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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Imran Khan and U-Turn Policy: Why or Why Not?

Imran Khan in an interview with Al-Jazeera International said that 'Only an idiot will not take a U-turn' and implied that it is of no use hitting a brick wall and not turning back. But does this work when you are a PM? Will his policies be any credible?

As it appears, the term ‘U-turn’ has caught the attention of both the academic and power circles in Pakistan. Many analysts and politicians weighed in on the term itself and what causes it when the PM, pejoratively known as ‘the Master of U-turns’ broke his silence, when asked about his frequent U-turns, that ‘taking U-turns is a sign of leadership’.

One cannot but agree while recalling the fates of Hitler and Napoleon in World War-II and the Napoleonic Wars, respectively, in Russia—although it would be a simplistic conclusion. Many other examples from modern history as well as classical history can be cited as to strengthen the premise that ‘U-turn is indeed the sign great leaders and strategists’. Intransigence, on the other hand, proves deadly.


For instance, why would the mighty USSR withdraw from Afghanistan? Thanks to the sagacity of Mikhail Gorbachev and his comrades who foresaw more humiliation in Afghanistan and exercised a U-turn from the previous policy of to save itself from disintegration. Well, not from the disintegration as that would have needed a U-turn a decade or two ago but just from more embarrassment in Afghanistan.

If history should be the guide, then this guide is littered with countless examples that would strengthen the counter-premise that taking U-turn is, in fact, a sign of coward leader and not that of great and intrepid ones. That would make the debate between the U-turnists and the non-U-turnists unending. In our history, we have the Quaid Azam, who is recorded to have said, “I do not believe in taking the right decision, I take a decision and make it right.” Or “think a hundred times before you take a decision. But once that decision is taken, stand by it like one man.”

Not only U-turn on a single point, sometimes a whole paradigm shift is preferred when the status quo is not benevolent anymore.

It can be derived from these statements that taking a U-turn was anathema to him. However, we see that even he had taken a smooth U-turn from being a freedom fighter for United India when he was referred to as ‘the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ to the founding father of Pakistan – thus successfully vivisecting the very India into two (now three). Even as late as Cabinet Mission plane in 1946, he was ready to take a U-turn from the idea of a separate homeland for the Muslims of the sub-Continent.

Which brings us to when a U-turn should be employed? In the case of M.A. Jinnah, we see that his U-turns were inspired by the shifting circumstances—external events characterized his change in response. The same will be the case with most other figures in history. If they have taken a U-turn, they have done so, more or less, because of the change in external events. Conversely, those who have not done it have themselves to blame.


U-turn nevertheless is not a benign exercise. It is costly for a national leader and even more expensive for the chief executive of a country. This can be gauged from the fact that a single statement from the PM can plunge the stock exchange into chaos—to such an extent that the loss may be irredeemable even if a U-turn is taken immediately. However, U-turn, in certain policies if pursued more will prove detrimental, becomes necessary. Not only U-turn on a single point, sometimes a whole paradigm shift is preferred when the status quo is not benevolent anymore.

But that would mean that the previous policy (or a statement) was not just a figment of imaginations of a capricious mind rather a diligently thought-out one in which the input of learned (wo)men was taken, the possible hazards kept in mind, the stakeholders consulted and later presented. Thus when an irreconcilable change in circumstances occurs, the U-turn becomes a duty—if there is no other contingency plan.

Read more: PM Khan under fire on social media for his “U-turn” statement

Sadly, if the U-turns of the PM in the past three months are carefully analyzed, it will be seen that the statements—or tentative policies thereof— preceding the respective U-turns were nothing but unwarranted. Take for example his pledge that he would not take a foreign visit for three months. In less than three months, he visited Saudi Arabia twice, the UAE once, and once China. Was it necessary to proclaim so? Yes, for someone driven by populism and optics; certainly not for the one driven by reason and prudence.

Or comparing the approach of the previous government to the IMF with the ‘begging bowl’; while in power, first being in denial, later going for it. It clearly showed their lack of understanding of the real issues the country is grappling with on the economic front. Similarly, accusing the previous government of the curbs on freedom of the press; when in government, applying the same – or even more – censorship when it suits the power?

Let’s not forget his much-touted speech in which he forcefully defended the writ of the state vis-à-vis protests in Islamabad in the wake of Asia Masih’s acquittal; soon that transient euphoria evanesced somewhere in the air when we saw the usual capitulation of the state. In a similar vein, many a time, his government enacted—or promulgated—policies and later withdrew them.

In this part of the world, very few, if there are any, leaders have stood by and acted according to their manifestos. All seem to be the ardent followers of Niccolo Machiavelli. Show the populace the virtual paradises when soliciting votes, pursue realpolitik when in power in the name of ground realities; lie when expedient, be truthful when it serves the purpose; break a promise when expedient, fulfill it when it suits the agenda; criticize when in opposition, ridicule the opponents for the very same criticism they levy when in power.

Read more: U-Turn, a recipe for chaos and calamity

Taking frequent U-turns may be a sign of populist leaders but not of credible leaders. In fact, it may taint the very agency of leadership as trust become elusive when the U-turns become a norm. Khan owes his success to the fact that people considered him, unlike others. He ought to be different and for the better.

Syed Aftab Hussain Hashmi teaches Pakistan Study in a private sector school and has an interest in international politics, history, religion, and literature. He can be reached at sahhashmi92@gmail.com. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.