Published in The Diplomat, Sep 5th, 2018 By Daud Khattak
Imran Khan is hitting controversies early exactly because his supporters expect so much from his government.
It’s been less than a month since Imran Khan’s swearing-in, and Pakistan’s most popular politician, who is now prime minister of the country, is mired in controversies regarding the performance of his government and team members.
The “missteps” that the new government is being derided for are in fact oft-repeated practices under previous administration. The problem is that people did not expect the same routine from a government they believe — or were made to believe — is based on justice, equality, austerity, and the rule of law.
Social justice is what the average Pakistani longs for, along with equal opportunities of employment. And Khan, during his 22-year political career after announcing his retirement from cricket in 1992, crafted his party’s narrative along the same lines.
It is natural that people will raise questions when seeing Khan, the relentless faultfinder of the protocol, extravagance, and authoritarian practices of his predecessors, repeat the same old practices.
Khan’s helicopter travel, for instance, from the Prime Minister House in Islamabad to his personal Bani Gala residence a few kilometers away, has become a subject of ridicule on social media, particularly after his information minister told a television show anchor that the cost is “55 rupees [less than 55 cents] per kilometer.”
One of the oft-repeated questions is why Khan previously criticized his predecessors for spending huge sums on protocol and travel, when he himself prefers a helicopter instead of road travel?
The helicopter debate is now winding down after trending on social media websites and television channels for almost a week. However, the next controversy is already at hand: the midnight transfer of a regional police officer.
The officer, Rizwan Gondal, was reportedly transferred on the unwritten order of the chief minister of Punjab province after an altercation with the ex-husband of Khan’s wife Bushra, who is now the First Lady. The matter was highlighted in social media to such an extent that the Supreme Court of Pakistan took a suo motu notice to settle the issue.
The transfer orders, like the helicopter issue, will likely fade away without leaving an immediate impact on Khan’s government, but the marginal dents, and that too at the very beginning of his term, may challenge the high moral ground that the former cricket star used to reach the country’s highest civilian position.
According to Khan’s utopian vision, Pakistan will be run in the style of Riasat-e-Medina, a reference to the State of Medina during the days of Prophet Muhammad. Khan idealizes the justice and austerity observed during the days of Omar, the second caliph of Islam.
Khan never minced his words, criticizing and even calling names during his public meetings, while lambasting his opponents for “looting the country.” However, many eyebrows were raised over Khan’s picks for key slots in the provinces and the federal cabinet, where several members are said to have corruption or criminal charges against them.
Khan promised “Naya Pakistan” (new Pakistan) and “Tabdeeli” (change) to his supporters and party activists, but the majority of the ministers in his cabinet have already been part of governments before — with some accused of changing political loyalties quite often.
Khan raised his voice against family politics, but several of his close associates have already launched their closest family members using the platform of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Right now, Khan’s die-hard followers are backing his each and every move, either out of love and sincere enthusiasm for his cause or out of hatred for the leadership of the two major rival political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) – that Khan almost customarily targets in his public speeches.
There is no question of Khan’s losing his support base so early, despite widespread criticism. But he may fail to retain the goodwill of the nonpartisan section of the middle class who voted PTI not because of political affiliation, but as a reaction to the politics of the status quo.
The majority of middle-class Pakistanis, who are not affiliated with any political party, were unimpressed with the performance of the previous governments of the PPP and PMLN. They were more attracted by Khan’s slogans of “Tabdeeli” and “Riasat-e-Medina,” which promised easy access to social justice.
It is this section of the society whose support is going to be affected by the recent controversies, which contradict the claims and promises made with much fanfare during Khan’s run-up to the July 25 election.
Still, this is the honeymoon period of the PTI government. All the controversies, criticism, and ridicule over the past few days are not going to have a lasting effect on the government because the party’s die-hard supporters are in no mood to come out of the victory euphoria. And that is an encouraging signal for Imran Khan.
The dispiriting side, however, is that neither of the two previous democratically elected governments ran into controversies so early after their election. The hardships of the PPP government (2008 – 2013) started after the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Ladin in a U.S. raid in May 2011. And the PMLN government, elected in 2013, only started fighting for its survival when Khan launched his sit-in protest in front of the Parliament House in Islamabad in the latter half of 2014.
The PTI, on the other hand, has been facing tougher questions from day one, and one obvious reason is the high hopes and greater expectations. The common Pakistani is more interested in jobs, housing, prices of daily commodities, law and order, and quick dispensation of justice. That means quick fixes. Key policy such as the government’s circular debts, financial position, or foreign policy is not their priority.
For over a decade, Khan and his team members raised hopes and expectations by assuring common Pakistanis that the resolution of all their problems would swiftly follow once his party won the election. As a Pashto language adage says, “A hungry man awaits the plate more than anything else” — so the PTI supporters, who voted for the promised change, now can’t wait any longer.
Among the taller hopes and promises, one is the creation of 10 million jobs. Anyone familiar with the traditional support bases of politicians may easily understand that majority of the electorate visit the offices and residences of their elected representatives mainly to ask for employment.
A majority of the grievances against traditional politicians are about not giving favor in resolving a police case, not paving a road leading to one’s house, not repairing an out-of-order tube well, and not providing employment to one’s relatives.
Challenging this order, which is part of the status quo Khan had promised to break, will be an uphill task. And the dream of Naya Pakistan or Tabdeeli will remain unfulfilled unless Khan breaks that order.
Like the hue and cry over the transfer of a police officer or the use of a helicopter, one can predict more storms in the days ahead as Khan’s die-hard supporters and ordinary voters come out of their post-election elation. And it is only because of the high moral benchmarks Imran Khan had set for himself and his party.
The pre-election period was a tough test for Khan’s skills in expanding his support base. The post-election time is going to pose an even tougher problem: how to keep that base intact. Though it is only the naysayers and opponents who are raising questions today, it could be his followers and supporters tomorrow. There is a tough road ahead for the Kaptaan to materialize his promises.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.