Imran Khan’s 22-year-long political struggle finally bore fruit when his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) won the July 25 elections. His victory has aroused great expectations that he himself created but fulfilling them may prove a daunting task.
The problem is not his sincerity; Imran (aka Khan Sahib or Kaptan/ captain) is sincere and genuinely wants to help the poor — his track record proves it — but the mess his predecessors have left him is truly gigantic. Further, politically he does not have a free hand to do as he pleases. He has been forced to accommodate into his party some of the same unsavory characters that he decried for years. This was necessary to get the requisite number of seats both at the federal level as well as in Punjab province for his party to govern.
Let us begin by acknowledging his singular achievement: defeating the mafia families — the Bhutto-Zardari combine and the Sharifs — who have ruled Pakistan for nearly 30 years. The religious parties, a blot on the name of Islam, have also been banished. The mafia families and their cronies have sucked the blood out of Pakistan. They have stolen tens of billions of dollars and purchased luxury properties abroad or stashed them in foreign banks. Western regimes and banks are complicit in these acts of grand larceny.
Not surprisingly, Pakistan’s economy is so badly battered and will take many years, if not longer, to recover. There is a serious balance-of-payments crisis precipitated by a huge — and growing — trade deficit. The mounting external debt compounds the problem. Paying interest on this debt is an immediate challenge for Imran’s economic managers that may necessitate stretching the begging bowl, yet again, to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He is not responsible for incurring the debt but he must deal with it now. This is the poisoned chalice he is forced to drink from. IMF loans come with stiff conditions.
There is a simple — and revolutionary — solution to this problem: declare all debt “odious” and refuse to pay. Much of this debt has not helped the country; a few families have stolen this wealth with full knowledge of the donors. There is historical precedence for this: when the US defeated Spain and occupied Cuba in 1898, the Americans refused to pay the debt Havana owed to Spain. Washington declared it as “odious debt.”
Pakistan could do the same but there would be consequences. The debt is owed to Western regimes and banks, including the IMF. Pakistan does not have the power to stand up to these loan sharks. Further, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) is not a revolutionary party despite Imran Khan’s fine rhetoric. He is also constrained by other powerful stakeholders that he cannot antagonize. This is the dilemma facing those who play within an entrenched system. They become prisoners of the very system they want to reform but are constrained in delivering on promises.
Imran has set himself a very ambitious agenda. His party manifesto calls for creating 10 million jobs and building five million houses in five years. Making promises is easy; fulfilling them is much more difficult, especially when one does not have a free hand.
The virtually empty kitty and battered economy are bad enough. The opposition parties nurse deep grudges and will play rough and dirty. They will throw hurdles in his way even if they do not have the capacity for street agitation. If the economic conditions deteriorate, as they are likely to in the near-term, the mega thieves (aka politicians) will exploit the people’s legitimate grievances. Those who have plundered state resources will not go away quietly; they will do everything in their power to be as disruptive as possible. They will align with the enemies of Pakistan — they have done so in the past — to save their own miserable hides.
And then there is the media, especially electronic, that serve the interests of their paymasters in Washington, Delhi, or Tel Aviv. They accuse Imran Khan of being either a crypto-Taliban or a Zionist agent. They are unsure which but that does not matter so long as they can throw dirt at him.
During the election campaign, Imran Khan was subjected to vile personal attacks. He refused to respond in kind. The vast majority of Pakistanis saw through the anti-Imran propaganda and supported him with their feet. Such propaganda has not stopped and is likely to intensify. Defeated politicians and their bought media mouthpieces will not allow Imran to stabilize the situation or deliver on his promises. That would spell their doom.
The captain’s most difficult test match has just begun and there are no umpires to prevent foul play!
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).