Tuesday, July 31, 2018

SherAli Tareen - There's no reason to fear Pakistan's new prime minister

The lead-up to philanthropist turned politician Imran Khan's election as Pakistan's new Prime Minister generated copious alarming prognostications across international media. These vilifying accounts must be taken with a grain of salt. Rest assured, the sky is not falling in Pakistan. To the contrary, Khan's decisive victory represents a monumental moment in the country's checkered history.

The dominant international narrative, stitched together by self-professed foreign experts such as Indian journalist Burkha Dutt and Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, followed these lines: the Pakistani election represents a battle between puppets of the Pakistani military establishment, exemplified by the figure of Imran Khan, and champions of democracy such as the recently convicted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The corruption scandals engulfing Sharif, this narrative held, represent the product of a conniving campaign engineered and executed by the military, in cahoots with the judiciary, to punish Sharif for his efforts to mend relations with India.

Dhume, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, went so far as to say that Khan is "playing a fixed match," and that Sharif had been "railroaded."  No doubt, the monstrosities of the Pakistani military, past and present, are indefensible. However, viewing Pakistani politics solely through the lens of a pro/anti-military binary is egregiously reductive.  The Panama documents, which exposed Sharif's and his family's off-shore companies and millions of pounds worth of properties in the UK, were not the military's making. The ensuing legal saga that led to the former premiere's jail sentence lasted almost two years.
Dhume conveniently overlooks how during this period, Sharif and his family behaved criminally with false and contradictory statements, forgeries, legal obfuscations, fake letters from Qatari princes, and refusals to answer a simple  question: where did the money come from?  These shenanigans amply to demonstrate that massive corruption represents the only viable explanation for Sharif's otherwise unexplained mountain of wealth. Why would a person who has not committed any corruption try so hard to obstruct proceedings of law? That the properties in question were bought in the early 1990s, precisely when Sharif was at the helm of power, only confirm the corruption that enabled them.

Hence, skeptics within and outside Pakistan, who argue that corruption against Sharif has not been proven, are wrong. It is more accurate to say that the precise mechanism of corruption has not yet been fully detailed. The murderer stands in front of the corpse with a bloodied dagger; how the dagger entered the victim is all that is left to be established. 

The results of the election also mitigate strongly against the notion of military engineering. The outcome generally followed pre-election opinion polls, with the undecideds breaking heavily for Khan in the last few days. In fact, some heavy-weight candidates suspected to have been backed by the military actually lost. Moreover, voter turn-out was historically high, especially among women, and in the smaller provinces often disenchanted by electoral politics. 

Critics also suggest Imran Khan is dangerous not only because of being in bed with the military, but because of his regular invocation of Islam on the campaign trail and his close ties with religious groups in the country. This simplistic view is partial and misleading; it reflects a less than nuanced understanding of the current political dynamics in Pakistan. Moreover, it rather insidiously aims to discredit a populist leader whose politics do not neatly fit Western and Indian neo-liberal expectations and priorities. Imran Khan's popularity that propelled him to victory comes at vindication of his more than two-decade long argument that Sharif and Asif Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, the other major Pakistani political outfit, were drenched in corruption.

But a more important factor that explains Khan's attraction, especially among the urban youth, is the impressive performance of his Pakistan Tehrik-i Insaf/Justice Movement party or PTI in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwah (KP) that it ruled the last five years. The PTI's most notable achievements were de-politicization of the police, unprecedented health-care coverage for low-income households, record enrollments in government schools, and a successful drive to plant a billion trees. People of the KP province have never re-elected an incumbent government and yet, Khan's PTI not only won re-election but by a significantly bigger margin than before. Clearly, such popular support is not the military's work. 

On the issue of Khan's proximity to religious hardliners, this again is a mis-directed concern. The two central pillars anchoring his long-running position on militancy have been: 1) terrorism cannot be rooted out through military force alone, but also must involve political solutions through dialogue, and 2) the disturbances and displacements generated by the U.S. war on terror are intimately tied to the recent explosion of militant violence in Pakistan. These positions might be unpopular in some quarters, but they are hardly extremist or reactionary. Moreover, invoking Islam and prophetic ideals of justice is a common feature in Pakistani politics; this is hardly a cause for concern and criticism.

Though it is curious to note the disproportionate alarm that often accompanies invocations of religion by politicians in Muslim majority countries; organizations like the American Enterprise Institute seemed much less bothered by the compassionate Christian conservatism of a recent US president who waged a war that maimed thousands of Iraqis and Americans. Is this not hypocrisy? 
Given the massive corruption and fulsome hereditary politics that mark his rivals, it's easy to see Imran Khan's election to the premiership as a welcome prospect for both the people of Pakistan and for global stakeholders. 

What is corruption?