Imran Khan has done it again. His 25th December rally in Karachi drew crowds of people and added more evidence that those of us who easily dismissed his party as a one-man-show may have spoken too soon. The unexpected rise of Imran Khan, though, actually raises some important questions. Imran’s rising popularity is largely attributable to his never having governed before – or in PTI-speak, his being ‘untested’. This is a fundamental part of his draw because his message is not really that different from any other political party, only with the other parties, nobody believes they are sincere since they have not achieved what they promised when they were given the chance. So my question is, do we have unrealistic expectations about what is politically possible? Is there any politician who can possibly live up to our hopes? And the corollary to that question – is Imran Khan setting himself up for failure?
After years of insisting that there was ‘no place for corrupt politicians in PTI’, Imran Khan himself recently discovered that ‘finding angels to join his party was next to impossible’ and has lowered the barrier from ‘clean’ to ‘repentant’.
When I point out that the ‘bigwigs’ who are swelling the ranks of PTI are the same bigwigs that have been governing for years, the responses I get are interesting. Some say that these people were always clean and virtuous, but were held back by the corrupt leadership of their former parties. The usual saying is that hindsight has perfect vision, but with some PTI supporters it seems more that hindsight is perfectly blind. Otherwise, I’m usually told that, yes, these people were dirty and corrupt, but Imran Khan will teach them morals and ‘clean’ them, as if Imran Khan is not an ex-cricketer but a holy prophet. There are a few still who say that, while they continue to support Imran, they are concerned about what the new, watered down version of PTI is going to end up looking like.
It’s not just what PTI will look like that is unknown. How PTI would actually govern is something of a mystery also. We all know that Imran looks to Allama Iqbal as his ideological inspiration, but who is his governing inspiration? After all, it’s one thing to talk about what government should be. It’s another thing entirely to actually make those changes.
When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto formed Pakistan People’s Party, he too had a populist message that spoke directly to the hopes and dreams of the people. He spoke of strengthening dignity and national pride while reigning in the military’s involvement in government and of restructuring the economy so that the natural wealth of our nation was more fairly distributed among all Pakistanis. Once in office, though, he found quickly that such promises are more easily made than executed. Bhutto help guide the country to great progress, but he made some mistakes, too. Some of these, like declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims, were clearly the result of compromises made with religious groups, while others, like nationalising industries, were simply part of the populist economic thinking of the day.
Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N was born in part from deals with the religious parties and military in exchange for the opportunity to undo much of the nationalisation that occurred under PPP and implement a more capitalist economic system. While this too made some achievements, Nawaz quickly learned that structural changes are much easier to promote from a stage than from the desk of Prime Minister. He introduced laws expanding the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq to appease his coalition, but when he began to work to repair ties with India by signing the Lahore declaration went against certain interests and even though he started his first term with the blessings of the establishment, he soon found himself in confrontation and, finally, removed.
Today, Imran Khan too seeks to compromise with the religious right and advocates economic policies like rejecting all aid and loans from the World Bank and IMF that are also likely to result in unintended consequences. It’s easy for Imran Khan and many of his supporters to propose rejecting all American aid. After all, it affects them much less directly, if at all. But what about the poor who rely on government programmes like BISP that are supported by US aid? Last year the Americans gave $85 million to support BISP. Will Imran and his supporters pay this much extra in taxes to make up the difference? Or are the poor supposed to starve in the interests of our national ‘self esteem’?
On the other hand, Imran says a lot of things that sound really great. Imran’s apology to Balochistan at Karachi jalsa is welcomed and a much needed recognition of the situation there, but changing national policies and stabilising the region will require much more than applause lines at rallies. He says he won’t allow any militant group to operate from Pakistan. He says that if he becomes PM, the Army and ISI will answer to him. He says he will set up an “e-government system” which will “automatically eliminate corruption from society”. He promises free legal aid, free health care, free education. He promises that the police will treat everyone equally – from the lowest magnay wala to the PM himself. The tax system will be reformed so that it is perfectly just, and everyone will gladly pay. He says that if elected he will transform Pakistan into a Islamic welfare state with a civil society on par with Britain.
The most amazing thing about this list of promises is that my otherwise perfectly rational friends are accepting them with the most delusional excitement. It’s not that I don’t like some of what Imran Khan says, it’s that even if PTI’s ‘tsunami’ sweeps national elections, achieving even a fraction of these changes during one five year term would be next to impossible. Even two terms is unlikely. And how long until the same people who today complain that the present government has been a miserable failure in its three years of governing will decide that Imran has overpromised and underdelivered? Will we then find ourselves hearing that well worn slogan that democracy is a failure and the military is the only competent institution?
Lasting change is incremental, and it requires changes in more than just PM’s house – it requires changes in our own values and priorities. We’re no angels, and Imran Khan is no saint. We have been unsatisfied with the inability of every government since day one to magically transform Islamabad into London “in my lifetime”. Imran Khan is making promises that he must know he cannot deliver. It might work to win political support as the untested saviour against Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, Altaf Hussain and the other regular guests. But what happens if Imran actually manages to get himself elected? Perhaps we should stop placing all the blame on incompetent politicians, and start thinking about whether what we want can ever be delivered by any politician, or whether we’re looking for angels.