The combined former opposition parties that backed Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister have been shaken by the size and age diversity of the crowds attending Imran Khan’s rallies. These are some of the biggest political rallies since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and in marked contrast to the crowd-renting rallies that have been the norm for so many years.
Imran Khan’s supporters have been described by his critics as followers of a sect who ignore the egregious failures of his administration that would have brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. It is an insult to the intelligence of the crowds who come to listen to Mr. Khan speak and/or follow him on Twitter.
A simpler explanation for Imran Khan’s power of attraction could be that the population is tired of seeing the same two dynasties in charge of government and is therefore receptive to following a political leader whose name is not Sharif or Bhutto. . Moreover, his accusation of an American conspiracy against his government gained traction.
Experience is apparently an overrated quality. Pick up any edition of the Pakistan Economic Survey over the past 25 to 30 years and you will find that the same issues are highlighted over and over again. So much so that you can copy-paste the situation analysis for a year and there will be no difference in the structural issues involved. The magnitudes of the three Ds (deficits, debt, depreciation) that have been the mainstay of discussions during this period are different, but the underlying reasons for the perennial crises, punctuated only by brief periods of economic stabilization, are the same.
Obviously, we have let the many crises of the past pass, otherwise we would not be in the situation in which we find ourselves today, where the economy is hanging by a thread. If the past is a prologue, we will be saved again, hopefully through a deus ex machina. But don’t bet on it.
As for the accusations of embezzlement against the former Prime Minister, one of the charges is that he wrongfully possessed and profited from the sale of gifts received from foreign dignitaries.
To shed some light on this issue, the Auditor General of Pakistan should be asked to conduct an investigation into the rules and practices governing official gifts and if and how these rules have been violated by any of the country’s prime ministers.
Before pointing the finger at Mr. Khan for using a helicopter to get to his office, which was a needless waste of taxpayers’ money, one must first personally experience as a citizen the torturous experience of wait at a road intersection in the sweltering heat for a speeding VIP motorcade – comprising a dozen or more gas-guzzling vehicles. (Ambulances trying to pick up the sick or injured or take them to hospital have a hard time.)
A cost-benefit calculation would certainly consider as a benefit the avoided operating and maintenance cost of vehicles providing a security escort to the Prime Minister; the cost of fuel for public vehicles idling while waiting for the procession is also an avoided cost and therefore a benefit.
Of course, unless one assumes that the productivity of those waiting in their vehicle for the VIP is negligible, there is a saving of time for the public who would otherwise be delayed by moving the VIP since moving by helicopter means less traffic jams on the roads. This can be assigned a monetary value.
A major advantage of using the helicopter would be the time saved for the Prime Minister to get to his office. Time spent in the office is undoubtedly of higher value than forced downtime in a car journey.
The point here is that using a helicopter is not inherently wasteful unless, of course, it is being used for unofficial purposes.
The former prime minister’s dismissive attitude to the accusation against Farah Khan, a friend of the former first lady, is problematic, however. To say in a televised address, as Mr Khan did, that the lady in question has made a fortune in real estate because the real estate industry has exploded over the past three years is a description of something that would not have could only have happened in a parallel universe. On the contrary, the real estate sector was moribund during the two years of the pandemic and is only slowly recovering. Anyone connected with the real estate supply chain in Pakistan will attest to this.
Mr. Khan’s appropriate response should not have been that the accusations against Farah Khan are politically motivated (this is the default position of the PML-N and PPP leaders against accusations of corruption) but to welcome any investigation just to prove that his business dealings do not involve any wrongdoing.
In the political history of Pakistan, there have been two politicians who have openly criticized American policy. One was ZA Bhutto and the other is Imran Khan. Bhutto publicly voiced his criticism of the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s, while Imran has been a thorn in the side of the US since it launched war against the Taliban in 2001.
There is an interesting episode described in Stanley Wolpert’s biography “Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan”. In 1966, President Ayub Khan on a visit to the United States met with US President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office. Bhutto, then Pakistan’s foreign minister, was forced to wait in the antechamber while the two leaders chatted. After the meeting, Johnson greeted Bhutto and made a banal comment about his future. The latter immediately realized that his days in Ayub’s cabinet were numbered.
Many of our politicians have obsequiously sought American patronage, so let’s not lay all the blame on the United States for its interference in Pakistani politics. For example, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, a few months before Musharraf’s 1999 coup, Shehbaz Sharif traveled to Washington to seek support from the Clinton administration to avoid an imminent military takeover.
Then, of course, there’s the infamous “memogate” controversy involving former Pakistani ambassador Husain Haqqani, who allegedly asked for US assistance for Pakistan’s civilian government.
At present, the country is adrift without a clear direction. The IMF stamp of approval with the concomitant influx of dollars is not yet done. Can the IMF be assured that with another election imminent, the Sharif government will be able to implement the tough political reforms it wants? Will the current government be prepared to bear the political cost of implementing the proposed austerity measures?
The non-renewal of Dr. Reza Baqir’s contract as Governor of the State Bank would also be a source of concern for the IMF as it raises doubts about the independence of the State Bank which the IMF deems necessary for sound monetary policy.
The political situation in the country is on the edge and could easily descend into violent chaos. Nobody wins in this scenario. But our country’s adversaries will no doubt be delighted to see this happen.
The situation therefore calls for a de-escalation strategy to stifle political rhetoric. The sensible option to defuse the situation is for the government to announce free and fair elections at an early date. Then let the chips fall where they can.
The writer is a group manager in the Jang group. He can be contacted at: [email protected] com.pk