Come eighteenth of August, Prime Minister Imran Khan will have completed the first year of his term of office in Pakistan. Understandably his performance will be scrutinized by political analysts around the globe. It will not be just for the purpose of grading him as in a scorecard, though also that. They will do it largely because his period in power so far might contain clues as to on how the rest of the term is likely to shape up. It will include the ramifications for his country, the region, and the world, of his likely policies and their implementation.
It is also a fact that part of the interest in Mr Khan is owed to the attraction of his paradoxical personality. He is charismatic, with perceptions of him bordering on those usually reserved for a ‘rock-star’. He has good rugged looks, a good Oxford education, a good history of personal philanthropy, and a good record of having won laurels for his country in sports in a cricket-crazy nation. These elements provide a formidable mix that can lead many to place him on a pedestal.
Nevertheless, he also has critics who see him in a different light. They view him as pandering to populism, often inconsistent in decision-making, too cosy with the military, too tolerant of extremists, and too erratic in personal life-style behaviour, having chosen life-partners ,as divergent as a true-blue British heiress of Jewish heritage and a South Punjabi burqa-clad devout Islamic practitioner. He is a blend of the West and the East, of Savile Row suits and shalwar-kurtas from the Kissakhwani Bazaar. Well might one wonder, what might the real Mr Khan be like? Are the words ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ also apt for him?
So, what has he achieved so far? In economy, he began with enormous handicaps. The state of the nation was in shambles. Growth had sputtered to a halt; corruption was rife; the currency was taking a nose-dive; reserves were hitting rock-bottom; and inflation was sky- rocketing. As a result of all this public suffering was pervasive. Mr Khan came with promises of being led by the vision of the ‘Medina Charter’ at Islam’s advent, seeking to transform Pakistan into the legendary happy times of Arabia of the Prophet of Islam and the early wise Caliphs. But soon enough he saw the pragmatism of contemporary solutions like approaching the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bail-out. But this was easier said than done. For, in Pakistan, the IMF had been bitten before, not once but thirteen times since the late 1980s. The Institution, therefore, felt right to fight shy, dragging its feet in taking necessary action. A casualty of the negotiations was the Finance Minister himself, Mr Asad Umar. His preferred sources of support. Mr Khan replaced him with Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh (whose title is ‘Adviser’ rather than ‘Minister’), and a US $ 6 billion line of credit from the IMF was clinched. This lifeline was in return for stiff austerities, and a very severe tightening of belt, to the point of hurting.
What is actually required for Pakistan is perhaps a market-determined exchange rate and an adequately tight monetary policy to correct imbalances, rebuild resources, and keep inflation low. Structural problems, weak-tax collection, and inefficient public sectors are issues that need addressing in a focussed manner. The IMF package itself is meant for consolidation, rather than growth-revival. Naturally, it would entail policies targeting tax-evasion, which would run the risk of weakening business confidence. Things are likely to get worse before they can get better, and growth rate could slip to 2.4% in the coming financial year. The next couple of years could prove tough. A sword of Damocles hanging over Mr Khan’s head is the upcoming decision in October by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Its meeting then will decide whether Pakistan is to be ‘black listed’ for strategic deficits in tackling money-laundering and terrorist financing. For now, at a session of the FATF this month, Pakistan has managed to dodge the bullet. For now, it remains on the ‘grey list’, not due to performance, but because of support from friendly countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Malaysia.
Like all his predecessors, friendship and cooperation with China, Pakistan’s traditional ‘tested and all- weather friend’ is a key element of Mr Khan’s foreign policy. Great store is placed in Pakistan by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a set of infrastructural projects worth over US $60 billon, a flagship component of President Xi Jinping’s ‘Road and Belt Initiative (RBI). While this is also largely true of Mr Khan, he does perceive that the BRI has not sparked the economic boom earlier predicted. Hence Mr Khan wanted some adjustments to be made in the CPEC projects. An example is the railway line between Peshawar and Karachi on the costing of which his Minister Sheikh Rashid had raised some concerns. Necessary changes were made during an April meeting on the BRI in Beijing. Also, there were some other shifts of projects westwards. The idea was to add more of Baluchistan vis-à-vis Punjab as beneficiary of the BRI in consonance with the wishes of Baluchi locals, oftentimes violently expressed.
Speaking of violence, extremism remains an issue in Pakistan. The Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI), a powerful component of the Armed Forces, has been the habit of using terrorist organizations in the pursuit of its policies, particularly in Afghanistan and India. But like Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, these terrorists often spin out of control, as during a massacre of Army children in a school in Peshawar in December 2014.Thereafter, the Army, through tactical operations like ‘Zarb-e-Azab’ did try to rein them in. But what Pakistan lacks even to this day, despite the large Pakistani casualties in terrorist hands, is a single, inspiring, and inclusive counter-terrorism narrative, buttressed by a clear strategic plan to eradicate the problem. If Mr Khan is able to use his proximity to the Army to create one, he will have achieved a greater measure of success than any of his predecessors.
This will also impact on his two problematic areas of Foreign policy interests; relations with the United States, and with India. Initially, President Donald Trump, having angrily called Pakistan a source of ‘lies and deceit’, and having cancelled a US$300 billion military aid to that country, put a strain on what was already by now just a transactional bilateral relationship. It was a far cry from being strategic allies during past decades. The Americans cited the support to some terrorists by Pakistani authorities as a major cause for the differences. But now the US needs Pakistan, as also the Pakistan the US, especially when American troops are poised to withdraw from Afghanistan. So, Mr Khan is travelling to Washington to meet with Mr Trump on 22nd July. The plan for the meeting reportedly received a fillip from the existing good relations between Mr Trump’s son-in-law, Mr Jared Kushner and a former Pakistani Ambassador to the US , Mr Ali Jehangir Siddiqui. Acting in a timely fashion, prior to the visit, Pakistani authorities apprehended the Mr Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e- Taiba. It helped. A gleeful Mr Trump tweeted that “after ten years of search” and “great pressure for two years”, this arrest has been made. He seemed blissfully unaware of the fact that sightings of Mr Saeed in Pakistani public places have been a recurring phenomenon all through the period of the reported “search”. Nevertheless, the partial mollification of Mr Trump was obvious.
Closer at hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India may prove to be a tougher nut to crack for Mr Khan than Mr Trump. Mr Modi has recently spoken of possessing “the mother of (nuclear) bombs, implying a possible use of the same”. It was meant to be a threat to Pakistan, insisting that the latter mend ways. However, he does have a history of reaching out to Pakistan in the past when he initiated interactions with Mr Nawaz Sharif, Mr Khan’s predecessor. Mr Khan’s gesture of holding out an olive branch to India when he returned the Prisoner of War, Wing Commander Avinandan Varthaman, following the Pulwama Crisis earlier in March, was also noteworthy. The crisis was a factor in Mr Modi’s election victory which Mr Khan accepted with equanimity. While it is too soon to proclaim the demise of the current ill-will between the two rival countries, a sort of détente may yet be possible, conceivably not too beyond the rim of the saucer. Importantly, both sides would need to avoid creating unnecessary flash-points. One will need to accept the fact that the “yo-yo nature” of Indo-Pakistan relationship is a persistent feature of our times.
So, as Mr Khan completes his first year in office, what would be a reasonable prognosis for his future stewardship of Pakistan? While there are those who believe that driven by fierce ambition, he can be cold and calculating, Mr Khan’s apparent commitment to public welfare reflected even in his private predilections, seems to make for an important balance. Long past his youth himself, he appears to command great enthusiasm among Pakistan’s burgeoning young. In what sometimes seems a sea of despair, Mr Khan still generates hope as a skipper who can turn the ship of state around from a stormy course. The governance of Pakistan requires the stoic capacity to factor in the bad with the good as life unfolds. Mr Khan conveys the impression that that is a characteristic component of his overall demeanour. As of now, Pakistan is not replete with options in terms of leaders. Mr Khan could well be the best available bet.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh