Pakistan's Imran dilemma

If you follow Pakistan with any degree of interest, chances are you've heard a lot about Imran Khan. If the press coverage is to be believed, the former cricket captain carries the hopes of the entire nation - particularly the young (who form the majority of the population) - on his shoulders.

There's little doubt that there is something different about the support Imran is getting. In Pakistan, votes are usually bought (one way or another), so it is rare to see a politician earning genuine support. But more than that, the buzz building up around Imran would be rare in any political arena, anywhere in the world. In the words of US political campaign strategists, Imran is transitioning from "politician" to "movement".

But don't let the likes of this cloying cinematic tribute

lead you to think that Pakistanis are waiting in frenzied awe to be led by "the Kaptaan".

Some of the best analysis of Imran's plans and fortunes has been done by Pakistani writers and bloggers. (The FT's editor in comparison couldn't resist trading in a proper interview for the chance of playing an over against one of the world's best fast bowlers)

The most popular criticism levelled against Imran by observers in Pakistan (and a fair few abroad) is that his populist stance panders to the fundamentalist fringe.

Let Ahsan Butt at Five Rupees spell it out:

"...allow me to say that Imran’s view on foreign policy, and in particular the war against the Taliban, are legitimately dangerous. His views completely miss the point of what the threat is, where the threat is coming from, and what can be done about it."

Observers and friends of Pakistan in the West find it difficult to imagine Imran - who himself was once roughed up by Islamist student thugs - could be sympathetic to right-wing, reactionary politics. If the observers in question happen to be over 30 and from a cricket-playing nation, the idea that Oxford-educated, "playboy Imran" is courting people whose idea of Pakistan's best interests involves wars with India and the United States produces a serious bout of cognitive dissonance.

It could be argued that politicians in Pakistan think that looking the other way to a bit of sabre rattling is little different to US politicians saying silly things to avoid looking "soft on national security". However, over at Pak Tea House  Yasser Hamdani, a supporter of Imran's Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf party (PTI), articulates the fear of many that this rightwing bent of mind translates to a position on the wrong side of THE core issue in Pakistani politics; the status of the military.

"...I feel threatened rather by a certain line of thinking – a line of thinking that still believes that the military has a role to play in Pakistani politics, that ISI and GHQ should hold a veto against corrupt politicians, and that some how the Pakistan Army is defender of some arbitrary ideological frontier of the country.  Sadly many of our fellow travellers in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also subscribe to this view."

Hamdani's is a cry for Pakistan's best political prospect to affirm the principle upon which he is building up the hopes of millions. For Hamdani, as for many Pakistanis concerned about the future of their country, a brighter tomorrow is not possible as long as the present alignment of power exists.

"The truth is that so long as this mindset prevails, no political leader no matter how well intentioned or honest will be able to dent the systemic failure which affects the democratic process in this country."

Nasir Jamal, writing for the impressive Herald magazine, takes the PTI and Imran to task for failure to grapple with any deep thought on the problems facing Pakistan.

Nasir quotes the party's secretary general, Dr. Arif Alv as saying, “Our agenda is the agenda of Pakistan. It is all in the newspapers. Everybody knows what the issues are."

"At a mundane level, why is PTI so reluctant to provide details of its programme?" asks Nasir.

Alvi responds, “We are not releasing the details because we do not want others to steal our programme, cut it and paste it as their own.”

Really? Cut and paste?

Nasir goes on to sketch out why the simple, generalised auntie-uncle logic* doesn't address Pakistan's serious issues.

Running with the secretary general's newspapers reference, Nasir makes the point that "Khan’s answers to complex economic, political, social and strategic problems seem to come straight from the opinions and editorials pages of newspapers and television talk shows. He wants to make Pakistanan energy-surplus and self-reliant economy by exploiting the country’s natural resources. That these natural resources require money, technology and elaborate political, administrative and environmental measures does not seem to matter."

Nasir points to the promise of solving the energy crisis as an example, "For instance, most of Pakistan’s natural gas and coal reserves happen to be in Balochistan and Sindh and after the 18th amendment to the constitution no federal government can extract and use them without the consent of the provincial governments. Does Khan propose to bypass such constitutional niceties, risking further distrust between the provinces and the centre or will he be willing to take the long and painful route of creating a national consensus on how to extract and use these natural resources for the common good of the country?"

To press the point home, Nasir goes on to complain about Imran's habit of quoting statistics and figures that seem to be plucked from thin air and using them to back up impressive sounding claims built on flimsy logic. 

He quotes Imran as saying; "Pakistan loses 3,000 billion rupees (about $33 billion) annually to corruption and in unpaid taxes; if we succeed in stopping this loss (to the revenue) we can turn the economy around, woo fresh investment and achieve self-reliance."

Nasir adds, "In an undocumented economy like Pakistan, it is difficult to say if his statistics are authentic but even if they are correct, doing something about them will help Pakistan only balance its budget — something that may be one of the many factors in an economic turnaround but cannot on its own put the economy on the right track. What about current account deficit, foreign loans, international and regional trade and, most importantly, a level playing field and an enabling environment?"

(As a former Reuters reporter, Londonstani can't resist a bit of rigorous economics)

Perhaps most worryingly, and related to the core problem of the military's role in the country, Nasir suggests Imran has a problem with the concept of causality:

"Khan pledged to remove the sense of alienation among the Baloch but did not say anything on the role of the military and bureaucratic establishment in creating this alienation, just as he did not touch the civil-military relations which lie at the core of many political crises that Pakistan has faced in the recent past."

But let's say Imran develops some serious policies as the elections start rolling round, the next stumbling block, says former ambassador Zafar Hilaly, is getting Pakistani officialdom to turn policies into actions.

"the one instrument for implementing policy, the civil services, is in complete disarray. Just about every human ill afflicts them. Corruption and “speed money” and people who delight in doing nothing and to say “nothing can be done” abound... The bureaucrats will resist change and innovation. They will find “a difficulty for every solution” and they know how to take “good ideas and then quietly strangle them to death... Merely tweaking the way the bureaucracy works will not do."

But despite all the gaps and questions, there's a deep desire welling up in Pakistan for Imran Khan to take the reins of the country. Hilaly sums up the desperation from which it springs:

"..in our peculiar circumstances Imran offers a better prospect than the others. To the desperate masses he brings hope and, even if his performance falls short... in the end we have to make a choice based on what we have on offer and backing Imran Khan is a risk I am prepared to take."

When Imran and his party colleagues are assessing their political fortunes, it would serve them well to remember that the support he is building is the thin wedge of a deep well of despair. Maybe soon, Pakistan's least-worst hope needs to stop trying to be all things to all Pakistanis. Pakistan has a long way to go and maybe Imran can push it in the right direction, but that won't happen until he answers this fundamental question posed by his own supporter:

"You cannot speak of a progressive Pakistan and also send a note to Jammat-ud-Dawa (the suspected LeT front) rally in Lahore. You cannot, on the one hand, rightly condemn Mumtaz Qadri (Salmaan Taseer's killer) and then have Ejaz Chaudhry (a party official) represent you at the free Qadri rally. Imran Khan, please choose, so that we may also not be under illusions about anything."

*"auntie-uncle logic" is Pakistan's equivalent to the UK's "taxi driver logic". Both are refined arts that rest on the proponent's ability to offer opinions in a manner that is inversely related to their lack of knowledge. The Pakistani version of this all too popular art form derives its name from the actions of older relatives - often the most advanced practioners.