In September 2015, Dawn carried my op-ed article, “Pakistan’s Donald Trump”. This was 16 months before Trump became president of the United States and about three years before Imran Khan became prime minister of Pakistan. It generated much commentary — both ways. Days later, Washington-based analyst Michael Kugelman published his riposte, also in Dawn, dismissing my comparisons as “merely superficial”. He concluded that “Naya Pakistan may be naïve, but it is neither nasty nor nefarious”.
Seven years is an eternity in the world of politics. What has Naya Pakistan come to mean? Since 2015, much has happened: Trump narrowly won the presidency but failed at re-election. Since then, he has not stopped trying to claw his way back to power. Khan was the winner in the controlled elections of 2018 and has had nearly four years for selling Naya Pakistan. His fate presently rests upon the no-confidence motion before parliament.
To redo the Trump-Khan comparison is timely. Certainly, some similarities I had alluded to earlier remain unaltered. Then, as now, the political toolkits of both men include abundant use of abusive language for firing up supportive mobs. So is making promises which, even if unfulfillable, help generate fantasies in their followers.
The first time around these tools, together with practised theatrics, worked well. Once installed in power, the orange-skinned president cultivated an ecosystem of sycophants, sellers of snake oil and white extremists. In a blizzard of disinformation, his political opponents were blamed for all failures of governance and economic mismanagement. The Washington Post says Trump’s false or misleading claims total 30,573 over four years. Impressive!
But Americans soon realised that although Trump was brilliant before the cameras, on governance he was clueless. The economy, race matters and foreign relations headed south. Relations with European allies plummeted even as the Putin-Trump personal rapport grew stronger. When voters rejected Trump for a second term, this was incomprehensible to a man who adored himself beyond limit.
To reverse the election results he tried everything but, unfortunately for him, American democracy proved too robust. The Department of Justice and the military flatly rejected his proposal to seize voting machines and redo the elections. The siege of Capitol Hill — in a country with 200 years of democracy — shocked the world.
While places, times, and people are obviously different for Pakistan, many similarities are startlingly close — and growing closer. Khan is already concocting an explanation for his possible ouster: he is being punished by the West for his independent foreign policy and jihad against Islamophobia. He threatens to unleash hell upon turncoat members of his own party and, of course, the opposition.
On March 27 — D-Day at Islamabad’s D-Chowk — PTI is mobilising party and state resources for holding what it says will be the “biggest rally” in Pakistan’s history. The goal: to message parliamentarians, both PTI and opposition, that they must not enter parliament to vote on the no-confidence motion.
One significant difference separates Capitol Hill from D-Chowk. Whereas Trump brought out his supporters with winks and nods, nothing has been left to the imagination here. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry says all parliamentarians arriving to vote on that day would have to pass through a million Khan supporters on their way to the National Assembly and — even more significantly — on their way back as well. There they will face a lynch mob.
How violent it all gets on D-Day, and the final outcome, cannot be presently known. The siege of the Capitol left American democracy hanging by a thread. Nevertheless, the system was robust enough to blunt the worse. In Pakistan, what lies ahead may or may not end with Khan’s ouster. But what will be his legacy when he does finally go?
On democracy: depriving parliamentarians of their right to vote is a slap in the face to democracy and decency. That this violates the Constitution is clear as day. But, to be honest, worse has happened before. Four martial laws have trampled the Constitution under the boot. And, even without overt constitutional violations, crooked politicians and generals have stuffed their pockets for decades and parked their assets in unreachable places.
On the economy: today’s galloping inflation, repeated returns to the IMF, more whitewashing of black money, dramatic fall of the rupee, and performance levels well below that of India and Bangladesh, are significant negatives. But don’t blame PTI alone. Pakistan’s systemic economic weaknesses stem from overspending on defence, elite capture of national wealth, and a hopelessly under-skilled workforce. That’s why CPEC’s new infrastructure led to insignificant industrialisation. The same would have happened in a PML-N or PPP government.
On foreign relations: the world noticed PM Khan hailing Osama bin Laden a martyr; calling the Taliban liberators; shaking hands with Putin just before the Ukraine war; wantonly spiting the EU although it is one of Pakistan’s economic props; and sending relations with Saudi Arabia crashing down. Still, these are reversible. A new prime minister can set things right.
On education: Khan’s toxic legacy will be nearly irreversible. While madressahs do exactly today what they have done for decades and centuries, Punjab’s regular schools now function more as madressahs and less as schools. Even the super-rich are only partly exempted. The kind of mixed-up, confused and ignorant generations that the so-called Single National Curriculum will produce is absolutely terrifying. On the higher education front, Khan has disembowelled the HEC and made it a hotbed of intrigue.
When Khan proclaimed Naya Pakistan would be Riyasat-i-Madina, most people thought it was a metaphor for a cleaner, more equitable Pakistan. Our friend from Washington can be forgiven for thinking this as neither “nasty nor nefarious”. Almost everyone failed to see the hidden text: the head of any religious state must claim divine sanction in some form. With near-daily fiery pontifications on his ideas of moral behaviour and proper dress, Khan’s ‘high vision’ is fully before us. And, just in case you are unsure whether Naya Pakistan’s head should stay or go, please remember that “only animals can be neutral”.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.
This article was first published in Dawn on 19 March 2022 and it has been republished here with permission.