Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has shown no ability to revive the sagging economy. Photo: AFP / Muhammad Reza / Anadolu

“We are up against a corrupt status quo.” Thus spoke Prime Minister Imran Khan while addressing a breakfast meeting with the Pakistani community on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As Khan was uttering these words, Transparency International’s annual World Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) was released, and it reported that Pakistan’s score had dropped by three points.

Though one can argue that Transparency International reports are based on perceptions, Khan himself used these same reports to settle political scores with his opponents when he was in opposition. Perhaps his only weapon, rhetoric against corruption to convince his blind vote bank, has been put to rest by this latest CPI.

Though any neutral observer can see that the political turncoats gathered around Khan are the ones who are benefiting from the corrupt status quo, he has successfully built up his image among a brainwashed segment of the masses that he is an honest person, and that by extension the people around him cannot indulge in corruption. However, this is not true, as Khan’s cronies are minting billions of rupees by creating artificial crises – the emerging sugar crisis, stockbrokers raking in billions in relief packages, and bigwigs cashing in on the wheat crisis are just the most recent examples.

In the same Davos speech, Khan indirectly accused dissenting journalists and media houses of being against him and said they deliberately spread criticism and orchestrated propaganda against his government. But he neglected to mention that the same media had projected him as a savior of the nation, and in fact it was they who had made him a political brand.

A man incapable of accepting criticism and dissenting views can never rise to the stature of a genuine leader. Of the hundreds of newspapers and dozens of television news programs, only two or three have called out Khan’s authoritarian style of politics and misgovernance, and of the thousands of Pakistani journalists and analysts, only one or two dozen have shown any dissent. And yet Khan cannot tolerate this, and media houses like Dawn and Geo News are bearing the brunt in the form of cuts in government advertisements, and even bans in certain areas. The same is the case with dissenting journalists, who are deprived of a lucrative career and are placed under visible and invisible restrictions.

Khan’s problem remains that instead of correcting his flaws and mistakes he wants to crush those voices who pinpoint them and who keep telling him that in a democratic regime no one can suppress freedom of speech and censor the media. In fact the Economist World Democracy Index recently listed Pakistan among the hybrid regimes where democracy is controlled, placing the country behind Nepal and Bhutan.

Meanwhile, no reforms have been instituted to bring the economy back on track; instead, since assuming power Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has used mainstream and social media to boost its image. The PTI government has handed full control of the economy over to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the only way it knows to collect revenue is to increase the tariffs on electricity and petroleum products, burdening the masses and inflicting more inflation and poverty on to the country.

A reformist never relies on the IMF or other countries’ economic support, and the sooner Khan can get out of this delusion the better it will be for him and for the country. After all, governments can never be run solely by doing nothing, and then fooling their supporters and criticizing the media and dissenting journalists.

With annual GDP growth of only 2.8% and a trade deficit of US$11.6 billion due to weakening export growth, the picture is very clear that neither Imran Khan nor his cabinet has any skill or capacity to govern the country or to steer it out of economic turmoil. This raises a question on whether such an incapable and self-destructive government can survive, especially in the background of rumors in the power corridors that Khan will be shown the door, as his backers are dealing again with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to replace the PTI in government and steer the country out of its economic and political turmoil.

The PML-N has successfully mended fences with the military establishment and as a result, it has seen some of its members released from jail, while others may be freed soon. Besides taking power in the center, the PML-N is interested in grabbing power from PTI in Punjab province, and it is even ready to take Maryam Nawaz out of the picture to appease the establishment. To explain the Maryam situation, a quote from American author Paolo Bacigalupi‘s novel Ship Breaker really fits: “‘I’m a chess piece. A pawn,’ she said. “I can be sacrificed, but I cannot be captured. To be captured would be the end of the game.’” Take Maryam out of PML-N and that political party is lifeless and nothing more than a “B” team of the invisible forces.

So Khan faces a threat in the form of a potential future ally of the establishment, the PML-N, in both Punjab and in the center, but instead of focusing his energies on governance, as usual he is busy blaming the media and the corrupt system for the failures of his government. He often forgets that this same corrupt system nurtured him and brought him and his cronies to power, so he himself is the biggest beneficiary of the “corrupt status quo” he decried in Davos.

The question remains: How can a prime minister who is himself a product of this corrupt system of hybrid martial law change the system or bring genuine democracy to the country? He must know that the powers who awarded him the throne can easily oust him from power, as if he can be turned into a brand and be presented as a messiah, the likes of Shahbaz Sharif and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi can also be portrayed as saviors by the powers that be.

This perhaps is the future of Khan and his failed political brand “Naya Pakistan.” However, there is no end in sight to this useless game of changing the political pawns every now and then as the invisible forces still remain powerful and invincible, thanks mainly to the PML-N surrendering in the middle of the battle and again bowing down to the establishment. All the major political players will always be used by the powerful quarters unless they refuse to be used as pawns. Until one of the pawns refuses to play, Pakistan will remain a country with a hybrid regime where fundamental rights will remain usurped and the media will be muzzled.

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