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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Imran Khan: From “Man on Container” to Prime Minister

On 18th August Imran Khan completes the first year as Prime Minister of Pakistan. His journey from days of street agitation to corridors of power offers an interesting glimpse into the man who may become one of the most important statesmen of the contemporary Muslim world, and perhaps soon a fit candidate for Nobel Peace Prize.

August has many important transition points in Pakistan’s history. The country was carved out of the British Indian Empire on 14th August 1947. Gen. Zia’s crash on 17th August 1988 ended a kind of dark age in the nation’s turbulent history.

Imran Khan initiated his famous “dharna” (sit-in) on Constitution Avenue, Islamabad in August 2014, and four years later he took over as Prime Minister of Pakistan on 18th August 2019. PTI’s initial 21-member cabinet took its oath on 19th August and so on.

Pakistan’s Middle Class has arrived

History cannot be understood or defined without reference to key events that shape consciousness. The global order cannot be discussed without reference towards the Second World War, Bretton Woods, Vietnam, and 9/11. Russians cannot make sense of themselves without invoking the terms Bolshevik revolution, Great War, and Gorbachev.


One cannot understand Modern Europe, without making sense of the French revolution. History in Pakistan is often understood in terms of the partition, 1965 war, Students movement against Ayub Khan, Fall of Dacca, Bhutto’s nationalization, Zia’s martial law, Nuclear Explosions, Kargil, and so on. In a similar vein, Urdu word “Dharna” has now assumed a peculiar significance in Pakistan’s political psyche.

Its meanings may fluctuate with all shades of opinion – good, bad, or evil – depends upon who you are talking with. But no historian will be able to deny that a ‘Naya Pakistan‘ (new Pakistan) emerged from the fossils of the old as a larva emerges from a dying caterpillar. Pakistan’s urban middle class had finally arrived with “Dharna” in August of 2014.

In August of 2014, Nawaz Sharif was sitting in Prime Minister House, and Imran Khan sat on top a container for 126 days of Dharna. In August of 2019, Nawaz is in jail and Imran Khan is Prime Minister

I say “final” because Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s agitation against Field Marshal Ayub Khan, in the late sixties was also a middle-class moment. It was inspired and led by the ideas of intellectuals like JA Rahim, Hanif Ramay and many others on the left and right of Bhutto – supported by the industrial workers of Punjab.

But as soon as Bhutto came to power the feudal nature of his mind overtook, intellectuals were brushed aside, workers suppressed, and the feudals of Sindh and Punjab soon dominated the party. But this time it is different.

Read more: Imran Khan to highlight HR violations in IoK at UNGA in September

Imran Khan is a quintessential representative of Pakistan’s middle class. At times because of his former celebrity status, his first marriage with Jemima Goldsmith and his house on the hilltop in Banigala, he is perceived as part of the “super-rich.” US-based analysts are often misled on this issue; few months before the 2018 elections, a respected US-based analyst compared him with Trump and thought that they both share one thing: they are rich.

But nothing is far from the truth. In 2005, I worked as a TV anchor in London with “PTV Prime” (now called Prime TV UK); we came to Pakistan to interview the then Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz, and we also thought of interviewing the cricketer turned politician who was becoming known for his radical positions.

We traveled on a dusty road to his newly built residence on top of the hills in Banigala. On the way, we crossed, with difficulty, a somewhat unruly, inhospitable water stream. After the interview, Khan showed me around; from his lawns, we could barely see a few houses on the hills around. “Why do you prefer to live in this wilderness,” I asked.

Read more: Imran Khan says he has lost faith in dialogue with India

Khan was candid; he told me that a single Kanal in E-7 sector of Islamabad, his other choice, was for three crores (Rs. 30 million). But he and Jemima had preferred to live in a large open space. “And people will gradually come, they will follow me here, this is how areas develop” he added.

The now-famous, and controversial, Banigala residence spreads over almost 300 Kanals of land, but it cost him little more than Rs. 1 lac per Kanal when he bought it. It’s a different matter that a single Kanal in E-7 has only multiplied 3-4 times in price, but Banigala land may have increased in value ten or more times.


Fast forward 14 years: Pakistan’s first quintessential representative of its middle classes has managed to become its prime minister and through a long drawn political struggle. Ayub, Zia, and Musharraf were also middle class, but they represented their institution and were nothing without it – fish without water.

Imran’s opposition also blames him for being an “Establishment stooge” – but they have chosen to believe in their own propaganda. Pakistan’s history has reached a point where the establishment needed a genuinely popular leader to deal with the world and to save the realm from total collapse.

The majestic outpouring of 25,000 plus Pakistani Americans, from all over the East coast of the United States, to catch a glimpse of Khan, at Capital One Arena, Washington in the third week of July was an expression of this popular support. Their enthusiasm cannot be understood without grasping Pakistan’s middle-class moment.

In many ways, this is similar to the political change in India; Modi, despite his narrow Hindutva politics, has risen because of new middle classes who despise corruption of dynastic politics and see Modi as a harbinger of change.

Read more: What’s Next for U.S-Pakistan Relations After Imran Khan’s U.S Visit?

Whether Imran Khan succeeds or he fails, PTI progresses as a political force, or it perishes, the fact is: wheel of history has moved on. This is a new Pakistan – and challengers of Imran and PTI will not emerge from the folds of Sharif and Zardari clans. These challengers may creep out from the disgruntled forces inside PTI or its myriad allies.

Pakistan: Experiencing Durkheim’s “Anomie”

French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, had coined the term “Anomie” to describe a state of agitation in the lives of individuals and societies. Durkheim believed that when a social system is in a state of anomie, shared values and common meanings are no longer understood or accepted, and yet new values and meanings have not developed.

In August of 2019, Nawaz is in jail more or less since July of 2018; his sons, his closest confidante, and accountant – Ishaq Dar – and many others are in self-exile.

Pakistan, today in many ways, can be described as experiencing its moments of anomie. The political order that was thrown up by the martial law of Gen. Zia, after 1977 – and that had comfortably reenacted itself after the end of Musharraf’s benign rule – is finally coming to an end.

With it all those polite values of political compromise, built around adjustments and bargaining – often referred to as “mukh mukka” – are vanishing. Old political elite led by the Sharif and Zardari dynasties and many in the administrative and judicial hierarchies took a while in absorbing this new reality, but now it’s becoming evident to them. The stage is being set for a fight unto “political death” or oblivion.

In August of 2014, Nawaz Sharif was sitting in Prime Minister House, and Imran Khan sat on top a container for 126 days of Dharna. In August of 2019, Nawaz is in jail more or less since July of 2018; his sons, his closest confidante, and accountant – Ishaq Dar – and many others are in self-exile.

Most key leadership of PML-N – including ex-premier, Shahid Khaqan Abbassi and strongmen, Khawaja Saad Rafique and Rana Sanaullah – are in jail and many others may also land there. Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam that looked like creating waves a few weeks ago, looks isolated and rudderless.

Read more: PM Imran Khan to make performance reports of ministries public

PPP leadership is yearning to strike some old fashioned bargain not realized so far. Failure of Nawaz Sharif’s last political move when his nominee – Senator Hasil Bizenjo – failed to dislodge Chairman Senate, Sadiq Sanjarani on 1st August, despite overwhelming numbers in the Senate, reflects the ground realities of this new Pakistan.

Failure in the Senate contest sends a strong “realpolitik signal” that now Nawaz and Zardari, and many others facing corruption cases will not get any reprieve from the system. The system is now being driven by an angry middle class and its amorphous, inchoate values. Many believe that progress has been denied to Pakistan only and only because of the corruption of its elite.

Imran Khan has successfully engaged Pakistan’s stakeholders – Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, Turkey and Malaysia – and built trust in Washington

Most proponents of these ideas are under thirty years of age, are unemployed or have worked at best for few years; their incomes often fall below the tax nets, and they believe things will change through strict action against the rich especially those not paying their taxes. While there are serious elements of truth in this narrative, it is not the whole story.

The country suffers from underperformance in several areas including school and college education, industrial and managerial skill sets, and so on. Concept of wealth generation through intelligent ideas, creativity, skilled workforce, and pro-business government policies is not understood.

Read more: PM Imran Khan expected to visit Kabul soon

Most sections of the government bureaucracy are used to 9 am to 5 pm jobs, they have never produced a winning product and few winning policies, yet the government is hugely involved in industry and services- almost all loss-making. If you watch Pakistani TV news and political talk shows, it appears that country has lots of wealth hidden around or abroad in Switzerland, and the government merely has to take decisive honest steps to dig it out or discover.

Even sober people, in Pakistan, believe that if the government manages to accomplish its declared task of collecting Rs. 5.5 trillion of taxes before the end of the fiscal year, it will achieve nirvana and rest will take care of itself. In reality, even if the government achieves its tax targets, it will only be fixing its own balance of payment problem; its expenses will still be almost Rs. 2 trillion more than its declared ability to collect.

Very little, if any debate is taking place around the questions: How will the near collapsed state of trade and commerce turn around? How will Pakistani exporters make competitive products; how the government will reduce its huge expenses, its unproductive footprint into the economy? How will the country get rid of loss-making enterprises?


How can Pakistani youth be imparted meaningful skills? How will we renegotiate the bad contracts of “capacity payments” with Independent Power Producers? How do we overcome the recurring scourge of “circular debt”? At times PTI supporters get angry when someone pointedly asks these questions.

Such are now the pressures for conformity that this is perceived as lack of patriotism or loss of faith. It reminds me of American writer, Walter Lippman’s now immortalized words: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much”

So, while the political success so far – and it has not been a mean achievement – has depended upon the spirit of ambitious, over-optimistic, angry young middle class, this now also carries the seed of disappointment, political instability, chaos, and failure –and if not managed well, then growing fascism.

Read more: Living up to his promises: Imran Khan saved 10 Crore in US trip

Opposition: its strength and its weakness

Imran Khan’s opposition – mainly PML-N & PPP – could not have been in worse shape. Their key leaders are either under arrest, facing serious investigations of graft or have gone underground keeping a low profile. Yet, this fragmented opposition derives its strength from the economic crisis Pakistan now faces.

Concept of wealth generation through intelligent ideas, creativity, skilled workforce, and pro-business government policies is not understood.

In May of this year, PML-N leadership brought out a kind of white paper titled “PML-N vs. PTI.” They compared PML-N’s last year in power (till May 2018) with PTI’s 9 months of rule on facts of tax revenue growth, current expenditure, public sector development programs (PSDP), rupee devaluation, prices of major consumer products, monthly inflation, gross public debt, foreign debt, GDP growth rate and policy rate.

PML-N leaders used data from the State Bank of Pakistan, Federal Board of Revenue and Ministry of Finance to blame Khan’s government for creating an absolute mess; multiplying country’s debt as a result of devaluation, reducing its GDP from around $330 billion to approximately $250 billion, destroying its industrial productivity, trade cycle, and market confidence.

Read more: Imran Khan defeated Indian agenda: US-Pak relations reestablished

The argument is that Imran as a chief executive and PTI as a party are incompetent and inexperienced; they should have rushed to the IMF in August of 2018, should have continued with import driven growth model supported through external financing and internal borrowing – and could have managed with a minimum controlled devaluation of Pakistani rupee.

“The United States, China and India are all heavily leveraged, there is nothing wrong in raising public debt, as long as the economy continues to grow” they argue. Some economists, many businesspeople, and diplomats of key countries also support this contention. In July issue of this magazine, Mohammad Zubair, ex-Governor Sindh and former privatization minister in the PML-N government wrote a scathing analysis of PTI government building on the same theme.

But PTI supporters, most independent economists and international institutions working inside Pakistan blame PML-N and PPP’s fiscal mismanagement, and overall bad governance, for the economic crisis Pakistan now faces. Economics is far from being an exact science. Economists and bankers seldom agree with each other.

The government faces multiple challenges on several fronts, but it continues to open new fronts creating new enemies.

It is said that if there are two economists in a room, then there are at least three strong opinions. Most economists of Pakistan have a near consensus that import and debt-driven economic growth model of PML-N (growth rates of 5-6% cited by PML-N) was not possible in the circumstances which existed in August of 2018 – when PTI took over from the interim government.

While PML-N’s critique may not be sound, and PTI government may have inherited a mess created by the 10-year mismanagement of PPP and PMLN, yet the economic crisis Pakistani citizens and businesses now face is humungous. And its effects upon general population so painful that it will continue to present opportunities to a fragmented opposition to find new leaders and stage a come-back.

Britain tried to introduce a similar ID card through an Act of Parliament in 2006, but under growing public opposition from human rights activists, lawyers, academics, security experts and politicians it was scrapped in 2010

Khan’s government’s handling of its opponents, media and public policy issues at times is also patently unwise. The government faces multiple challenges on several fronts, but it continues to open new fronts creating new enemies. For instance, the way it is dealing with traders on the issues of sales tax and national identity card is amusing.

While documenting B2B transactions between manufacturers, suppliers, and the traders makes perfect sense; Pakistan has now become the first country on the planet where any natural citizen making a purchase of more than Rs. 50,000 ($312) will have to deposit his National Identity Card (CNIC) as proof of purchase.

Read more: PTI is responsible for Pakistan’s economic mess..?

While government and its middle-class supporters continue to offer myriad economic explanations (streamlining taxes, increasing documentation) for this bizarre decision, the Orwellian nature of control it offers a state upon its citizens is patently obvious.

In Pakistan’s peculiar political atmosphere – driven by fears of terrorism, slogans of anti-corruption and taxes – few realize that overuse of the National Identity Card, as an absolute tool of control upon citizens, is becoming ridiculous.

Britain tried to introduce a similar ID card through an Act of Parliament in 2006, but under growing public opposition from human rights activists, lawyers, academics, security experts and politicians it was scrapped in 2010, and all data was destroyed.

But then perhaps Britain – a big perhaps –as a political and social order – has never experienced the kind of existential fears, Pakistanis continue to suffer.

Read more: Imran Khan meets Pompeo: Discusses regional peace, border security

Imran Khan’s challenge

PTI supporters argue that in less than 12 months, Khan government has reduced current account deficit by around 30 percent, trade deficit by 14 percent, has initiated a crackdown on money laundering, electricity, and gas theft and has pushed hard on accountability drive, has retrieved state land worth hundreds of billions and has pushed back against sectarian organizations like TLP creating an atmosphere where long-pending cases like Asiya Bibi can be amicably resolved.

Imran Khan journey

They point out that Imran’s government is implementing an Rs. 100 billion development package for tribal areas (erstwhile FATA), has held peaceful elections there and launched pro-poor schemes like “Ehsas program” to provide a safety net and “Panahgah” to provide shelters for the homeless and expanded the Health Card to around 80 million Pakistanis.

And why forget he has successfully engaged Pakistan’s stakeholders – Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, Turkey and Malaysia – and built trust in Washington, earning rare plaudits from a US President and Senate. He boldly defended Pakistan against Indian aggression and then delivered peace to South Asia and the world when he gracefully returned the captured Indian pilot, Abhinandan.

Read more: Mike Pompeo to Imran Khan: ‘You were a rockstar at Capital One Arena’

Khan’s critics repeatedly argue that the prime minister has little experience and he is learning on the job. But the kind of challenges, Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister faces are unique, and there was no way he or anyone could have been trained to handle all this. As a young officer in 1797, Napoleon had no idea how to conquer Europe – he learned on the job.

Imran Khan has to fight the Sharif and Zardari clans and their supporters inside the system – including powerful media barons – because his vision of a clean “Naya Pakistan”, which he has sold to his supporters, cannot be achieved if those who savagely abused the public office are allowed back into politics –through a process of legal sanitization.

Imran Khan journey

He has to fight big business, corporations, traders, and tax machinery because he has to resolve his balance of payments and has to meet his recurring commitments with the IMF. He has to deliver on Afghanistan to keep Washington in good humor to ease tensions built around FATF, IMF, and India. He has to tame Pakistan’s Jihadi spirit at a time when Modi government is deliberately creating tensions in Kashmir.

Read more: Imran Khan in US: Foreign Aid is a curse on Pakistan

He has to court Washington while keeping Beijing close to his heart. And he has to find ways – no one knows how – to stimulate the economy, build business confidence, increase transactions, restrain FBR harassment of businessmen, collect taxes, and generate jobs. Perhaps most importantly, he has to continue telling his desperate supporters and his ruthless critics with a poker face that “good times are around the corner.”

But he has to do more to earn his place in history. At a time when minorities are being mob lynched across India, he has shown the strength to stand for Pakistan’s Hindu, Christian and Sikh minorities – his wholehearted support to Kartarpur initiative has already eased tensions across Punjab. Liberals have been miserly in not sufficiently praising him, but he has put the genie of TLP (Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan) into a bottle – though admittedly there is much more to be done.

He has initiated schemes for the promotion of tourism, and for “Clean and Green Pakistan” but he has to do more to secure the environment in this region. He has inaugurated Mohmand Dam, but he has to speed up work on dams and preservation of aqueous resources to save millions from a water-deprived future.

And finally, he has to find intelligent, out of the box, ways to engage Modi and Yogi Adityanath’s India driven mad by reactionary forces of Hindutva. Trump – for reasons not fully understood – has already created an impetus in this direction. If Imran Khan delivers on half of these challenges, we should demand universities in Pakistan, UK, and the US to recommend him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Moeed Pirzada is Editor Global Village Space; he is also a prominent TV Anchor and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. Pirzada studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. He has been a participant in Chaophraya Dialogue, and at Salzburg Forum and has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University, FCCU, LUMS, USIP, Middle East Institute and many others. Twitter: MoeedNj