Start of Imran’s Innings

Imran Khan’s extempore victory speech marked an impressive start to his innings. One could see a composed and humble man with sincerity of purpose, who is all set to become the next prime minister of Pakistan, after a relentless struggle of 22 years. But he seemed less concerned with the past and more invested in the future. Nevertheless, it is important to objectively look at what he said and what it essentially means for the country.

In a nutshell, there were three underlying themes to his speech. Firstly, he tried to touch upon various concerns about his candidature. Amidst a highly-charged political environment, some feared a rampant victimisation campaign against Imran Khan’s political opponents if he ever came to power. Others talked about his hawkish stance towards India and a sympathetic posture towards the Taliban, while many were keen to see how he dealt with allegations of rigging. Imran put many of these concerns to rest. He adopted a conciliatory posture. He showed willingness to improve relations with India, but underscored the need to talk about Kashmir, the elephant in the room. And he graciously offered to open up any number of constituencies, as many as the opposition demands, for due inquiry. What would have helped though is to have a clearer stance towards the Taliban, but perhaps he wanted to steer clear of any controversies so early on.

The second part of his speech was about symbolism. He promised not to use the sprawling PM House and committed to opening up governor’s houses for public. He promised to start accountability from himself and his team.

Symbolism is not merely rhetoric and sometimes also brings to light what a politician stands for. What’s critical though is to have a real connection with such symbolic promises and then to follow through on them, or else they can backfire. Not only will Imran have to fulfil these commitments, he would also have to live up to his mantra of non-elitism during his years in power.

The third and the most important part of Imran’s speech is his vision for Pakistan, manifesting a clear political ideology. It is good to have an ideology, albeit a simple one, without which policy-making is often reduced to everyday firefighting, a few showpiece development projects or at best some bureaucratic or technocratic incremental and adhoc reform.

He talked about human development and social inclusion, underpinned by improved governance and strong institutions. Pakistan has had a poor track record on both these counts. Not only does Pakistan rank 147th amongst 188 countries on Human Development Index, it also lies within the bottom 30 per cent countries in the world on Worldwide Governance Indicators. But there are reasons why these deep-rooted challenges exist.

Improving human development would need redistribution of resources, which would essentially mean pro-poor fiscal policy and taking on the very elites who form part of all political parties, including the PTI. Similarly, years of bad policies have depleted capacity in the state institutions. Improving governance would therefore require a number of structural changes that would be difficult and unpopular at the same time, involving layoffs, downsizing and stepping on many toes. Moreover, a five-year term is too short to make a significant dent, especially with his voters’ expectations running sky high and an anticipated uphill political battle with his opponents. In fact, it will be quite tempting to give in to populist tendencies and play to the gallery to score brownie points with the public. And this is where the real challenge for him will lie.

Imran has set a high bar for himself. Much of the discussion now has to revolve around how he will make his vision a reality, especially considering extremely poor state capability, well-entrenched interests of various groups, and a looming economic crisis.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2018.

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