Imran Khan completed 100 days as the prime minister of Pakistan on November 28. What have been his accomplishments, what is the direction he has set Pakistan on and how will he be judged in the future?
Imran Khan started with several advantages, including an undoubted political capital based on his honesty, his relentless campaign against corruption and his continuing popularity. He also has the certain backing of the “establishment” whose political engineering enabled him to become the prime minister in the first place.
However, Khan also suffers from major handicaps. The key among these are the grand promises he made in the run-up to the elections and thereafter. These include 10 million jobs, 5 million housing units, universal education and healthcare, a south Punjab province and police and civil service reforms. As he is finding out, such promises are just not possible to fulfil in the short term. His rhetoric while in Opposition has also come back to haunt him: “I prefer committing suicide than going to the IMF”; “In two days, $200 billion will come back to Pakistan.”
The populist and flawed approach to governance is evidenced by the fact that the grand housing scheme mentioned earlier is estimated to cost around $180 billion or 60 per cent of the country’s GDP but there is no explanation about where the money will come from. Similarly, the plan to crowd-fund the $ 12 billion Diamer-Bhasha Dam has brought ridicule since at the current rate of donations, it would take more than 100 years to raise the funds required.
Imran Khan has also resorted to several “U” turns on policy pronouncements and actions, something that he sought to justify as a hallmark of leadership. These include visiting Saudi Arabia twice and China, Malaysia and UAE once flouting his own assertion of not travelling abroad for the first three months; using special planes for foreign tours despite assertions that he would not; announcing citizenship for all Pakistan-born refugees of Afghanistan and Bangladeshi origins and backtracking later, saying that no decision had been taken.
“U” turns apart, two events have defined the Pakistan PM’s first 100 days. The first was the appointment and subsequent sacking of Princeton professor Atif Mian to the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) on the grounds of being an Ahmadi. In this, he bowed to and appeased the Barelvi hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
The second related to Asia Bibi, a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy, who after having spent eight years in jail was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court. The TLP launched a violent protest against the acquittal and the government caved in, agreeing to put Asia Bibi on the Exit Control List (ECL) and refrained from objecting to a review petition filed against her acquittal. Despite the TLP calling for mutiny in the armed forces and advocating the killing of Supreme Court judges on the issue, no action was taken against it, either by the army, judiciary or government.
In both the cases, the government lost the moral high ground even before it had got down to governing. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whom Imran Khan regularly invokes, had asserted on August 11, 1947, “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” This assertion lay in tatters, though, of course, not the first time in Pakistan’s chequered history. Both cases also reinforced the impression that Imran Khan was willing to accommodate religious extremists. Not for nothing he has been given the moniker of “Taliban Khan”.
The greatest challenge for the government is, of course, the economy. Pakistan faces a large and growing current account deficit due to exports, remittances and foreign investment not keeping pace with the imports. It is also deeply in debt. The total shortfall of the country’s foreign exchange reserves is around $12 billion, requiring a bailout from friendly countries and an IMF loan, something that Khan had said he would rather die than do.
In the realm of foreign policy, the record has been embarrassing. Pakistan’s desire for a “reset” in ties with the US came a cropper over the fiasco of Khan’s phone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the two sides pushing out a diametrically opposed record of the interaction. With India, the gesture of laying the foundation for the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor to pilgrims has been positive. However, the problem of terrorism is much too deep-rooted for Khan to make a dent so long as the army considers the terrorists as strategic assets. The Chinese, apparently, are miffed at the adverse comments he had made about the CPEC. It looks like the Chinese are going to make Khan sweat till he falls in line with their long-term goal for Pakistan.
A realistic overiew of the 100 days would be that it has been a disappointing start. While three months is clearly inadequate for a government to start making a substantial difference, what seems to be lacking is a serious strategy and direction compounded by Imran Khan’s rhetoric, lack of preparation and an amateurish approach to governance.
As Khan embarks on the rest of his tenure, what will he be judged on? Critical areas will be: Does the buck stop with him or does it meander to Rawalpindi? Will Pakistan continue to support terrorist groups? Will he show courage to confront the challenges, especially from the religious parties and not retreat at the first sign of opposition? Will he end the practice of “U” turns? And, above all, will he have an understanding of the challenges confronting Pakistan and the vision to tackle them?
Devasher is the author of Pakistan: Courting the Abyss and Pakistan: At the Helm. He is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and currently a consultant, Vivekananda International Foundation