Imran Khan’s Pakistan is only for the military middle class, not for everyone

Instead of offering concrete suggestions for economic policy, Khan continues to rail against the alleged corruption of his opponents.

Imran Khan’s first address to the nation as Pakistan’s prime minister devoted more time to discussing ending corruption, improving education, and ensuring better garbage collection in cities. He said little about ending Pakistan’s reputation as a terrorist safe haven or how he might face the country’s relative global isolation.

The reason for Khan’s choice of priorities is the same as the reason why several members of his cabinet are individuals who also served in the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. The issues he listed matter to his support base, which essentially comprises the pro-military salaried class.

Most of them were comfortable during Musharraf’s rule and would be happy to be led to the lost paradise by an energetic civilian celebrity.

That is not to say corruption, lack of education and sanitation are not important issues. They are. But they are a result of Pakistan’s state of permanent crisis, not the reason.

Moreover, Pakistan’s constitution makes provincial governments responsible for education while garbage collection is the responsibility of local governments. Neither falls under the prime minister’s purview although his attention could certainly help improve service delivery in both realms.

Still, that is insufficient reason for the newly selected prime minister of a nuclear-armed country to speak like a mayor or a provincial leader and avoid addressing matters that interest the rest of the world.

Khan is the latest celebrity who has translated his success as a cricket star into high political office. That he did so with the help of Pakistan’s ubiquitous intelligence services and the military is not in doubt. But even if he had succeeded all on his own, he would have had the same handicap that celebrity leaders have everywhere else.

As Michael Gerson recently posed the question in The Washington Post in context of another celebrity leader, “Is the skill set of the celebrity suited to the reality of governing?”

“The culture of celebrity,” Gerson wrote, “elevates appearance over accomplishment”. In this culture, “rivalries and feuds are essential to the storyline,” and “it encourages theatrical bitterness. Instead of pursuing a policy vision, the first calling of the celebrity is to maintain a brand”.

Celebrities seldom get the scrutiny that politicians do before their rise to power. The celebrity, according to Gerson, is likely to use “the power of his office to pursue personal vendettas. Instead of yelling at the television when people displease him, he now has the power to hurt them in practical ways”.

Khan’s rise to power was based on painting his rivals as venal and corrupt. He has now promised to put them on trial for corruption. But, as Pakistan’s history has repeatedly shown, accusing civilian leaders of corruption with the help of a subjugated media is easier than convicting them through due process.

Within 48 hours of being sworn in, Khan discovered that his assumption of lavish expenditure on the prime minister’s official residence from the exchequer by Nawaz Sharif was wrong. Apparently, Sharif dutifully wrote cheques to reimburse his personal expenses and those of his family.

Other similar revelations probably also await. Middle class Pakistanis might like Khan’s claims about transforming the prime minister’s house into a university or reducing expenses on catering for official events. But catering expenses are a drop in the bucket of Pakistan’s huge deficit, and the gimmick of transforming a residential building into a university might end up incurring significant costs.

For several decades, salaried Pakistanis – soldiers, civil servants, doctors and engineers often employed by the government and their offspring who have grown up in government residences and cantonments – have been fed a simplified national narrative.

Pakistan, they are told, is a special country created by God and endowed with natural wealth and productive people. The common explanation for Pakistan’s relatively uninspiring economic performance is that the country’s riches are regularly plundered by corrupt politicians and civil servants, making it seem poorer than it is.

Every backdoor intervention in Pakistan’s politics has been predicated on the assumption that an honest leader can help recover the billions of dollars siphoned off from the economy and stashed in bank accounts abroad, although no large-scale repatriation of stolen Pakistani wealth has ever occurred.

It is not unusual for Khan’s supporters to talk about overseas property and ‘billions of dollars’ in Swiss accounts that would, if brought back, help Pakistan become collectively wealthy.

Instead of offering concrete suggestions for economic policy, Khan continues to rail against the alleged corruption of his opponents and promises prosperity based on ‘bringing back the nation’s looted wealth’.

But this narrative ignores the economic explanations for flight of capital or why corruption in Pakistan does not result in local capital formation as it does in countries like South Korea or China. Corruption is indeed endemic in Pakistan but it is not the only explanation for Pakistan’s economic problems.

Khan will keep his base happy with such nationalist rhetoric, while ignoring questions such as why the per hectare yield of its major crops is almost half of most other countries, why Pakistanis consume 34 per cent less calories on average than the rest of the world, or why the value of Pakistan’s cotton textiles exports is less than that of Bangladesh while Pakistan is the world’s fourth largest cotton producer and Bangladesh produces negligible amount of cotton.

Fulmination against corruption has become the economic equivalent of conspiracy theories explaining the country’s insecurity. In popular sentiment, just as conspiracies have made Pakistan weak and vulnerable, its destined economic greatness has been thwarted by corruption, not poor policy choices.

But a nation’s performance depends on sensible policies, not rhetoric and God’s special endowments. Even after Khan has improved garbage collection and put all his ‘corrupt’ opponents on trial, Pakistan’s debts won’t see a drop and exports and remittances will continue to fall short.

Unless, of course, core problems discouraging investment, productivity and exports are addressed. These include religious militancy and poor relations with neighbours, which have economic consequences that Khan’s base simply does not wish to acknowledge.

On the domestic front too, Khan cannot rely on his base alone. As US political analyst, Charlie Cook, recently observed, “Politics is supposed to be an exercise in addition, not subtraction or division.”

With a razor-thin parliamentary majority (176 out of 342), Khan will soon have to reach out for support beyond his base, which might entail deals and reconciliation that he has always decried. The deal-making began even to reach that slim majority.

Pakistan’s military leadership and the judiciary have their own crisis of credibility to deal with. Having put their weight behind Khan’s election success, they cannot afford to be seen as extensions of just one political party forever.

As permanent institutions of state, the judiciary and military need to regain the respect (or at least regard) of other political groups and factions and would soon have to reach out to critics to restore political balance.

Khan’s celebrity status might not prove enough to deal with Pakistan’s myriad challenges.

This article was originally published in ThePrint and is republished here with the permission of the author.