Imran Khan As Prime Minister: Under Pressure, And Enjoying It. His Opponents Pray For A Breakdown
I met Prime Minister Imran Khan today at his house in Bani Gala with a group of colleagues.
So much has changed.
The prime minister is fond of such meetings with groups of journalists at his private residence. But it’s different now.
Elaborate official arrangements, professional security detail, a great team of time managers from the Prime Minister House, and a stern bodyguard standing behind him at all times, including when he was sitting in the close-door huddle with us.
But he has not changed. Nothing noticeable. No aura of officialdom and power (except maybe for the poker-faced guy standing alert behind him).
Imran Khan is overwhelmed by the problems facing Pakistan. He and his team are in power for the first time. They’re learning on the job, nation’s expectations are high, and the losers — the tried-tested-and-failed politicians who became rich in public service — are colluding with media owners and some journalists to confuse and detract.
The Baji of Raiwind* (famous for running the Aunty Media Cell**) is spending a fortune on creating distractions for Imran Khan government. She commands an army of political touts whose job is to clutter the media with nonsensical issues and statements. Her SMT is busy producing fake posts and videos. Some influential media owners and journalists are part of this agenda.
As if this was not enough, previous governments of PPPP and PMLN have left Pakistan in a spectacular economic mess. More public debt in ten years than in 60 years since Independence. Even if Imran Khan wants to fix it, it will take time, and he has no immediate options except more borrowing (preferably from allies Saudi Arabia, UAE and China, and not IMF).
At one point today, he became emotional. “I can’t call them politicians. They are not politicians, they are criminals, how they piled up debt on Pakistan. How could they do it?” he said, moving his hands animatedly, referring to PMLN and PPPP governments since 1991. The two parties have been rotating power, bar the stint of Musharraf administration.
Since he and many in his government are first-timers in power corridors, the PTI government is prone to mistakes. And it did commit some good ones in the first few days after assuming office. Luckily, the government has an amazing media manager, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who is
giving a tough time to the multi-pronged attacks by the opposition. But he is alone, looking after too many things as he faces off with the many tentacles of Aunty Media Cell. There’s the talk shows, news bulletins, editors, TV channels, media owners, lobbies, political parties, and the Parliament. At times, PTI appears overwhelmed. But the Prime Minister, his information minister and a handful of spokespeople are successfully holding the fort, for now.
But this is not enough over the long run. The Raiwind cell and allied parties are exploiting the first two months of the new government to spread despondency and chaos. It’s calculated, lethal and effective. They all are veterans and know how to do it. Khan and his team are novices, though no easy target.
The Prime Minister is alert to the conspiracies. “We have to be clear on this: they want to create issues for us. But we will not be deterred. We are moving forward,” he said when told how his detractors are working. He explained how his government is facing tiers and tiers of government employees and bureaucrats with loyalties to Old Pakistan politicians.
He is right. The two largest parties have planted their loyalists in all important government departments. They are civil servants and the prime minister cannot get rid of them easily. If he brings in professional outsiders to run the show, bureaucracy will resist. He knows this is not an option.
“There are good people in the system, we just need time to identify them and bring them up,” he said.
Tough call, but doable if done methodically. Khan is talking about changing forty years of a political culture where parties and politicians infested the government with inept loyalists who have almost paralyzed the State and led to a collapse in services.
But it is not just the bureaucracy. While he and his government are busy in planning for the future, disgraced former premier Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and family are busy spreading despondency and disinformation among Pakistanis. The Sharifs have allies among other parties that are indignant at Imran Khan’s election sweep. Television news channels are influential in shaping the narrative in Pakistan, where news are the only entertainment in a country deficient in theaters, clubs and sports. This is why media owners are very important. Most of them are not journalists but businessmen with little respect for journalism. They have been taking in lucrative advertisement (read: propaganda) money from the Sharif government while denying salaries to working journalists. And many of them are willing accomplices in the opposition’s game of keeping focus on destabilizing the new government. For some of these media owners, business interests trump country’s stability.
But the problem is that Pakistan can no longer afford this type of politics. The country is facing a debilitating economic crisis, a huge debt burden, a large young population waiting for opportunities, a country in administrative paralysis (collapse is too harsh, and maybe not applicable). And the biggest problem: a looming water crisis.
When journalists tell the Prime Minister they are under pressure to cover petty politics instead of the real issues, he smiles. “I am handling this pressure. Can’t you handle it too for some time? This is a phase. It will pass.”
But how long can Imran Khan handle pressure? What will he do if he fails to meet the high popular expectations of his government?
“There is one thing I have consistently been good it for the last two years, and which helped me in creating the biggest upset in Pakistani politics and brought me here,” he said.
“What is that, Mr. Prime Minister?” a journalist asked.
“Handling pressure,” he says calmly, then smiles. “How do you think I got here?”.
*Raiwind is former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s palace in Lahore, where he lives with his powerful and influential daughter, Maryam Nawaz. Critics refer to her as baji, which roughly means a controlling elder woman.
**The name of the powerful and resourceful media cell run by Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Critics call it the Aunty media cell in derision.