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Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan received his moment of glory under the international spotlight as he spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York on Friday to push Islamabad’s case on Kashmir. Almost two months after India controversially revoked an autonomous status for the part of the mountainous state under Delhi’s control, Imran promised to keep on pressing ahead till the rights of Kashmiris are protected.

And then on Saturday came Afghanistan’s presidential elections surrounded by one of the worst periods of uncertainty in the troubled country’s history. Coming just three weeks after the latest round of peace talks between the Taliban and the US government collapsed, Pakistan faces continuing US-led western urging if not outright pressure to nudge the Taliban back to the negotiating table. In brief, between Friday and Saturday, Pakistan and Imran were under the global spotlight.

But turn the wheel back to Pakistan’s internal dynamics and the picture looks far more mixed. On Tuesday, events after a strong earthquake centred around a part of Kashmir immediately exposed gaps in the official handling of that crisis. As troops from the Pakistan army alongside the civilian government went in action to provide emergency relief, Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan drew criticism. At a social gathering after the earthquake, she made light of the calamity and simply noted that even the ground had turned over, inspired by the tabdeeli or change promised by Imran when he came to office a year ago. Shortly thereafter, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari publicly apologised for Awan’s insensitive remarks, as the death toll rose across the stricken area.

Key challenge

Taken together, the two trends — foreign versus domestic have highlighted a key challenge faced by Pakistan. As Imran makes inroads in global opinion towards publicising his case on Kashmir, questions remain unanswered over Pakistan’s internal outlook. Awan’s remarks, though later she said it was taken out of context, nevertheless have been a powerful reminder of a wider malaise. While Imran earlier promised to take his ministers to task, or sack them if necessary, that commitment appears to have been abandoned.

Pakistanis deserve to know how their government will reshape key institutions to address the multiple challenges. Without tangible reforms, Pakistan is at risk of being exposed to an uncertain future.

- Farhan Bokhari, Pakistan commentator

This must qualify as the first misstep in delivering the promise of a new future for not just Pakistan’s elite but also for the common man who placed their full faith in the former cricket star. Tragically, as Imran and his team venture out to the global spotlight, their focus on real life domestic issues seems to have become diluted.

Among examples of key challenges, the economy is in the midst of perhaps the most comprehensive adjustment undertaken in the history of Pakistan. And yet, key areas in this vital sector continue to remain ignored. For instance, the agriculture sector which sustains up to half or more of Pakistan’s population remains surrounded by fancy words in the name of new reformist policies. But those policies so far have shown little evidence of being translated into action: Farmers are yet to receive the much-needed support.

Unprecedented slowdown

Meanwhile, a key segment of Pakistan’s industry — the automobile sector which was at the centre of robust growth just two years ago, today faces an unprecedented slowdown with little chance of recovery in the near future. Two top car manufacturers — Honda and Toyota — have been forced to cut their production significantly in the face of falling demand. While the government may take time to tackle the challenges for this sector and other segments of the industry, it’s clear that the country has little space for newcomers. But in 2020, mostly Asian producers of automobiles have been lined up in addition to the existing ones to sell their products, completely disregarding the present glut.

As Imran seeks to make a difference to global opinion on Kashmir, he cannot afford to ignore the reality at the grass roots of Pakistan. A disconnect with realities risks fomenting public frustration.

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In recent years, one of the more remarkable features has been the success of army and security services in driving out Taliban militants from pockets along the border with Afghanistan. This success will remain meaningless unless the government revamps key internal structures responsible for maintenance of law and order. To consolidate the success, a comprehensive policing structure and a well functioning judicial mechanism should be put in place, and it must be backed by an efficient civil service. Without such reforms, the country faces the prospect of new law and order challenges.

Imran will want to continue spreading his message on Kashmir. But Pakistanis deserve to know how their government will reshape key institutions to address the multiple challenges. Without tangible reforms, Pakistan is at risk of being exposed to an increasingly uncertain future.

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