In addition to religious turmoil, violence and terrorism at home, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan faces a broad raft of geopoltical challenges - and opportunities.  Photo: AFP
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen as subservient to the military. Photo: AFP

Though Imran Khan’s first address to his countrymen as prime minister of Pakistan on August 19 featured refreshing candor and admirable pledges to work with compassion for the poor, striving toward the Prophet Muhammad’s ideal Islamic Welfare State, performance on the ground has been marked by bumbling inadequacy, hypocrisy and double standards.

Focusing rightly on Pakistan’s severe economic crisis and the debt burden, Khan promised austerity in governance, especially for those in high office. Though he moved into a smaller house in the Prime Minister’s Office campus, his weekend sortie by helicopter to his Bani Gala home created ripples. And the opening up of governors’ mansions, auctioning of a fleet of expensive limousines, and disposing of livestock from the Prime Minister’s House have not really set the Indus on fire in terms of revenues generated.

Though Finance Minister Asad Umar presented a supplementary budget on September 18 acknowledging that “difficult times call for difficult measures,” no major shifts toward “taxation of the rich” seemed evident, other than duty increases announced on big cars and other luxury items. These were actually offset by leeway given to rich Pakistanis living abroad.

Fast-depleting foreign-exchange reserves and fears of being lured into irreversible debt traps have forced circumspection on continuing Pakistan’s commitment to many of the ambitious schemes announced under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A Saudi ministers’ delegation has visited Pakistan but has not responded positively so far on Pakistan’s request for a moratorium period for payment-free oil supplies. Neither has any breakthrough deal been announced on a promised Saudi-funded oil refinery at Gwadar.

Difficult loan-repayment schedules lie before a beleaguered administration, which may force it to go back to the International Monetary Fund for another accommodation.

Cabinet formation ignored claims of old party loyalists, bringing in several former acolytes of ex-dictator Pervez Musharraf. Selection of a comparative political novice, Sardar Usman Buzdar, as Punjab chief minister surprised many heavyweight contenders. Several informal power centers have been created to hem in the latter, through the appointment of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) turncoat Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar as governor and PML-Q’s former chief minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, as Speaker of the Punjab Assembly. Though politically disqualified, Jahangir Khan Tareen, close aide of the prime minister, continues to hover on the fringes, ostensibly to manage Punjab by remote control.

Despite his known religious affiliation to the Ahmadiyya sect, the appointment of well-known Princeton University economist Atif Mian to the Economic Advisory Council seemed admirable and was even forcefully defended by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry. But pressure from the fundamentalist Barelvi group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik and other Muslim clerics forced Imran Khan to ask Atif to quit voluntarily, leaving considerable egg on the government’s face.

Though the prime minister promised an interference-free performance in his pep talk to bureaucrats at the central government and in Punjab, newly empowered politicians have continued to browbeat or intimidate conscientious officials and policemen doing their duty. This has drawn the ire of the higher judiciary, which continues to run berserk in its activist role, much to the embarrassment of a new prime minister settling in to complex tasks of governance.

The saving grace has been a politically divided opposition, which despite substantial numbers, failed to put its act together during the presidential election. The nominee of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Dr Arif Alvi, sailed through.

Subsequently, the Islamabad High Court struck down the National Accountability Board’s palpably one-sided conviction of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, setting them free temporarily on bail. There have been murmurs of a possible deal, albeit strenuously denied by PML-N sources, to soft-pedal any further victimization of the Sharifs.

The last word may not have been said in this regard. Nawaz Sharif is still in mourning after the demise of his long-ailing spouse Kulsoom and he may be carefully weighing his legal options on the pending corruption cases against him before upping the political ante against the PTI regimes, both at the center and in Punjab. The PTI’s current enthusiasm to rid Lahore of the “Qabza group’s” land encroachments may end up playing up into PML-N’s hands without hurting well-entrenched land sharks too much.

The other front on which Imran Khan has enjoyed succor is the comparatively trouble-free civil-military relationship that ensues currently. Having succeeded perhaps beyond their expectations in “engineering” the 2018 democratic electoral facade, the army leadership seems to have gone out of its way to extend all the required official courtesies to the incumbent prime minister. He and the other senior members of his cabinet were accorded an ostentatious formal reception at Army Headquarters and long security briefings were given amid due fanfare. Khan visited the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and the army chief has briefed him several times before and after some of his important foreign visits.

The prime minister was the guest of honor at Army Headquarters on Defense of Pakistan Day, September 6, though his remarks about “Pakistan never again fighting others’ wars” may not have been music to the ears of relatives of martyrs of Indo-Pakistani wars, who comprised the bulk of the audience. In between, on August 23, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of army staff, reshuffled his senior generals and corps commanders. Though he did not need to consult the prime minister for these transfers, the impending retirement of Lieutenant-General Naveed Mukhtar as director general of ISI has necessitated the charade of consulting the PM. Khan will most likely concur with the chief’s choice. This honeymoon may last a while yet.

Imran Khan’s forays in foreign affairs have been a mixed bag. He “correctly” visited Saudi Arabia first. The visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford to Pakistan witnessed reasonably fair optics but the outreach on breaking the impasse with India has ended in a disappointment, though not entirely of Pakistan’s making.

Imran Khan wanted to be judged on performance after only a hundred days. Perhaps the report card will read better at that stage.

Rana Banerji retired as a special secretary to the government of India's Cabinet Secretariat specializing on Pakistan and terror groups in the region.

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