Tuesday Aug 23, 2022
I began writing this week’s column a few weeks ago, and the topic was desperation. I will get to the original subject matter, but there is a more urgent desperation than the treadmill of mainstream Pakistani politics that I hope readers will think about, work on, and contribute to.
This year’s pre-monsoon and monsoon rainfall have been devastating. On average, over the last 30 years, Pakistan receives 125.3 mm of rainfall during the monsoons each year.
This year, the country has received 329.5 mm to date – an increase of 163%. Balochistan and Sindh have endured the worst of it. Balochistan’s 30-year average rainfall for this season is 57.5 mm. This year so far, it has seen 264.8 mm (an increase of 360%).
Sindh’s thirty-year average is 115.6 mm. This year it has already received 552.3 mm. These numbers are not normal, and yet they are.
No country has the capacity to manage this kind of natural disaster, and yet, every country on the planet – and especially uber-vulnerable countries like Pakistan – should be obsessed with climate change mitigation and adaptation.
The progress Pakistan has made on these issues is not nothing; both the previous PTI government and the current ruling PDM government have appointed knowledgeable and sophisticated leaders (Malik Amin Aslam for the PTI, Ambassador Sherry Rehman of the PPP for the PDM) to run the climate change ministry.
The National Disaster Management Authority is far from perfect but has come a long way in preparing for the impact of climate-prompted events.
Overall, however, the country has light years to go.
The saddest and most tragic manifestation of this gap? As of August 21, 2022, around 288 children were among the 777 fatalities claimed by the pre-monsoon and monsoon flooding this year in Pakistan. This kind of desperate tragedy is what should be informing and driving both the public discourse and the decision-making of the most powerful people in Pakistan.
Sadly, it is not. The desperation on display is decidedly of a different kind.
It is hard to ignore the desperation of the anti-Imran Khan forces in the country. Imran Khan owns the political landscape in Pakistan today in a manner that is hard to draw parallels to.
As an organic leader of the people, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto stands alone. Like Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Khan and Nawaz Sharif, Kaptaan Sahib must bear the permanent burden of having been nursed into the enviable political position that he is in – but make no mistake: there is no Pakistani alive today that wields more legitimate political power than Imran Khan. That is why the powerful high command is so desperate. And it is why Pakistan is in desperate trouble.
Banning Imran Khan from television, slapping the anti-terrorist legislation against him for yet another wild speech, torturing his chief of staff, and decertifying the most openly pro-Imran Khan news network are all acts of desperation.
The enactment of the Vote of No Confidence – an otherwise perfectly legitimate legislative device to assess the credibility of a prime minister in a democracy – was also an act of desperation. And the primary lesson that this desperation should have taught the Pakistani uber system is that desperation is what Imran Khan feeds on.
He gets bolder, bigger, and better, and more dangerous with each act of desperation that seeks to contain him and cut him down to size.
Is this some kind of magic? Not really. Imran Khan speaks for hours on end, harps on the same message, and delivers it with more singular authenticity than the entirety of the rather large mass of national leaders that are aligned against him and his PTI. Khan has a clear message, delivers it consistently and coherently, and manages, despite evidence to the contrary – with seeming courage and fearlessness that neither boomers, nor Gen X, nor millennials, nor Gen Z can resist.
The "youth" appeal of Imran Khan is, of course, on-brand and remains so, but Khan has come to represent a fundamentally more profound cross-Pakistan and cross-Pakistani ethos: Pakistanis that are tired of the status quo.
Despite being a direct product of that most malodorous of Bermuda triangles of Pakistani elite-dom (the Zaman Park and Aitchison College area – sandwiched between Shahrah-e-Quaid e Azam and Sunderdas Road) – Imran Khan has become the ultimate symbol of the anti-status quo of Pakistan. No wonder traditional Lahori elites hate him with such fervent passion.
Individually and collectively, the elite (and the leaders that still value their outdated and obsolete 20th-century currency) are certainly more careful about protecting Pakistan’s standing in the world, and certainly more thoughtful about how slow and painful the process of achieving civil-military equilibrium will be, certainly more responsible with the economy, the price of gasoline and the negotiations with the IMF – but the thankless job of being an adult in Imran Khan’s playpen is exactly that: thankless.
And make no mistake: we live in Imran Khan’s playpen.
On January 25, 2022, I ended this column (titled, ‘Winning in a Khan News World’) with these words:
“The trouble is that the power switch in Rawalpindi may not work. It was built in a world that predates Khan News. In the Khan News studio, you can be the channel owner, the producers, the editor and even the scriptwriter writing the bulletin. But you aren’t the on-air talent. And Imran Khan is where power lies in a Khan News world.”
Since the end of January this year, on the conventional scoreboard, Imran Khan has endured body-blow after body-blow. His key political associates and partners left him for dead. He lost the Vote on No Confidence.
He was humiliated by the Supreme Court. He was very clearly responsible for the inflationary spiral and the spike in the US dollar rate. He singlehandedly almost destroyed the country’s relationship with the United States.
He has suffered the indignity of being surrounded by people like Farah Gogi, with credible allegations of nepotism and corruption now associated with him. He has been slapped on the wrist by the Election Commission of Pakistan. And he has been taken off the airwaves. And yet he stands taller and more defiantly today than ever before.
He has won every meaningful political contest anyone has gotten into with him. He won the big by-elections in Punjab. He has won by-elections elsewhere too, most recently this weekend in Karachi. He has won hearts and minds at a rate and pitch that his opponents continue to ignore and defy to their profound detriment. He owns Pakistani and ex-pat Pakistani social media, broadcast media and print media.
The lede, the meat and the bones, and the accents of the Pakistani discourse all converge on ‘What Will Imran Khan Do Next?’ Chowk. His speeches, until the disgraceful Pemra ban, were being broadcast live by even the news channels that he and his party had hounded and harangued and harassed shamelessly when they were in power.
Sadly, all of this is underpinned not by a grand vision for Pakistan, nor by any particularly inspiring set of principles.
As I wrote back in 2014, as he held court at D Chowk for 126 consecutive days, Khan is the world’s oldest teenager. But he is now the world’s oldest teenager that has experienced driving the luxury car that daddy gave him. It matters little that he crashed the car repeatedly, or that he will do all of what he has already done, again and again, and again. It also matters very little that daddy is angry and upset at him. Like every spoilt only-child, he knows that he has the keys to the kingdom.
The relative helplessness and desperation of his opponents, whether in London, in Shaheed Benazirabad, in DI Khan, in Rawalpindi or in Islamabad is anchored not in the absence of a winning narrative, but in the absence of ideas. Imran Khan’s big idea? That the old way of doing things doesn’t work. His solution? Imran Khan. Quick and easy. Just like Imran Khan. Everyone else requires paragraphs upon paragraphs of caveats.
A winning big idea may have a chance of competing with and beating Khan – the desperation we see, however, does not. If you are waiting for Khan’s opponents to figure this out, you may be waiting a while.
In the meantime, don’t forget to contribute to the flood relief efforts in Balochistan and Sindh, and keep saying a prayer for the truly desperate in this country that needed a capable elite to take care of them under the barrage of inflation and flooding that defined this summer.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
Originally published in The News