Imran Khan likes to remind anyone who will listen that politics had nothing to offer him, and that he “came into politics” for completely benevolent reasons. In doing so, he portrays himself as a disinterested politician. Examining how he navigates character politics gives us insight into the character of politics in Pakistan. This, in turn, can be a good starting point to understand why we are so far from the point of public policy failure that we can barely get the government as well as the opposition to pay attention to the floods in various parts of the country. .
So, in order to understand the absurdities of the political economy of Pakistan, let us analyze the two absurdities of the oft-repeated statement of the PTI President. The first absurdity is the claim that politics had nothing to offer Imran Khan. Politics gives us the chance to serve a purpose bigger than ourselves by cooperating with people. The argument that he was already doing this through the SKMCH is not entirely false, but misses the point. Philanthropy is not a public service, and the scope of influence offered to him by the post of Prime Minister is not comparable to a hospital, no matter how good. Khan’s claim protects him: how can you blame a man for anything if becoming head of government hasn’t really increased his power and influence? This trivialization of the influence of the civil service, especially one as high as that of the head of government, may have protected him, but has probably done deep and lasting damage to Pakistan’s political culture.
The second absurdity is the idea of “going into politics”. Khan is not the only one to use this expression. “Entering the dirty world of politics”, as if the rest of a Pakistani citizen’s daily life were clean and infinitely comfortable, and by “entering politics”, a Pakistani emerges from a fantastic utopia for a place dangerous and dirty. The expression is as absurd as the idea that Pakistan is a country of dreams. This implies that there are citizens who are not political, and that citizenship – our daily life in this country as citizens – is not a political exercise. This citizenship is not a skill and a continuous political engagement with everyday life. Again, this absurd claim has the effect of trivializing our status and agency as citizens.
Khan isn’t the only one involved in nonsense. Exhibit B: the PML-N. Miftah Ismail has received widespread praise for prioritizing “tough decisions” to achieve economic stability over electoral prospects (see his interview with Gharidah Farooqi on July 18). The Prime Minister, in his August 13 speech, talked about rising above politics, ignoring the election outlook and focusing on the economy and the prospect of an economy charter. These two PML-N personalities are only the tip of the iceberg of a popular and common sentiment: that the parties should pursue the economic interest of the country rather than their own political interests. There is something wrong with the idea that parties should or do pursue economic prosperity by ignoring their own political interests in the voting booth. This suggests two things: (1) that economic prosperity is not already on his own party’s political agenda” and (2) that the Pakistani voter will in fact actively reward political parties for pursuing an agenda that does not does not include economic prosperity. The first suggestion is a damning confession and the second is an insult to the voter.
No wonder, then, that Pakistan’s political economy has become shrouded in layers and layers of myths, mysteries and smokescreens. He took a magical turn and became inscrutable with all this talk of invisible ghosts, shadowy alien powers and MX (Not to mention Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s secret formula for eliminating the inflation problem; see his August 13 speech). In this environment, any debate and discussion about Pakistan’s economic path should be appreciated and encouraged. We need a more disciplined (social) scientific analysis of the political economy of Pakistan. But these should be part of citizens’ daily lives, which is why the power of social media to give citizens better access and amplify their voice (eg Twitter spaces) is so important.
The idea of an economy charter may actually have some value. But it is not possible that the value of consensus on the economy is rooted in a neglect of daily life and political processes. If this neglect prevails, the country will continue to suffer the distributive consequences of power differentials between large economic actors and an impoverished population. No consensus will emerge without attention to and commitment to citizen political action, and any consensus that emerges in this way will be suspect and questionable. The neglect of citizens’ suffering is not inevitable. Too much politics? Far from there. The political life of the citizen needs to be recognized and nurtured, and it needed it yesterday.
The author is an economist. He tweets @ khand154