to denounce India’s recent annexation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, where constitutional safeguards were withdrawn compounded with stark military aggression against civilians.
What Khan’s government and its backers in the establishment have successfully done over the past year is to systematically curb political dissent and constrain freedom of the mainstream media.
But those who can recall Pakistan’s political history —however chequered it may have been — know full well that muffling of voices eventually leads to unmanageable dissonance in the body politic that in turn erodes the very base of the government.
Need for introspection
At the end of its first year in power, what Khan’s government needs is a critical introspection in order to fundamentally alter its economic policies to realize the economic rights of Pakistani citizens. This includes alleviating poverty and increasing productivity.
The government also needs to better manage the country’s foreign relations with a long-term vision that helps strike a balance between global powers to Pakistan’s advantage.
Finally, the government needs to appreciate the importance of civil and political rights and respect for the freedom of expression, which are prerequisites to creating a healthy society and sustainable polity.