Twenty-four days is too short a time in which to judge a new government. But then again, one week is a long time in politics, and some actions taken at the beginning have a way of setting the course. This is why Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to appoint Atif Rehman Mian, a globally eminent Pakistani-American economist, to the government’s Economic Advisory Council, was hailed worldwide. The 43-year-old Mian, a Princeton academic, is an Ahmadi. In Pakistan, Ahmadis have been designated by law as non-Muslim. Not just that, they have been excoriated more than any other minority in Pakistan, so much so that the Ahmadi faith has gained the character of an underground religion. As religious extremists protested against Mian’s appointment, and Opposition parties — with the honourable exception of the Pakistan People’s Party — united to take up the cry in the National Assembly, Imran Khan’s government stoutly defended its appointment, to the great surprise and admiration even of its staunchest critics in the country and outside. It seemed as if the course for a “Naya Pakistan”, Khan’s rallying cry before and after his election, was indeed being set. But it all proved to be a mirage. As the pressure mounted, the government scrapped the appointment and Mian stepped down, stating that “the government was facing a lot of adverse pressure regarding my appointment from the Mullahs and their supporters”. The same minister who had so bravely spoken in favour of Mian, and of respect for minorities as part of Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan, said the government wanted to take along “scholars and all social groups, and it is inappropriate if a single nomination creates a contrary impression”. Two other Pakistani economists who teach and work abroad have also quit the 18-member EAC in protest.
The new prime minister may seek to explain his surrender to the religious extremists as a political necessity to prevent his government from getting hobbled right at the beginning. But he has already ceded valuable ground to those in Pakistan who aim to subvert its democracy. Extremist and UN-designated terror groups have already been “mainstreamed” in the 2018 election. From here on, it would be surprising if it is not downhill all the way. Naya Pakistan looks far away and this time, unlike the last two decades when he railed against his predecessors, there is no one else to blame.
Indeed, PM Khan is the architect of this sorry fiasco in more ways than he or his government may be ready to acknowledge. In 2016, he extended support to the Barelvi extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s siege on Islamabad against a perceived watering down by the then Nawaz Sharif government of the anti-Ahmadi clauses in the Constitution. And among the other first actions of the government, it publicly congratulated itself and took credit for the decision by the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders to call off the cartoon contest on Prophet Muhammed after protests by the Labbaik in Pakistan asking the Imran Khan government to cut off diplomatic relations with the Netherlands. The Labbaik, which contested the 2018 election, emerged with the fifth-largest vote share and won three seats in the Sindh Assembly. For those in India who were encouraged by Mian’s appointment, seeing it as a possible beginning against the extremism and terrorism that radiates from Pakistan to its neighbours, the volte-face within days is a sobering reality check.