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Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan Image Credit: AFP

When a Pakistani Cabinet minister banged an army boot on the table during a live TV show in the past week, the country’s rulers and their disconnect with the ongoing political slide became obvious once again.

Minister Faisal Vawda with a history of clumsy theatrics used the occasion to condemn the country’s opposition politicians as no more than ‘boot lickers’. Yet, not only did his own already tarnished credentials come apart once again, the sorry event also highlighted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s increasing failure to take charge of what seems like a rudderless government, notwithstanding official claims to the contrary.

Many Pakistanis still recall another sorry episode from 2018 when Vawda turned up in the midst of a police versus terrorists stand-off at the Chinese consulate in Karachi. Armed and wearing a flak jacket, Vawda went on public TV in the midst of that dangerous saga, promising to join the fight as an act of patriotism. That he became more of a hindrance in that episode rather than a supporting mechanism appeared to make little difference to the country’s top leadership right up to Imran.

Imran will have to revamp his team and replace novices who are more a liability for his government.

- Farhan Bokhari, Pakistan commentator

For the moment, Vawda has apparently been ordered by Imran to stay away from appearances on TV channels, according to the latest press reports. But the prime minister’s failure to dismiss ministers like Vawda, who has clearly been out of line for more than just a while, says much about his failure to be decisive.

Last week’s episode has coincided with signs, albeit early ones, of political allies of Imran’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) being disgruntled with the direction of the government. Consequently, it’s hardly surprising that leaders of smaller political parties in the southwestern Balochistan province, the southern Sindh province and the central Punjab province, have recently come out publicly to share their anxieties with the direction of the PTI-led government.

It’s much too early to foretell the final outcome of such events. But it would be equally unwise to shove them under the carpet as no more than another proverbial storm in a teacup. Clearly, the all too powerful reality of Pakistan’s very obvious present-day trends ought to say far more about where the country is heading.

Economic malaise

It’s abundantly clear that Imran’s ability to take charge of Pakistan is in doubt. But is he able to fathom the reality of the gathering storm? Only a shrinking community will answer that very compelling question in the affirmative.

On one hand, Pakistan’s mainstream population is clearly surrounded by a crisis seldom seen in the country’s history. An all-around economic malaise witnessed in the form of a dangerously low growth rate and widespread poverty is lethal.

But the government’s failure to inspire confidence in ways that would rejuvenate the economy smacks right at the heart of the problem. It’s therefore not surprising that now in the second year of a five-year tenure, Imran and the PTI have clearly failed to inspire Pakistan’s community of businessmen to join a new reformist movement.

In this journey to create a more progressive country, the younger generation must be at the centre of a more forward-looking reformist movement. Yet, the moment of change as repeatedly promised by the prime minister appears nowhere near the horizon.

Anxious over future prospects

It’s hardly surprising that Imran’s political allies, who helped him form the government in 2018, are beginning to feel anxious over their future prospects. With present trends continuing across Pakistan, it must be obvious that politicians in the PTI or one of their supporting parties, must be able to predict their loss of fortunes in the run up to the 2023 elections.

Meanwhile, pro-PTI soothsayers among Imran’s supporters still prefer to put out an optimistic message, predicting an overall upturn well before Pakistan heads to the polls again. This is clearly based on fallacious thinking. Considering the present situation, an upturn in the near future sounds more like a pipe dream.

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Going forward, Pakistan’s ruling structure cannot afford to crumble especially if the PTI’s allies, who are sensing future political danger, begin distancing themselves from Imran and his team.

The writing on the wall is very clear. Imran needs to take charge of his own government, put together a more coherent economic policy and close ranks with his political allies. This may sound like a clear recipe for the future. But it’s much easier said than done.

In the process, Imran will have to revamp his team and replace novices who are more a liability for his government. In a revamped ruling structure, individuals like Vawda must not find a spot. Other non-performers like Usman Buzdar, chief minister of the Punjab province, also need to be taken to task mainly for leading the populous state without any direction. With a population of more than 120 million, the Punjab is Pakistan’s lifeline. A failure to tackle the most visible challenges in the province must only come at the cost of antagonising roughly 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population.

The most pertinent and compelling question for Imran is: Is he able to read the writing on the wall?

— Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters