KARACHI, Pakistan — Imran Khan campaigned to become prime minister on the promise that he would create a “new Pakistan.” The country was going to be like the state of Medina that the Prophet Muhammad founded — a welfare state — Khan promised. Less than a year after coming to power, he has delivered a new Pakistan, and it looks like a struggling dictatorship.
Major opposition leaders are in jail; others aren’t allowed in the media. Parliamentarians are arrested on terrorism or drug-trafficking charges and denied bail. In this new Pakistan, the economy has been practically handed over to appointees from the International Monetary Fund. The price of bread is soaring, and bazaars where the poor do business with the poor are being demolished while barons of the stock exchange get government handouts.
Khan once talked about “dignity” and how you lose it when you take money from foreign powers. But what was one of his first moves after taking office? Chauffeuring Arab princes in the hope of getting soft loans.
He has said that he would prefer death to going to the I.M.F., but soon after becoming prime minister he went into a huddle with the I.M.F. chief and after protracted negotiations secured a loan of $6 billion.
During election campaigns, politicians usually make promises that they have no intention and no way of keeping. Here is one promise that Khan is trying to keep: To punish corrupt politicians and force them to pay back the money they have stolen — the billions, he says, that have been stashed in Swiss banks. By now, though, it’s quite obvious that even if there is looted money in foreign banks, there is no way of bringing it back. Former President Asif Ali Zardari, who is in jail on money-laundering charges, was asked if he was willing to strike a deal with the government. “I will not give them six dollars,” he smirked.
Since the corrupt aren’t going to cough up their loot, Khan has had to go back to the mundane business of borrowing money and collecting taxes. But his passionate appeals that more Pakistanis pay their taxes don’t seem to be working. The tax-to-gross domestic product ratio is the lowest in five years, the tax authorities said recently. Maybe that’s because the people have seen too many of their leaders not pay what they owe. Although Khan’s assets were estimated at 3.8 billion rupees (about $36 million) in 2017, he pays fewer taxes than many mid-ranking journalists.
Khan used to claim that he is the best team-builder around. He has surrounded himself with the same political carpetbaggers he once railed against. More than half of his cabinet served the last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. Of the man who now runs the railways ministry, Khan once said that he wouldn’t hire him as a peon; another person he called a bandit has become a crucial ally, as the speaker of the assembly in Punjab Province.
When he lectures on economic matters, Khan can sound like the Queen of England — as though he has never had to carry cash or set a monthly budget like middle-class citizens do. Like many affluent people who spend their lives in a bubble of financial security, he has been propagating Ayn Rand-esque myths about how to fix the economy. He has been saying that the one percent of Pakistanis who do pay taxes can’t carry the burden of the other 99 percent. Yet the 99 percent who don’t fill out returns definitely are funding the lifestyles of rich Pakistanis through indirect taxes, like those on gasoline and electricity. And yet they hardly get to see the inside of a hospital or the schools built with those taxes.
As Khan’s opponents question some of his statements, and his credentials, he has become more and more prickly. After Khan was called a “selected,” rather than elected, prime minister in Parliament, the speaker banned the use of the word “selected” on the floor. Since then, it seems that our representatives have never said “selected” as much as they do now.
When you are clueless in Pakistan, you turn to the army. And so Khan has appointed the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, to his newly formed economic council. (Many would say the army chief appointed himself). The military already controlled security and foreign policy, and now it is promising to take us to new heights in economic affairs.
For a hint of who is really in charge, consider the case of two Pashtun lawmakers who have been arrested on questionable terrorism charges. Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar are the leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or P.T.M. (the Movement to Protect Pashtuns), which has been trying to counter the state’s narrative about Pashtuns being natural born warriors. They have been campaigning against extrajudicial killings and missing persons and for the removal of land mines from Pakistan’s tribal areas — and they have occasionally said that the Pakistani Army might have something to do with turning their homeland into a permanent war zone. (Khan used to say similar things. He once slept on the roads of Karachi to block NATO supplies because he believed, rightly, that these supplies were being used to wage war against the Pashtuns.)
After Wazir and Dawar were elected to Parliament, they started to say on the floor what they had been saying at P.T.M. rallies. And then, at a news conference in Islamabad in late April, the army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said of them, “their time is up.” A few weeks later, Wazir and Dawar were accused of attacking the Khar Mar army check post in North Waziristan in which at least 13 civilians are thought to have been killed. Yet plenty of videos of the scene appear to show them arguing with soldiers, trying to cross a barrier and being fired upon.
There has been no inquiry. Both parliamentarians remain in custody. And unlike other jailed politicians who are allowed to attend legislative sessions, Wazir and Dawar haven’t been seen or heard from since their arrest. The message is clear: You can’t mess with the army even if the people elected you.
Pakistan’s new establishment isn’t inventing any new tricks; it’s just honing old ones. A member of Parliament critical of the Khan government and his sponsors was booked on drug-smuggling charges earlier this month. The anti-narcotics force, which is headed by a major general, claimed to have discovered 15 kilos of heroin in his car.
Observers said this was a throwback to outright military rule and times when opposition politicians were accused of stealing cattle or a bomb was discovered in the home of the dissident poet Ustad Daman. (Daman did get a poem out of that.)
Pakistan’s army probably rightly believes that it will never run out of political collaborators to help it rule the country. In Imran Khan, the generals have found a rare entity: a populist who is eager to collaborate because even he isn’t sure whether he was elected or selected.
Khan represents the oldest of old Pakistan but with a sportsman’s zeal to win at any cost. Yet I have never seen a more miserable and angrier winning captain. Maybe that’s because he has come to realize that his election victory wasn’t the end of the game. The real game was only just beginning.
Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.