For a country on the verge of seeking an international financial bailout, the debate in the past week surrounding Prime Minister Imran Khan and his use of a government helicopter, has been simply mind boggling. The ride in question would have been indeed questionable had Pakistan’s recently-elected premier chosen to go on a joyride at state expenses. In this case, however, he simply chose to be flown home from his office in central Islamabad to the city’s ‘Bani gala’ suburb, mainly to avoid traffic congestion — indeed a security imperative.
In a country where a former prime minister (Benazir Bhutto) was assassinated in 2007, another (Nawaz Sharif) survived a possible attack and former president General Pervez Musharraf survived two assassination attempts, any number of precautions surrounding the top leaders will remain only too few. There are the likes of the Taliban who are under attack by Pakistani forces and their reaction continues to involve targeting of high-profile public figures, including the prime minister, as acts of revenge.
Imran’s critics have generally made the mistake of confusing what is necessary (a helicopter ride for security purposes) as opposed to a luxury. In stark contrast, former prime minister Sharif’s use of a helicopter to transport freshly-cooked food from Islamabad to a resort-like opulent home in Pakistan’s lush green northern hillside, was indeed a true luxury.
But the issue goes deeper than simply the obvious and immediate. Pakistan’s opposition, which is perhaps the strongest in years, has chosen to just latch on to this one inconsequential matter as it has yet to figure out exactly how to corner the government on policy issues. The opposition has cried foul from day one about the conduct of the parliamentary elections in July this year. At the very least, their charges may be in need of further assessment. Yet, to take on Imran on the use of a helicopter ride for a once-a-week travel from his office to his home and back, smacks of the utter confusion in the ranks of his opponents. It also highlights the all too obvious point that Imran’s opponents, having failed to find a more substantive fault in his background, are just compelled to pick on a side issue.
Rather than nit-picking on every action by the prime minister and his team, a far more mature response will not only be in the interest of the opposition but in fact in the interest of Pakistan. While the opposition has repeatedly demanded a more democratic conduct of politics in Pakistan, their calls have so far appeared mostly self-serving.
Going forward for the opposition, the past week has raised doubts about their ability to focus on relevant policy issues.
Indeed, as Pakistan’s present-day rulers prepare for an international financial bailout, there will be ample opportunities for the ruling and opposition benches to comprehensively assess the structure, terms and conditions of a new package. It’s already clear that the crisis that confronts Pakistan today is the consequence of economic policies pursued by the Sharif government through Ishaq Dar, the former premier’s powerful finance minister. During the past five years before the July elections, Sharif’s government made Pakistan much more indebted than ever before. Other parts of the economy clearly underperformed, such as exports that crashed and imports that went up massively.
The former government had also acquired the reputation of perhaps being the most spendthrift regime in Pakistan’s history, having spent blindly on flashy projects. All this happened while the divide between the rich and the poor continued to widen.
While opposition politicians will continue to bear the burden for the blunders of the past, they must now also pick the burden of joining the debate on the future of Pakistan. In the coming days, when ordinary Pakistanis will inevitably face belt-tightening as never before, the opposition will have the obligation to discuss and debate policy issues in parliament.
Outside the parliament, joining the fray to help form public opinion will also be a key obligation of opposition parties. However, going by the events of the past week, the controversy surrounding Imran’s helicopter ride tragically suggests just one prickly point — that the opposition has so far failed to appreciate the major challenges for the future of Pakistan.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.