Some of the current regime’s more exaggerated opponents tend to be exaggerated. The funniest bit of hyperventilation is when some claim with great conviction that the current era is worse than General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship.
This really doesn’t make sense, but not because the protagonist of the current scenario is trying to make things better than the dark of the 1980s. The comparison with the 1980s is nonsense because turning down the volume of national discourse in the Gen Zia era was much easier than it is now. In an era with a seemingly limitless number of newspapers, television channels, social media feeds and an angry and underserved citizenry, feeble attempts to ‘manage’ national discourse only reveal the limited imaginations of the protagonists at this unique time in Pakistan’s political history.
The comparison to the Zia era is pure hyperbole, of course. The current impotent political opposition and the stalemate resistance they offer you, is a function of the lopsided incentives of the descendants of the raging political family, for they are the incapacity used by the current regime. But not all comparisons with Zia should be ignored. Indeed, Prime Minister Khan would be well served to reflect on how badly he has orchestrated his turn in running the country, as far as finding good people to surround himself with. Here is where the comparison with General Zia requires a deeper reflection. Consider the kind of person who made it into Ziaul Haq’s wardrobe versus the parade of extraordinary talent PM Khan has immortalized in Cabinet Division history.
For all his limitations, General Zia loves competence and talent. That’s why she has Dr Mahbubul Haq, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan and Sartaj Aziz in the cupboard. Now consider Imran Khan’s Team. Four finance ministers, none of whom touched the surface of the Zia All Stars. A foreign minister who might be described as many things, but not as a substitute for Sahibzada the Great. The planning and development function is divided into a retired bureaucrat, a military general, and the closest to Imran Khan’s replica – to the sugar mafia bosses being thrown at the opportunity. The best that PM Khan can call on is short-listed (Asad Umar, Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Shaukat Tarin), and none as enticing as General Zia.
During his first half term as prime minister, how could Imran Khan the Great compare to General Zia, and that would be too unfortunate? Partisans who continue to believe in PM Khan’s potential should now begin to reflect at least some of the reasons why such comparisons would be made.
In any Pakistani regime, five things determine failure and success. All Pakistani regimes are mixed pockets, and no regime has ever really succeeded (this is why Pakistan is a poor country with an inflated and irresponsible state apparatus and millions of fragile, thin and bankrupt citizens). The five things that determine the success and failure of a regime are delivery, elite management, management of religious sentiment, preservation of narratives, and external relations. PM Khan and his core allies in the post-2018 power equation have so far established an interesting track record of failures, with very little, and very negligible successes.
Let’s start with the success of this regime. On the delivery side, PM Khan’s compassion for the poor has been a major theme in government since 2018, and renewed efforts to serve the poor through programs such as the Insaaf Health insurance program, and the change of name of Benazir’s Income Support Program to Ehsaas. The program stands out. The Covid-19 support provided to individuals and businesses is critical in helping to sustain Pakistanis through the pandemic. Some of the changes to how the Securities and Exchange Commission and the State Bank of Pakistan treat cash flows, especially for the tech and start-up sectors, all reflect an instinct for sound public policy that informs nearly all of the long-standing passion of PTI supporters. .
Unfortunately, this is a short list, and massively overshadowed by a list of competing failures. Issues such as inflation, handling of Covid-19 vaccination, management of the Higher Education Commission, the increasing pile of garbage in cities regulated by PTI, all include the notion of ‘delivery’. PM Khan has repeatedly acknowledged his failure on the delivery front.
In managing the elite, the regime’s greatest strength is the strong convergence between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, so PM Khan’s management of the most elite among the elite is quite spectacular (as long as we consider this an accurate picture of the direction of management). Some of the business elite managed PM Khan, not the other way around. Some political elites are on the defensive, hoping for enough missteps so that those stronger than the Bani Gala will turn towards them (hello, PPP). Other political elites who still rely on the power of the people, without realizing how badly the levers of people’s power have been eroded by broadcasts and social media that are easily manipulated, and the judiciary and bureaucracy that are more resilient and soft than copper wire.
If most of the elite in the country appear to be taking up arms, it’s not because they hate PM Khan, it’s because they hate uncertainty. PTI devotees easily regret the nonsense of how this was because PM Khan fought all the mafias at once. The truth is that without an invisible political hand (ever present in Pakistan), the PTI coalition partners themselves would not even speak to the PM, or his often dysfunctional cabinet.
Religious sentiment in Pakistan has adopted a threatening tone, and although the government wants to keep the more toxic elements informing the national discourse, neither PM Khan nor his staunch supporters know how to deal with Barelvi’s ongoing and unbearable aggression which they themselves have instigated and pushing in 2016, 2017, and even 2018. Combine this aggression and arrogance with the buoyancy of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and a few chickens seem to be coming home to roost. How do we say cock-a-doodle-doo against violent extremism? No one knows.
PM Khan has maintained a single line item narrative on corruption, but most opinion polls, as well as recent election results are sufficient to show that only the most violent and self-effacing supporters of the PTI take the corruption regime seriously. That’s the price of treating public financial management like a topic that can be handled with passion like teenagers or ‘junoon’ uncles in their sixties and seventies who owe their interest in politics to Park Age’s beloved son.
Finally, the post-dispensation 2018 external relationship became a sine wave, constantly disturbed, swaying wildly and unpredictably. The fact that all the most vital relationships that Pakistan has (Afghanistan, India, China, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) are not managed from within the old Scherezade Hotel complex should be a luxury for PM Khan. But it seems that it is growing into obligation.
In the midst of all this, some were foolishly looking for a distraction that would replace PM Khan with someone else. For some, it is a desperate plea: “Someone, anyone. Anyone but Khan ”. But what magical power will other PMs bring to a system that is facing the profound institutional challenges facing Pakistan’s government? Nothing.
Even more stupid, this prompted others to call for the abolition of parliament altogether, and a reform of the presidential system. The last three presidential systems in Pakistan convey, respectively, the division of Pakistan in 1971 (thanks President Ayub & President Yahya), the establishment of religious extremism as a public good (thanks President Zia), and the TTP and BLA wars in Pakistan (thank you President Musharraf).
TLP is definitely licking their lips.
The author is an analyst and commentator.