By Tilak Devasher
Several events in the past few months have eroded the hope that Prime Minister Imran Khan had evoked a few years ago of transforming Pakistan. Questions are now being asked about his ability and leadership to tackle the multiple challenges the country is facing.
Perhaps the most critical issue is the COVID-19 pandemic that does not show signs of abating. There are worrying signals. For instance, of those tested 20 percent were positive, the third highest ratio in the world. In addition, the government rejected the advice of the World Health Organization to adopt a two-weeks-off and two-weeks-on lockdown strategy to bring down the infection curve. Moreover, the lower numbers of cases being reported since the last week of June seem to have a direct correlation with reduction in testing during this same period.
In reality, the government’s handling of the pandemic has been indecisive and tentative. The confused messaging of Imran Khan led people to initially believe that the pandemic was just like the flu and not serious and later on the country was given the impression that it was past the pandemic. Now underreporting is breeding complacency. Worse, an effort is underway to shift the blame to a hapless population, with one minister in Punjab accusing the citizens of Lahore of being “ajeeb” (weird) and “jahil” (foolish/illiterate) for not taking the coronavirus seriously.
The Economic Survey unveiled on June 11 and the second full-year budget unveiled on June 12 showed how precarious the economic situation was in the meantime. Just one figure would suffice: a reduction of the GDP growth rate to negative 0.4 percent, even though the IMF had projected a contraction of a negative 1.5 percent while the World Bank estimated it at negative 2.5 percent. As in the past, the priorities of the government were to strengthen the military, leaving little for development. The assertion of the de facto Finance Minister in a post-Budget press conference that “I cannot say with confidence that it [the revenue target] can be achieved” demolished the entire budget exercise.
While the government sought to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for the abysmal economic performance in its second year, a respected English daily Dawn, on June 12, 2020, disputed this editorially by saying the period covered by the budget data “includes mostly the first nine months of the fiscal year, meaning July 2019 to March 2020, much of what is portrayed cannot be attributed to the disruptions from COVID-19.”
Compounding matters, in one of the rare occasions that he attended the National Assembly, Imran Khan referred to notorious al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a martyr. While many were shocked and wondered if this was a slip of the tongue, in reality this was very much in line with similar statements he had made or implied in the past. It only reinforced his admiration for Islamists and his image as “Taliban Khan.” What was new was that the assertion was made in Parliament and has now become part of the permanent official record of Pakistan.
Internally too, all is not well with the government. One minister revealed in an interview that rifts within the ruling party’s top leadership had damaged its reforms agenda and created a vacuum that was filled by non-elected members who were unaware of Imran Khan’s vision. The public airing of serious differences underlined that Imran Khan was an ineffective leader heading a divided house.
Apart from his own predilections, Imran Khan is also handicapped by heading a minority government dependent on the support of smaller parties cobbled together by the “selectors,” a euphemism for the army. The departure of one of the parties last week cost him four seats. He still retains a majority by eight but this can vanish very quickly should the “selectors” so decide.
Another warning shot for Imran Khan was the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry telephoning Pakistani opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif to inquire about his health. This is being interpreted as China keeping its options open.
So far the army has been content to throw its weight behind Imran Khan since he has allowed them to further consolidate their power. But the army will not be unmindful of his inability to govern, whether it is in tackling the pandemic or the economy.
Clearly therefore, all is not well with Imran Khan. His carefully crafted image is crumbling due to non-performance. His focus on accountability, which at one time was his strength, has now become a millstone because it is perceived to be vindictive and hinders working with the opposition during a national health crisis. Two years after the election, even his ardent supporters are now questioning their choice. The writing is on the wall. The only question is whether Imran Khan can see it.
(Tilak Devasher is the author of three acclaimed books on Pakistan. He is currently Member, National Security Advisory Board of India )