Pakistan’s incumbent government marked the past year with modest economic success, and a significant ramping up of toxic language in civil discourse
When Imran Khan took charge as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2018 he was faced with the challenge of running a country suffering from political instability; corrupt politics; military adventurism in its immediate region; an educational system booby-trapped by ideology making transfer of technology impossible; a near total lack of sovereignty over half the territory called Pakistan; an inability to collect taxes; and an economy that had been in and out of the oxygen-tent of the International Monetary Fund for many years. It was perhaps natural for him to complain about the misdeeds of the outgoing Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government of Nawaz Sharif. But he overdid it and, in the days to follow, they started looking better compared to his own performance in 2020.
The year 2019 was the year of grace or “forgiveness,” but in 2020 he was expected to emerge from the doldrums of the past into a new opening based on his political program. His party had demonstrated noticeable success in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and was reelected there in 2018; therefore it was expected to settle down after more than a year in power and start showing results. What followed were gauche gestures based on inexperience—like “katta-katti” (ox and cow), which he would give to the rural masses to make them economically autonomous—but he was forgiven. In early 2019 he started showing signs of deep-seated misdirection, such as using violent language against the “thief” politicians who had preceded him in power, alarming many perceptive commentators.
Rot in Punjab
The year 2020 also saw decline in Punjab, which had been adjudged as Pakistan’s best-run before 2018. Khan’s unfathomable selection of slow-witted and inarticulate Usman Buzdar as chief minister had proven to be a blunder in 2019; but by the end of 2020, Pakistan’s largest province had actually dipped into its administrative history’s worst crisis. Helped by foul-mouthed spokesmen chosen by the prime minister, Buzdar became a butt of parodies on TV. Chief secretaries and inspectors-general of police were fired by the dozen in what has largely been seen as cover-up. One example was spokesman Fayyazul Hassan Chohan, who didn’t cover the chief minister with glory with his bad language. Before being replaced, he vented his misogyny on lady politicians of the opposition; not to forget his tirades against minority Hindus, mouthing stupid stereotypes about “cows and urine.”
What Pakistan thus unequivocally achieved under P.M. Khan was the culture of insult. Pakistan became a nuclear-armed power where leaders and their spokesmen spoke a language unheard of in the civil discourse of the past. Some fulmination came from religion, but Pakistan’s dirt was special as it spilled from the mouths of men and women equally. The latter was exemplified by Adviser on Information Firdous Ashiq Awan—the name means Paradise—a volcano emitting fire and brimstone on television who easily eclipsed the PTI rank-and-file in daily vulgarizations of democracy in Pakistan through their harangues.
Election Commission’s reprimand
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), in July 2018, issued a notice to Prime Minister Imran Khan about the use of indecent language against the opposition. He was put on notice to “appear before the ECP for using foul language against political opponents”. Khan had termed as donkeys (khota) those going to welcome the deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif on his arrival from London:
“Imran Khan’s counsel Babar Awan appeared before a four-member ECP bench headed by Abdul Ghaffar Soomro and argued that donkey was a common word that was used by teachers for their students. Awan informed the ECP bench that the PTI chief was busy campaigning in Lahore and, therefore, could not appear before the commission. He then played Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) leader Ayaz Sadiq’s video clip in which the former National Assembly speaker had made derogatory remarks about the PTI, to which ECP’s member from Punjab Altaf Ibrahim remarked that more notices were also going to be issued.”
The problem in Punjab was further exacerbated by Prime Minister Khan’s own “interference” from Islamabad. He asked the police chief in Lahore to come to the help of his brother-in-law over a case of contested property. When the IG didn’t oblige he transferred him and replaced him with a semi-literate junior officer of bad reputation and “got the needful done.” Soon enough, as complaints of misconduct mounted, he got the infamous officer removed too—but not before the people of Punjab were regaled to a period of shocking law-and-order fiascos.
What changed Pakistan was not the charisma of Prime Minister Khan but the odor of the bad language he popularized through his spokesmen. In the street, the common man took to cursing without being familiar with the grounds on which he was issuing his defamations. At the official level, Pakistan was damaged by the issuance of “the blue streak” when Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi railed in Parliament against Pakistan’s Arab friends for not opposing India’s annexation of India-held Kashmir. Khan, as if in revenge, joined the Turkish and Malaysian leaders, Erdogan and Mahathir Muhammad, to start up a new vaguely defined Islamic Summit of their own in Malaysia. This very unwise move led to a Saudi-Emirati response, which could be a pointer to the permanence of the damage caused: the Saudis demanded back their cash assistance of $3 billion. The Erdogan-Imran-Mahathir blunder is of course expected to inflict further consequences if the Pakistani manpower working in the Gulf is actually replaced with Indians because of the un-wisdom of the blundering trio.
Government spokespersons’ attacks didn’t stop at Punjab: Khan and his coterie repeatedly targeted the Pakistan Peoples Party-led Sindh government throughout 2020, accusing it of enabling a wheat shortage and acting against the interests of the people of the province. In what could be a preview of planned legislation for this year, the PTI specifically targeted provincial autonomy as guaranteed under the 18th Amendment.
Doyen of derogation
It appeared that Prime Minister Khan had decided to punish Punjab through an inarticulate chief minister and his foulmouthed spokesmen. If there was any slack, it was killed by federal minister Sheikh Rashid whose portfolio of railways suffered unprecedented series of train accidents while he won prime ministerial kudos for the insult he regularly offered the opposition parties. Then there was NAB to add to the ignominious record of misgovernance, hounding the opposition politicians of PMLN and PPP even as secret footage about the immorality of its officials was shown on TV for the entertainment of the dazed people of Pakistan.
P.M. Khan inherited NAB from the past. He let it loose on Pakistan to quash his thirst for avenging his decade of marginalization in politics. NAB continued cannibalizing the country’s politics in 2020. It was empowered to arrest its victims on suspicion and was not required to prove the arrested guilty; those who got picked up to rot in NAB’s prisons without bail had to prove themselves not-guilty. NAB was meant to hound the opposition politicians and make them disappear as democracy slunk away from the country tail-between-legs. It also targeted businessmen suspected of siding with politicians on the wrong side of the deep state. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the 21st Prime Minister of Pakistan from August 2017 to May 2018, was kept in a death-cell while NAB looked around for something to pin on him. He is now out, implacably dedicated to politics of revenge.
Politics nabbed by NAB
Daily The News wrote on May 18, 2020: “Three-dozen high profile individuals booked by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) during the past two years on either misuse of authority or on allegations of corruption have secured bails within weeks or months after their physical remand ended, raising skepticism about the intention and capabilities of the anti-graft body. Such a scenario has given currency to allegations by the opposition parties that the Bureau was doing witch-hunt of politicians/civil servants/ businessmen.”
Punjab and the other provinces suffered from the attacks made on them by incompetent PTI politicians and their foulmouthed spokesmen. At the National Institute of Public Policy, Lahore, a study explaining why the civil servants had stopped helping the elected government was made public. The study took account of the number of anti-corruption hounds the civil servants had to fend against while helping politicians with their “big decisions.” The study pointed out that because of the mishandling of bureaucracy by the PTI government, Pakistan was ranked 136 out of 190 countries on the Ease of Doing Business Index.
National economy as distraction
When Imran Khan came to power he thought he could first of all “normalize” with India to avoid the negative fallout of Pakistan’s past “jihad” (read non-state actor terrorism), but soon learned that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in no mood to oblige. Instead, Khan had to endure—and still endures—tension on the border with India. Unfortunate bilateral incidents have not given him the breathing space to properly monitor his multitude of “advisers” who can’t seem to cope with persistent sugar and flour shortages created through smuggling.
But let it be said that a hands-on P.M. Khan worked hard through 2020 and tried his best while seeing his ill-selected, blundering ministers like the one who mishandled the PIA plane crash in May 2020. He was also faced by the apparent cooling off of China on its Pakistani part of the Belt and Road project, drastically reducing its levels of investment in 2020. The GDP growth slowed significantly in 2020 (July 2019–June 2020) due to COVID-19 lockdown measures imposed in March. In July–September 2020, however, industrial production rebounded due to healthier manufacturing activity. Average remittances growth also surged. In the second quarter (October–December) economic conditions continued to improve. In October, merchandise exports expanded modestly while imports contracted, leading to a notable lessening of the trade deficit.
What however didn’t work during 2020 was his “worry-beads” pietism, which the suffering masses ignored as they crept back into their own lethal sectarianism that Khan could do nothing about. What showed up the grotesquerie of this religious gesture was the rise of the Labbaik movement and its foul-mouthed, wheelchair-riding, leader Khadim Husain Rizvi. He and his rough damnations had a free run in Pakistan eclipsing Khan’s own denunciations, and when he died, the mammoth crowd gathered at his funeral broke all records in Lahore’s history of populism. A government sputtering about the risk of COVID-19 spread at opposition rallies with significantly lesser crowds had little choice but to watch on in silence.