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No prime minister in Pakistan has completed a full term in office. Seen through this chequered lens, Imran Khan’s ouster has only re-affirmed the difficulties associated with bringing stability to a complex society still consumed by its past to fully realize its potential. Amid high constitutional drama, a heated no-confidence motion reached its denouement with Khan ignominiously sent back to the pavilion. As opposition parties contemplate a reset in Pakistan, this remains of profound importance not just domestically but beyond its shores.

The irony is that a man who came to power to usher a ‘Naya Pakistan’ that focused on transparency was accused of presiding as an autocrat. To be fair to Khan’s PTI government though, it did a creditable job of battling the pandemic. The introduction of a public health insurance scheme was a key success. The launch of the Ehsaas programme, a welfare scheme aimed at social safety and poverty alleviation was also a flagship achievement. Khan did deliver on some key manifesto promises.

That said, there was scant regard for dissenting voices with a crackdown on journalists and contrarian views. The ‘Press Freedom Index’ published by Reporters Without Borders ranked Pakistan a lowly 145 noting with concern that the influence of the ‘military establishment which cannot stand independent journalism…increased dramatically since Imran Khan became prime minister’. For all the rhetoric about openness, there was a spike in nepotism and corruption. Pakistan plummeted to a lowly 140 in the Corruptions Perception Index published by Transparency International, which examines how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be. It confused the latte-sipping Lahore glitterati who expected him to step forward as a bastion of liberalism. The truth was that Khan remained content to push a socially repressive agenda and was reluctant to displease religious leaders.

The old adage, ‘it’s the economy stupid’ was another key factor behind discontent. Reeling from a slump characterized by inflation, low growth and unemployment, Khan reverted to familiar tropes blaming outsiders but unable to articulate a coherent economic plan. Posing as a supplicant before the IMF dented national pride. The recent pivot towards a more studied foreign policy neutrality was fascinating, as was the more open admiration of India’s approach but by then Khan lacked the political goodwill to make it count. Instead, visiting Putin just as Russia was about to mount its incursion into Ukraine felt leaden-footed. The final straw—as is the case for Pakistani politicians—came with a breakdown of relations with the army. The aphorism goes that in most countries, the state has an army; in Pakistan, the army has a state. So, when General Bajwa allegedly fell-out with Khan, the game was up.

The broader lesson from Khan’s downfall which should resonate beyond Pakistan is that the cult of personality that elevates an individual above institutional norms inevitably fails. Khan made little attempt to strengthen institutional pillars of governance. In this, he turned out to merely follow a strongman template practiced by Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Edrogan amongst others. But sustainable progress in a democracy demands that focus is given to procedural fairness, having appropriate checks and balances, and respecting dissenting views. Unfortunately, Khan showed little regard for such priorities.

What lies ahead then? As the baton looks to pass on to Shehbaz Sharif, the wheel seems to have come full circle. But it seems unclear if an unwieldy coalition of PML-N, PPP and a cohort of religious ideologues can harmoniously survive for the long-term. As the Sharif and Bhutto families return to their traditional roles at the top table, a ‘cornered’ Imran’s warning about early elections should not be discounted. Forecasters should price-in some uncertainty.

In the long run, key structural challenges remain. First, there has been a history of populism in Pakistan which hasn’t been accompanied by a grown-up economic discourse. From the days of Zulfiqar Bhutto’s ‘Islamic Socialism’ to Imran Khan’s welfare schemes, they have inevitably been funded by borrowing. Prudent fiscal management and economic liberalism has seldom factored in public discourse. But it remains the key to attracting investment and unlocking growth.

Second, in a nation as diverse as Pakistan with varied cultural, social and religious traditions, successive governments have struggled to articulate a coherent organizing vision that amounts to more than blatant jingoism. This is clearly a challenge shared across the sub-continent. But the goal remains to prioritize social development and economic self-interest above all other ideological concerns. Third, the elephant in the room remains India. Allied to a discussion about prioritizing economic self-interest, there is a rational case for de-escalating tension with India by speaking the language of commerce and diplomacy. If a mercantilist Shehbaz Sharif can make an overture to Narendra Modi, that would be an astute statesmanship move.

The path ahead is unlikely to be straightforward. In a society bedevilled by religious-military-feudal settlements, reforms will seldom follow a straight line path. But the hope remains that public sentiment from within prompts changes. If Pakistan is to realize its potential, then it must approach the future with open mindedness and inclusion, leaving aside the weight of the past. Only then will the familiar chorus of ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ have true meaning.

 

Rishabh Bhandari is a London based lawyer and political commentator.

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