Imran Khan: The Least Bad
By Michael

Washington, DC

These are, to paraphrase an American independence
, the times that try Pakistani souls.
Yes, the May election marks a democratic milestone. But
let’s not be fooled. The nation remains mired in a deep — and arguably
unprecedented — crisis.
This begs a question that many — from cynical Pakistani
intellectuals to dismissive Washington analysts — are unwilling to ask: Given
the depths of Pakistan’s troubles (a colleague recently described it as “
a train wreck in slow motion
”), and given the colossal leadership failures
of recent years, would a Prime Minister Imran Khan really be such a bad thing?

Admittedly, we’re likely talking about pure
hypotheticals; the
odds are against Khan assuming power
. But as a supremely popular cricket
hero-turned-politician, he’s well worth discussing.
For voters, Khan is the quintessential high-risk
investment. Because neither he, nor his party has ever led a government, his
candidacy is fraught with uncertainty. If he were to take power, the returns
could be intoxicatingly high — or dangerously low.
On the one hand, Khan and the PTI embody what Pakistan
needs most: Hope. And not just in the abstract sense. The PTI’s internal party
elections suggest a commitment to strengthening democracy in a country where the
institution remains fragile. The party’s clean reputation brings credibility to
its intention to root out corruption. Its release
of a social
media code of conduct
legitimizes its desire to introduce more civility. And
its announcement
of a manifesto for the disabled demonstrates its determination to bring more
inclusivity to a nation long defined by exclusion and division.
Additionally, Khan’s repeated condemnations of
sectarian violence are striking; he says
what most politicians simply don’t say (“I tell you by name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi …
there can be no bigger enemy of Islam than you”). Such denunciations give hope
that he would tackle one of Pakistan’s chief security threats.
On the other hand, Khan’s lack of experience in
government could translate to disastrous policy decisions — when the nation
cannot afford any more of them. His constant tendency to blame America and the
West for Pakistan’s ills raises the possibility of yet another leader who shirks
responsibility and outsources blame. His perplexing position on militancy — he
denounces the country’s “strategic assets” (such as LeJ) while extending olive
branches to rabidly anti-state extremists (such as TTP) — telegraphs a
reluctance to unequivocally confront such a deadly scourge. And news of an electoral
alliance with the hardline JI
raises red flags galore.
In other words, we don’t know what to expect. Khan
could defy vested interests, and introduce tax reforms and reorient the national
budget toward the social sector. He could galvanize his supporters from the
young, urban middle class — a critical long-term demographic — and position the
country to reap a long-elusive demographic dividend.
Or, he could try to do these things and fail miserably.
He could discard his populist campaign rhetoric, sell out, and succumb to the
system and its vested interests. One of his most misguided
— when America leaves the region, Pakistan’s security situation
will magically improve — could infect policymaking and allow a dangerous
complacency to take root.
These are both terrific and terrifying returns — and we
don’t know which type would materialize.
Yet, here’s a question. Would even the most dreadful of
returns be any worse than the consequences of another PPP-led or, more likely, a
PML-N-led government?
The latter scenario is admittedly low-risk: The
consequences won’t be pretty, but you basically know what you’re getting — much
of the same as before. Understandably, many are OK with this option. After all,
given Pakistan’s perilous plight, why embrace more risk? Why jeopardize the
relative comfort of “muddling along”?
But consider the likely consequences. Unless pessimism
has taken my reasoning hostage, we can assume neither the PPP nor PML-N will
muster the will to implement critical reforms — or to take bolder steps against
militancy. These are dynastic parties locked in a tight embrace with vested
interests. They represent entrenched feudal and agricultural interests, and
defer to entrenched military and religious interests — most of which staunchly
resist change.
In effect, we’d witness the jealous guarding of an
increasingly untenable status quo.
This isn’t an appealing prospect. Unless, that is, the
returns from a PTI government are so disastrous that they accelerate Pakistan’s
inevitable downward spiral
— a spiral that previous governments, up to now
thanks to Pakistanis’ resourcefulness
), have kept at bay.
Ultimately, these are all unknowns. But this we know:
the contrast between the established parties and the PTI is sharp. One day after
bickering PPP and PML-N officials failed to select a caretaker prime minister,
the PTI mobilised
at least 150,000 people
at a hope-infused rally.
So would a Prime Minister Khan be such a bad thing?
There’s no way of knowing. But would it be the worst bad thing? Call me naive,
but I’m inclined to say: Not necessarily. ( The author is the Senior Program
Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
in Washington, DC. You can reach him at [email protected]
. – Courtesy Dawn )