Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan joined a large group of Sikh pilgrims on Saturday at the Kartarpur shrine near Pakistan’s border with India, for the formal inauguration of a ‘visa free’ travel arrangement for Sikhs in yet another plus on the foreign policy front.
By all accounts so far, the event marked an important step to win the hearts and minds of members of the Sikh community worldwide with most of the religion’s followers concentrated across India’s Punjab province. But beyond the fanfare surrounding yesterday’s event, more than a week has passed since opposition leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman has camped out in Islamabad along with thousands of followers of his Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam or JUI to press for the prime minister’s resignation.
Rehman’s protest has been widely noticed and reported worldwide. In the past week, hardly no internet search engine ignored the happenings in Islamabad. Ultimately, several days of the latest protests have only reinforced Pakistan’s image as an unstable country.
To make matters worse, the protest widely showed off images of militant followers belonging to ‘Ansar ul Islam’ — a paramilitary outfit attached to JUI. Dressed in ‘khaki’ coloured ‘shalwar’ and ‘kameez’ outfits and armed with sticks, these young men and their group have openly defied the rule of law in Pakistan.
Almost two decades ago, Pakistan’s former president General Pervez Musharraf banned all such outfits across the country, putting in place an important milestone in Islamabad’s push against militancy. And yet, events of the past week in Islamabad have obviously made clear that the law has yet to be enforced not just in letter but more importantly in its full spirit.
Its unclear exactly what will be the eventual fate of this protest. But in the wake of events over the past week, gaps surrounding Khan’s government have been further exposed. In brief, the image of a successful pursuit of Pakistan’s foreign policy is yet to go ahead in sync with a similar image of success on the domestic front.
Meanwhile, an economic slowdown and the effects on ordinary citizens flowing from a painful adjustment process imposed on Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund or IMF, is set to slice off part of the popularity of PTI and Khan
Initiative gone wrong
On Sunday, Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is likely to leave the country for medical treatment overseas, after recent speculation over his failing health over several days. Sharif’s departure on its own may not change Pakistan’s political landscape. However, this is a former ruler who was targeted by Khan repeatedly over allegations of corruption with the promise that the government was set to make an example of him.
But the blind pursuit of Sharif’s prosecution on corruption related charges during Khan’s 15 month government, has badly exposed a difficult bind surrounding Pakistan. In addition to targeting Sharif, Khan’s government has sought out businessmen across the country on corruption related charge in a bid to make an example of them.
The initiative has badly backfired with businessmen across Pakistan widely complaining of being targeted without clear cut and comprehensive evidence backing charges against them. At a time when Pakistan’s economic growth has fallen sharply and in fact has become negative in real terms when population growth is accounted, the controversy surrounding corruption related investigations has not helped.
Khan’s government also faces widespread scepticism over its failure to begin comprehensive reforms that would improve daily lives for ordinary people. Notwithstanding the prime minister’s promises during his election campaign, of moving rapidly to visibly improve lives for ordinary Pakistanis, little change has so far become evident.
The troubles for Khan have not been helped by the thin standing of his Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf or PTI political party in parliament. In 2018, he became prime minister only after cobbling together a simple majority coalition government with like minded political parties and politicians in parliament. But with dissidence growing in Pakistani politics and all too visible popular frustration with the ruling structure, the government’s majority in parliament cannot be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, an economic slowdown and the effects on ordinary citizens flowing from a painful adjustment process imposed on Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund or IMF, is set to slice off part of the popularity of PTI and Khan.
The IMF’s influence on Pakistan has only increased in the wake of the fund’s decision earlier this year to grant a $6 billion (Dh22 billion) loan to Islamabad. If there is an eventual popular backlash in Pakistan, that would not be different from the public’s resentment causing political upheaval among other IMF borrowing countries.
Faced with major odds, is Khan set to fail following an unprecedented victory for a Pakistani politician beyond the country’s two main political parties? It’s still early to draw that conclusion in spite of Pakistan’s growing political and economic uncertainty.
In addition to the challenges faced by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N led by Sharif with his failing health, a similar set of challenges are faced by the Pakistan People’s Party or PPP led by former president Asif Zardari who also faces significant health related issues. Both Sharif and Zardari are also faced with corruption related investigations which have dented their ability to run their parties from the front.
Still, the opposition’s own challenges are likely to do little by way of lifting Khan’s credentials. For now, the prime minister must only focus on the number of weak areas surrounding his regime, with a strong focus on overcoming such gaps.
To begin with, celebrating success on the foreign policy front with events like Saturday’s opening of Kartarpur shrine for access to followers of the Sikh religion, will not help Pakistan overcome its domestic challenges. It’s the writing on the wall which Khan must heed before he runs out of time for remedial action.
—Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.