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The Blunders of ‘Kaptaan’

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

In his three-and-a-half-years in power, P.M. Khan has crafted a checkered legacy punctuated by verbal diatribes and questionable government appointments

In 2018 Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister, Imran Khan, was perceived as charismatic and charming; in the year 2022, he is being increasingly seen as erratic and verbally extreme, pursuing isolationist and self-damaging policies inside and outside Pakistan, offending the U.S. and the European Union, and putting off the heretofore friendly Arabs and neighboring Iran. What he has earned in 2022 is isolation, seen as heroic by some supporters, which is bad for an IMF-aided economy and apparently good for a bunch of opposition parties inside Pakistan that had otherwise been riven with rivalries.

The first blunder was made right after the 2018 election: the appointment as Punjab chief minister of Usman Buzdar—“buz” here meaning “sheep”—for which the only grounds could be “inspirational insight” going back in time to the selection of a non-performing cricketer into the national team where the poor man didn’t know what to do till he was dropped after the Kaptaan retired from the game. A comment in the press stated: “Imran Khan suggested that since 1996 till early 2018, not a single member of PTI was competent enough for the most important post after P.M. Buzdar has completely failed to leave a mark in any domain, be it governance, reforms, politics or media handling.”

From PK to PECA

A parallel blunder in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa occurred when he ignored the performance of former chief minister Parvez Khattak and appointed Mehmood Khan, a “Buzdar-2” as chief minister after the 2018 election. An offended Khattak, appointed Defense Minister at the federal level, is now the source of gaffes that only a “mis-appointed” person can commit. The new C.M. is more or less like Buzdar, as the “incomplete” BRT project in Peshawar has demonstrated.

Imran Khan owed his charisma mostly to the media that fawned on him until successive policy decisions soured the bonhomie. The breaking point appears to have been the PECA [Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act] ordinance, the most draconian law against freedom of expression that had differentiated Pakistan from other Muslim states. Seeing the media focusing on the flaws of Kaptaan, his Ministry of Information started jousting with the media, cutting down government advertisement rates for private channels. The transmission of the “negative” view of Kaptaan started after that. The ultimate “gift” to the nation was the appointment of Firdous Ashiq Awan as Special Assistant to the P.M. on Information and Broadcasting from 2019 to 2020; political discourse after that descended to depths where Kaptaan seems to find comfort.

Rebuking the European Union

The New Arab, on March 7, 2022, wrote about Imran Khan’s much-discussed diatribe against the European Union, Pakistan’s largest trading partner: “He said that European countries should stop their criticism of Pakistan over its decision to remain ‘neutral’ on the matter. ‘What do you consider us? Your slaves? That we should do whatever you say?’ he said at a political rally. His comments were in response to a March 1 letter by 22 Pakistan-based foreign envoys urging Islamabad to reprimand Moscow for its brutal invasion of Ukraine before a vote in the U.N. General Assembly on March 2. Pakistan eventually abstained from voting at the UNGA, while the overwhelming majority of countries condemned Moscow’s heinous actions against its neighbor.” In his speech, Imran Khan had retorted: “I want to ask the European Union ambassadors: Did you write such a letter to India?”

Daily The News, on March 9, 2022, reported: “Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin on Wednesday opposed the comments made publicly by Prime Minister Imran Khan regarding the European Union member states in a speech. Speaking to the media in Islamabad today, Tarin said the prime minister should not have said this in front of a large crowd. The prime minister in his speech on Sunday had lashed out at the E.U. states for asking Pakistan to vote against Russia at the United Nations General Assembly and condemn the invasion of Ukraine.”

P.M. and Parliament

Prime Minister Imran Khan presides over Pakistan’s democracy as the leader of the Lower House, which he rarely visits. His response: the opposition parties never let him speak therefore he avoids coming to the House. He probably doesn’t visit the National Assembly because he wants to persist with his habit of bad-mouthing the opposition leaders. So frequent and heavy are his “blue streaks” that his manner has become popular with the rank-and-file of his party where everyone now cultivates abusive conduct as a key to political success. The PMLN-PPP opposition has to suffer the PTI’s verbal onslaught their leaders—frequently “criminalized” by NAB [National Accountability Bureau] where the opposition is routinely exposed to public humiliation while Kaptaan mouths his “NRO nahin doonga” mantra. The politicization of NAB has ruined the country’s “rule of law” status under the PTI government.

There was a time when Imran Khan was called “Taliban Khan” by critics because of his “sympathies” for the “warriors” fighting America in Afghanistan. Even after the state of Pakistan identified them as an “enemy” and is facing their violence in Balochistan and the erstwhile tribal areas, Kaptaan has retained his affection for them. Writing in The Diplomat on June 30, 2021, former MNA Farahnaz Ispahani noted: “Khan generated controversy by describing Osama bin Laden as a martyr, instead of calling him a terrorist, while speaking in Pakistan’s Parliament. His information minister tried to walk back Khan’s remarks about bin Laden last week, a year later, because of their adverse effect on Khan’s recent attempt to renew ties with the United States.

“But describing bin Laden as a martyr, linking rape to vulgarity and women’s dress, and pretending that China’s brutalities against Uighurs is not a problem were not merely slips of the tongue; they reflect the Pakistani prime minister’s worldview. Khan has blamed victims before for ‘inviting rape’ through their behavior. And he has gone to the extent of claiming that he does not know much about the Uighur problem. Khan’s reputation as a Westernized former cricketer and playboy sometimes misleads foreigners into assuming that he might represent a liberal vision for Pakistan. In fact, Khan and his PTI represent Pakistan’s further descent into obscurantism and unabashed bigotry.”

‘Taliban Khan’ and the reality of Taliban

Kaptaan overturned the gloss placed by the state of Pakistan on the Afghan war where Pakistan helped the U.S. fight the Al Qaeda-supporting Taliban government. His typical piece of wisdom as P.M. is: “The United States made mistakes in Afghanistan during the War on Terror.” He criticized the Western media and said that instead of giving Pakistan its due credit for the sacrifices it made, the country was accused of playing a double game and its reputation was maligned internationally. He said: “Pakistan was held responsible for the shortcomings of the United States.” He went on to observe that throughout the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan had to witness the biggest collateral damage as it was the only U.S. ally that suffered more than 80,000 casualties, displacement of millions of people, and a loss of over $100 billion.

Feeling inspired as the “founder” of a new state, Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote in daily Express Tribune on Jan. 17, 2022: “The rise and fall of nations are different from the rise and fall of civilizations. Nations can be raided, redrawn or re-imagined exogenously but civilizations cannot be killed from the outside, they only commit suicide. The core of every civilization is its spiritual principles; when they die, the civilization dies.”

Arrived: the State of Madina

His comment further explained: “In Islamic civilization, the manifestation of our spiritual principles happened in the Prophet’s (Peace Be Upon Him) Madina. Besides many other important principles, there were five very important guiding principles upon which the state of Madina was built. These principles are unity, justice and rule of law leading to meritocracy, strong moral and ethical foundation, inclusion of all humans in progress and prosperity, and finally, the quest for knowledge.”

Pakistan was imagined as an Islamic utopia quite early after its birth. First, “ideology” appealed perhaps from the recent “success” of the communist state of the Soviet Union. Article 228 of Pakistan’s Constitution says: “There shall be, constituted … a Council of Islamic ideology.” The word used by Nawaz Sharif and other leaders in Urdu is “nazriati”—meaning “ideological.” It was never used during the Pakistan Movement before 1947. Today we often refer to Nazaria-e-Pakistan, the ideology of Pakistan.

Is ‘bad-mouthing’ a legacy too?

Does “ideology” permit bad-mouthing opponents in politics? Khan regularly makes fun of his political opponents, in particular PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and accuses him of not knowing how to speak in Urdu. He actually asked the PPP to train its leader in Urdu because his speeches were marred by grammatical mistakes. Of course he chose to forget that his own Urdu was no high literature, as was manifested by his most well-known boo-boo: “khatray-naak.”

Why did we choose “ideological” for Pakistan? The word was used at first during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, when it was coined by Antoine Destutt de Tracy in 1796 during an imprisonment pending trial. It was borrowed by Lenin, together with “terror,” as a legitimate tool of the people. Muslims were inspired by the “equality” (musawaat) of communism as a “collectivizing” creed and called it “Islam without God.” Pakistan was supposed to be “ideological” with Allah presiding over it. Like the Soviet Union, the clerical intellectual thought an Islamic state should have no constitutional opposition. As the PTI rule unfolds in Pakistan, the self-destructive utopia may be the final chapter of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

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