Imran Khan: Raising expectations and not meeting them

First, both choices are rather toxic — fans, often abusive, show blind, cult-like devotion to ‘demigod’ Imran Khan; and critics, often scornful, reserve instinctive, pathological malice for every syllable that he utters. Collectively, they deeply polarise conversations about him and jeopardise any fair and balanced assessment of his personality and politics.

I shall steer well clear of both.

Second, the most frequent loyalist justifications for almost everything that Imran Khan says and does are: 1) He has been a stylish, iconic, highly successful and internationally recognised cricketer and captain; 2) he is not known to be involved in financial hanky-panky; 3) he has championed and made possible major projects of philanthropy and public good; and 4) he is a man of tremendous fortitude and commitment. The fact that he has achieved so much despite starting as a rank outsider in Pakistani politics is ample proof of that.

I dispute none of the above.

My question is very basic: is Imran Khan fit to lead a highly complex and challenging polity like Pakistan? His acolytes consider this not a question but an affront. They fret and they fume. Then they hold forth with great passion on the rank incapability, kleptocracy, idiocy and ineffectualness of all his politician predecessors, barring, mercifully, Mr Jinnah. Such descriptions are often weak on facts, details, analysis and nuance. Quite inadvertently, they also end up reinforcing the deep state’s favourite mythos of politics being inherently corrupt and politicians being inherent scoundrels.

All of Imran Khan’s tremendous sporting achievements, acts of philanthropy and disdain for stealing aside – and I acknowledge that these attributes make him extraordinary – any additional credentials for leadership rarely come up. But then the contention is pointless, they argue, for all alternatives are putrid. The question remains, however, that though financial integrity is a necessary virtue for high office, is it sufficient to qualify someone as a leader of people? In other words, while it is a given that our political representatives ought to be honest, would we also want them to possess many additional qualities?

I have had the same debate with several honourable judges over the years in the context of eligibility for high judicial office. I maintain that honesty is a sine qua non – an essential requisite – for being a judge. Honesty, truthfulness, generosity of spirit, even-mindedness, moderation, etc, are necessary character traits for any respectable human but a higher, responsible station in life also calls for additional special skills, temperament and experience. Obviously, I do not want a judge to be adept at skullduggery but, apart from not being inclined towards theft, shouldn’t they also demonstrate ability, knowledge, aptitude, stability, foresight, wisdom, courage, neutrality and lots more? In sophisticated jurisdictions, all this is gauged and determined through multiple ways. But their lordships maintain that a person can be a great judge as long as they are honest.

Is this because as a nation we have been betrayed so many times by our leadership that we have very low self-esteem and little confidence in our leaders? We do not expect much from them — to the extent that we heave a huge sigh of relief as long as someone in a leadership position is not an outright cheat.

My analogy is that I would never hire an inept, dim, cowardly and/or emotionally unstable security guard who may well be dead honest. Unless I am reckless about my security or a death wish motivates me to be accidently shot. Just because a person is not a fraud does not mean he has all the other necessary qualities to be entrusted with high-state responsibilities. The loyalists evade this point. Instead, they retort that not only were Imran Khan’s predecessors scandalously corrupt, they also lacked any of the abilities that I look for in judges as well as in a prime minister. Furthermore, since Imran Khan is already prime minister, I am urged to move on.

There still remains a problem. Many Pakistanis have legitimate concerns about the fairness of the elections held in July 2018. Let us assume for the sake of argument that they are not all traitors, lifafas, noonies, patwaris, corrupt, unhinged or any of the myriad other creatures that the more youthful and less decorous amongst the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters brand them as. They argue that there is evidence to suggest that PTI’s electoral fortunes benefited from the deep state. They hear back that Nawaz Sharif was created by the deep state. They critique that Imran Khan and his team lack a clear ideology and a political framework and, thus, often contradict themselves and renege on promises. The retort they get is that Sharif and Asif Zardari are both corrupt. They point out that PTI neither appears to have any rigorous plans of action nor a capable team to implement any such plans. They hear back that Sharif and his stalwarts are all corrupt.

Unfortunately, there is little possibility of a dialogue here. Hardly any room for a constructive critique and no space for a meaningful discourse. And the reason is that anyone who does not unquestioningly embrace Imran Khan as the flawless leader, a sage and a valiant agent of positive change is immediately looked upon and categorised as corrupt.

While putting forth solid criticism, Imran Khan’s critics can also be no less exasperating than their ‘youthful’ opponents. For one, it is obsessive and patently unfair to perpetually judge him on every move he makes and to pass definitive judgments on PTI’s performance even though only four months or so have passed since it came to power. Perhaps the critics’ ire and impatience stem from the party’s excessive civil disobedience to bring the previous government to a standstill, its relentless demonisation of political opponents, its oversimplification of complex issues and the abusive culture allowed and condoned amongst its younger cadres. But when did two wrongs ever make a right?

Imran Khan at his Bani Gala residence | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Second, PTI detractors ought to honestly concede that almost all the problems that the party’s government faces – institutional decline, economic fragility and frayed foreign relations – are the direct outcome of inept governance by the very political parties they defend, if not wholly subscribe to. Let us also not forget our long-standing challenges of civil-military imbalance, the corporate agendas and turf management on the part of the deep state and a highly volatile neighbourhood — all of which combine to make democratic sustainability in Pakistan incredibly tough. To expect overnight miracles – even if Imran Khan and Co. naively or capriciously promised these – is quixotic. In other words, PTI definitely deserves to be cut some slack. Governing Pakistan is no walk in the woods as the party likely is realising now.

While being preoccupied with denouncing everyone preceding it for involvement in corruption, the PTI leadership has by and large been silent on how it intends to tackle the three phenomena that pose serious existentialist threats to Pakistan — the overreaching deep state, growing religious radicalism and the impending meltdown of the formal legal system (despite having the word insaf or justice in its name). Recently, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s excessive religion-inspired vitriol and adventurism brought about a clampdown on its leaders and cadres but no serious political commentator ascribes it to the PTI’s resolve. Instead, the consensus is that Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan crossed a red line when it abused the army leadership. It is also hard to forget Imran Khan’s past apologia for and his generally placatory approach towards dogmatic and at times highly aggressive religious forces.

In short, critics point out that he takes great pains to stay on the right side of the junta, the religious clerics and the judges. His defenders, in turn, question his critics (and it is a legitimate question) as to what choice does he have. They go on to cynically ask as to who among those who have survived Pakistan’s politics has not been compelled to do the same. Imran Khan’s critics, however, retort that since he has been elevated by his supporters to such an unassailable stature, surely he ought to rise above being a mere survivor like his compromised predecessors.

While these exchanges continue, reality once again remains more entangled. Admittedly, there appears to be no transparent and uncompromising way to attaining power in our murky political milieu. Arguably, this is largely true for almost everywhere. Perhaps, what is of overriding consequence is that, despite making certain not-so-insubstantial compromises, Imran Khan will look to become stronger and more self-assured in order to ultimately unshackle his own politics and thereby also unshackle Pakistan’s politics as a whole. Conversely, if he picks and fights all his battles now, he is fairly unlikely to last the distance. After all, others before him, more gifted than him, failed, were jailed, and were even executed for their troubles.

One sincerely hopes, though, that Imran Khan recognises these challenges and is merely biding his time to fight another day. For unless he is incredibly naïve or opportunistic, he too will soon realise how untrustworthy the aforementioned bedfellows are, with their entrenched ideological, commercial and political agendas and interests. Also, if he is perceptive and just, he ought to recognise that castigating all politics and politicians is not just unfair but also self-destructive. For one day he too may be unceremoniously cast aside by those who have historically controlled the state despite having no legitimate mandate to do so.

The mullahs that PTI opportunistically supported have already provided a flavour of how disruptive they can be. Imran Khan ought to know also that we live in even more deceitful times than those of Ziaul Haq’s because the way to attain the unconstitutional now is through the patently constitutional. The same Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution that appear fashioned from gold thread could well sound the death knell for his political career, orchestrated by the junta and rung by a judiciary that is beginning to resemble the judiciary of old. The media being muzzled under his watch will be too feeble to come to his rescue when the crisis comes. The survival of PTI’s politics lies in the survival of Pakistan’s larger politics. Civilian governments always live on borrowed time. Quicker the realisation, greater the chance of survival.

Is it all doom and gloom? Not quite.

All said and done we now have PTI as a third major political party – apart from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) – in the fray that can deepen political discourse and competition. PTI has already successfully galvanised various sections of urban society, especially the young. It has motivated more people to get engaged with politics. It has raised overall expectations, and for many, it has rekindled hope. It has brought forth some new faces though it still clings on to far too many jaded ones.

Similarly, Imran Khan was and remains one of the most globally recognised, and respected, Pakistanis. In his past lives, he has demonstrated will and perseverance, courted challenges and got the job done. He retains charisma, can and does inspire many and is not part of any traditional cartel of crony capitalism. The 2018 elections are tainted but there is also no denying the palpable wave of support that he generated that saw him through, albeit narrowly.

Going forward, it is vital for Imran Khan to change tack. Whatever he says and does from hereon ought to promote political institutions, culture, debate and pluralism rather than denude them. Most notably, he has to now venerate, strengthen, and empower Parliament. This is especially necessary given his past record of regularly undermining this vital democratic institution. He also needs to decentralise power within PTI, delegate more responsibilities to capable people and help the party outgrow the personality cult that it started out as. Not only within PTI, he also has to demonstrate unflinching commitment to decentralisation of power to provinces and local governments — which is the way forward to a prosperous and sustainable federation. Any ill-intentioned counsellors urging greater centralisation of power and rollback of the 18th Constitutional Amendment need to be firmly resisted — their counsel is blind to clear-cut lessons from history as well as contemporary global trends.

Imran Khan has to ensure the same fairness in political accountability of his opponents that he would expect for himself. He needs to spurn inquisitorial impulses. He has to recognise that mere rhetoric only helps whet the nation’s appetite. If its desires for greater prosperity, equality, peace and justice are to be truly sated, that would require a lot of seemingly dull but incredibly hard, rigorous, consistent and often highly specialised work. The sooner PTI graduates from words and claims to actions and delivery, the higher its chances of success.

A wealth of Pakistani talent is available to PTI at home and abroad. Talented people would happily contribute if courted and engaged with meritoriously, respectfully and professionally. Imran Khan needs to delegate, and delegate wisely. He also needs to be more considered in terms of what he claims, alleges and promises. The game plans and blueprints put forward by PTI so far are hardly stellar. Many in his team are below par, a liability, downright embarrassing or reek of nepotism — or all of the above. To survive and to flourish, PTI needs to pick a much more exciting and outstanding team that talks less, engages widely and deeply, and sticks unwaveringly to well-thought-through plans.

The time for politics of attrition is over now. It is time for solid governance. In many ways, this also means that Imran Khan and PTI should, from hereon, focus far less on his remarkable personal charisma and past triumphs. Instead, all that really matters now is sustained and dogged party work and hard-won collective victories.