Imran Khan and Pakistan’s Future

In his scornful critique of nationalism, George Orwell noted that nationalistic fantasies were a “distorted reflection” of actual events. Like broken mirrors, they reflected an imperfect and warped reality. Examine the events of 1939 from the eyes of a British Tory or a Russian Trotskyist, Orwell averred, and one would find three distinct perceptions of the exact same event. Nowhere are the illusions engendered by nationalism more evident today than in Pakistan’s caustic politics — a politics that will see its climax on May 11 when voters head to the polls.

A day before an election in which one democratic government will yield to another for the first time, the narrative surrounding Pakistan’s election has become reductively trite: President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party has mismanaged the state’s finances and foreign relations for five years; Nawaz Sharif, the strongman of Punjab, is the favourite to win the premiership; and Imran Khan’s PTI, despite its unlikely prospects, has energized millions of young and urban voters by offering the vision of a "New Pakistan" free of corruption and servility to Washington.

Another first this time around has been the messianic tone and stature underpinning the candidacy of one leader who himself is unlikely to become prime minister. Imran Khan, a former superstar cricketer, has attracted a following at home and abroad that would make Sharif and Zardari salivate. His charisma and perceived incorruptibility, in addition to the genuine belief Khan's supporters have in his “New Pakistan” vision have made him a revered figure in the eyes of millions; a messiah on a mission.

We should take pause, however, before coronating Khan as the savior of Pakistan. The deep frustrations Pakistanis have towards state power, abuse, corruption, and mendacity are understandable. Pakistan’s leaders have plundered their country, stolen their people’s money, and mortgaged their homeland’s future away to intelligence services and military officials foreign and domestic. Pakistan’s generals have fattened after years of subsidies and gifts while Pakistan’s people have suffered – a 55% literacy rate, an infant mortality rate of 61 per 1,000 deaths (placing Pakistan between Rwanda and Uganda), and a gini coefficient of 30, make Pakistan one of the most unequal and least literate societies on earth.

Khan speaks of immediately ending corruption, “depoliticizing” Pakistan’s bureaucracy, finally collecting taxes, reconciling with Pakistan’s Taliban, and standing up to the United States. Many of his policies are certainly noble, but Khan has remained mum on how such ambitious ideas will translate into substantive policy. Corruption is systemic across Pakistan and costs the state $2 billion annually, a conservative estimate. How will he extirpate the rapacity which spans the entire military-industrial-political complex?

Similarly, a mere 0.57% of Pakistanis pay income tax and many of Khan’s supporters and fellow political bosses fail to pay into the treasury. Will he coerce or persuade powerful frauds to contribute to the Pakistani state?

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The Pakistani Taliban, which has been on a killing spree of non-PTI candidates over the better part of the election cycle, sees democracy and elections – undoubtedly values Khan holds dear – to be un-Islamic. How does Imran Khan plan to negotiate with terrorists who have killed thousands of innocent civilians and Pakistani soldiers, and murdered secularists or the insufficiently pious who have exercised their right to run for election?

What will Khan do to protect minorities – Shia, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians – who have become targets in their own country? Pakistan’s blasphemy law is a de facto arrest warrant for Christians; the Shi’a are targeted so regularly now that their mass-murder has become grotesquely commonplace; Ahmadi Muslims and Hindus remain fourth-class citizens and Khan has said he will maintain the constitutional discrimination against the former. Surely, in this “New Pakistan,” minorities will have the same rights as the majority, or does Khan’s vision extend only to educated, urban Punjabis?

Between an energy crisis and an education crisis, Pakistan also faces a foreign policy crisis. Yet, PTI’s “independent” foreign policy – Khan says US drones will be shot down – seems most likely to appease the Taliban, aggravate the United States, and antagonize Afghanistan. The state Khan wishes to lead is heading towards pariah status internationally and his foreign policy seems to exacerbate rather than mitigate that trajectory.

Unfortunately, Khan has not sufficiently answered his critics and this is precisely the problem with those deemed messiahs: they promise grand change, galvanize millions, elude scrutiny, and at times, actually win power. But platitudes are not policies and it is very difficult to imagine even a prime minister of Imran Khan’s stature taking on so many forces at once and succeeding. Even if we accept that Khan will do what he says he is going to do, will Pakistan’s people be more prosperous and secure? This question has too often been relegated as Imran Khan’s charisma and rhetoric have taken center stage.

Messiahs are never harbingers of positive change. They are reflections of a perverted status quo yearning for any glimmer of authenticity and hope. I do not doubt Khan’s heart and like everyone else, wish to see corruption and terrorism end. But, let us take pause before turning Khan’s movement into a cult and continue to hold him to the same standard we hold other political elites. Pakistan’s future depends on it.

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