April 2024

Khan’s resurrection

Old faces in the new government are bad enough but,  Pervez Hoodbhoy, the presence of former premier Imran Khan would have been worse

Liberal commentators, once maligned by Imran Khan as ‘liberal scum’ and ‘bloody liberals’, have nevertheless been fair-minded and have rightly criticised Pakistan’s February 8 elections as heavily managed.

They are part of a growing chorus alleging unfair exclusion of Khan and his PTI. True enough, but so what? Wasn’t that heavy management equally evident in the 2018 elections when Khan rode to power on the coattails of those who later dumped him?

Of course, two wrongs cannot make a right. However, thoughtful people should be troubled by much else, not just the travails of some politician or his party. Most particularly, they should be appalled that, instead of strengthening democracy, February 8 was simply a power grab and a horse race followed by horse trade.

When candidates appeared on TV, their language was crude, aggressive, and ad hominem. None spoke of plans for improving their community or country, or means of implementation. Past experience shows that many who become parliamentarians seek only to exponentially increase their own wealth and power.

In the election run-up, the PML-N, PTI, PPP and other rivals behaved like wolf packs, not political parties. Lacking defined agendas, they reluctantly trotted out half-baked election manifestos hurriedly slapped together just days earlier. Without details or implementation schemes, these manifestos are worthless.

imran khan
MANAGED VICTORY: Khan rode to power in 2018 on the coattails of those who later dumped him

Personality contests, sectarian and tribal affiliations and bribes were all that mattered. No party offered insight into preventing the impending apocalypse of an imploding economy, exploding population, and resentments in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. How is one to deal with desperate youth who have university degrees but no skills? Seething religious fanaticism intertwined with misogyny? Disappearing trust in key institutions, including the judiciary, bureaucracy, police and army?

Inadvertently, February 8 transformed the PTI’s jailed leader into Pakistan’s most popular politician. The iddat case: what a joke! Such clumsy persecution tactics earned Khan widespread sympathy. In 2018, the establishment worked hard to make him a hero; this time it did that by vilifying him.

Feb. 8 was simply a power grab and a horse race followed by horse trade

The future: we have recently seen convicted felons and politicians whitewashed and cleared. Given this precedent, one knows Khan’s release will come within months or years. He will be declared innocent of crimes that he did not commit but also of those that he did. When he claws his way back to the top, a dark age will descend on Pakistan. Several signs point to this dismal outcome.

Let us recall the reign of Emperor Khan from August 2018 to April 2022. Surrounded by bootlickers – many of whom deserted him after May 9, 2023 – Khan filled key positions with sycophants. This included appointing a nincompoop as Punjab’s chief minister, making a rank opportunist his closest confidante, choosing a crony general to head the ISI, and dismissing the HEC chairman on flimsy grounds.

While Khan ruled, religiously inspired terrorists felt strongly emboldened

While Khan ruled, religiously inspired terrorists felt strongly emboldened. Accommodating TTP fighters who had fled to Afghanistan, he invited them back to resettle in North Waziristan. A decade earlier, directly after the 2013 suicide attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar, he had requested the TTP to open offices inside Pakistan for holding peace talks. A year later, the TTP massacred 141 children and teachers inside the Army Public School in Peshawar. Khan was booed by grieving parents as he tried to visit.

‘U-turn Khan’ earned his unflattering nickname after breaking approximately 130 promises in less than four years. As just one example, weeks after publicly declaring Pakistan would never seek an IMF loan, Khan sent his financial managers to Washington to ask for one. When reminded, he blustered that reneging on earlier promises is a ‘hallmark of great leadership’. For those who follow a Pied Piper through narrow twisted streets, this may not matter; but people who value consistency and truth were unconvinced.

Khan’s tenure saw an attempt at further tightening of the draconian Peca law (now being used to suppress the PTI itself), a decrease in Pakistan’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index, and a worsening of the country’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. As the Toshakhana and Al Qadir cases show, Mr Clean was no cleaner than the chor politicians he viciously attacked for having pocketed public monies.

In the election run-up, the PML-N, PTI, PPP and other rivals behaved like wolf packs

The negative impact of the SNC (Single National Curriculum) is possibly Khan’s greatest disservice to Pakistan. For the first time public and private schools – all except those for the super-elite – were yoked to the madressah curriculum. The classless education he promised remains a mirage but education standards plummeted. The upcoming generation is being stuffed with religious materials but knows no skills.

In the minds of his blinded followers, as well as those who see the United States as the incarnation of evil, Khan’s ouster was an American conspiracy. At a public rally on March 2022, he waved a ‘secret’ document that supposedly was iron-clad proof of America calling for his eviction. But weeks later, he absolved America of blame while broadening the net of conspirators to include ‘Super-King’ Bajwa (whose tenure had been extended), Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

Referring to the PTI’s electoral victory ,Mani Shankar Aiyar, a well-known political commentator from India known for Pakistan-friendly views, excitedly declared: ‘February 8, 2024 will be chalked up as the historic day on which the people of Pakistan defeated their army.’ Given that the establishment indeed sought to vanquish Khan, is this really true?

At a superficial level, yes. Many PTI supporters did vote against the generals. Their anti-army sentiment surfaced on May 9 when they attacked and burned military facilities. On the other hand, Khan has never expressed dismay at the army’s business, commercial and real-estate interests, nor opposed appointments of retired army officers to top administrative positions.

He and the army are, to quote him, ‘on the same page’. His differences remain personal – some generals are for him, others against. Only animals, he famously declared, can be neutral.

An election fulfils its purpose when it helps establish a representative government; enhances ability to deal with issues such as employment and allocation of resources; and brings forth individuals committed to the rule of law, decency and public service.

Imran Khan’s re-emergence stands in stark contrast to these ideals, suggesting political maturity remains a distant goal for Pakistan.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer