It is like a dream come true – Imran Khan taking over as prime minister of Pakistan. A 22-year old dream, a 22-year long struggle against insurmountable odds, many flip-flops on the way. But everything finally ending in a signal victory.
The assumption of the office of prime minister by Imran Khan has many underlying symbolic meanings. The 30-year old stranglehold of a corrupt political elite has been broken and for the first time a representative of the middle class has entered the corridors of power. ZA Bhutto despite all his political rhetoric was a feudal lord, while Nawaz Sharif emerged as the spokesman and guardian of the interests of the business class.
During the last 30 years, Nawaz Sharif and Zardari did nothing but loot the public exchequer and transferred their illegal assets abroad, buying properties and setting up businesses in foreign lands. Corruption was the name of the game and misuse of public money was free for all for the stalwarts of the two ruling parties – PML-N and PPP – in the last three decades.
All state institutions were destroyed and mercilessly abused to fill the coffers of the ruling elite. Budgets were allocated to mega projects for quick kickbacks, while people’s basic needs – health, education, jobs, housing – were badly neglected. Agricultural production stagnated and the wheels of industry ground to a halt due to unaffordable cost of doing business. Exports plummeted and foreign investors stopped coming to Pakistan.
From a larger perspective, the vote for PTI is a vote against the malodorous anti-people status quo which benefited only a few thousand political families and their hangers-on. In the 2018 elections, for the first time in our 70-year history, people were offered a credible alternative in the form of the PTI and the voters went for it and rejected both PML-N and PPP representing the interests of the rich and the powerful classes.
An outstanding feature of the vote in the 2018 elections is the wholesale rejection of the big names which have dominated national politics in the last few decades. These include, among others, Asfandyar Wali Khan, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, JI chief Sirajul Haq and many prominent leaders of PML-N and PPP. Equally important is the fact that PTI won as many as 14 seats in Karachi, showing the voting preference of the Muhajir middle class now totally disillusioned with the MQM brand of politics.
Given the accumulated frustrations of the last 70 years, expectations from Imran Khan are naturally high. People hope that the PTI’s government would seriously undertake the formidable task of long overdue economic, social and political transformation. They hope to see Pakistan turned into a progressive modern social welfare state.
The challenges before the new national leadership are many and complex. The first and foremost is the economy which is in a moribund state. It is overburdened with debt so much so that it is not possible to make repayments without procuring more loans. The fiscal deficit is unmanageable and the gap between imports and exports has reached a historic high – around $35 billion. Our tax-to-GDP ratio at about 8.5-9 per cent is one of the lowest in the world. State run entities like PIA, the PSM and power distribution companies cause around an estimated loss of Rs3 trillion annually. Our public education system is in the worst shape compared to other South Asian countries, while the health services are in a shambles.
The incoming government has also inherited a formidable array of foreign policy challenges as Pakistan is in the frontline of many regional and global conflicts. While India is our perennial adversary, our proximity to China, and CPEC’s growing profile in the region, has attracted US hostility. Our ties with Afghanistan, Iran and the ME countries need very careful calibration.
Imran Khan’s speech after the election victory showed he is fully aware of the exigencies of the situation, specially the need for national unity to overcome economic challenges and bridge the political and social divide. Surely, without ending political tension and polarization, it would not be possible for the new government to strengthen the state institutions so that they deliver the desired results.
The Doubting Thomases and political foes point to Imran Khan’s limitations as a person and a leader, such as his lack of administrative and parliamentary experience and his inability to pay attention to details, his inconsistent decision-making and poor management skills and, last but not least, his dependence on electables and fat cats with a dubious past.
Imran Khan’s address to the nation as prime minster showed that his heart and intentions are in the right place. His basic honesty and sincerity to serve the people cannot be questioned. His simplicity as compared to the regal style of his predecessor is a good augury for the future. In other words, the waste and squandering of public money will be no more.
Out of power, Imran Khan built world class hospitals and universities. In power he can surely do much more for the people of Pakistan.