The call of distant dreams—Will Imran Khan achieve them or perish on the way

Fakir Syed Aijazuddin
Fakir Syed Aijazuddin

If beauty is skin deep, integrity in politics is equally superficial. Scratch the gilt surface of any Pakistani politician; exposed will be a lower layer of hypocrisy, smelted in guilt.

Take the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party. He promised the people ‘Roti, kapra aur makan’. His lineal descendants enjoy all these, mainly abroad.

Take the founder of the PML-N. His elders began their ironmongery business in Lahore’s Landa Bazar. When the PPP government nationalised the family’s Ittefaq Foundries in January 1972, his wife’s jewellery was found in the factory safe, where it had been squirrelled away for safekeeping.

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Today, the Sharif descendants flaunt their extravagant baubles at wedding functions held in London, Islamabad and Lahore. They do so with a brazen panache that even the Mukesh Ambanis might envy. Meanwhile, these hereditary politicos treat their poor followers as flies; they swat them for their sport.
A diminishing generation will recall that fateful morning in January 1972, fifty years ago, when Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Nationalisation and Economic Reforms Order (its apt acronym was NERO) released a slew of actions, disguised as social reforms aimed at impoverishing the rich rather than enriching the poor.

At a stroke, private entrepreneurs who had built a range of basic industries and profitable businesses found themselves dis-possessed overnight, without relief or compensation. This initial wave was followed by a tsunami which swamped banks, life insurance services, educational institutions, agricultural processors, etc.

Over the past fifty years, many of these have been denationalised – most notably Ittefaq Foundries. It was returned by General Ziaul Haq to the Sharifs, the deal sealed with the anointing of the elder son Nawaz Sharif as the future political patriarch of the Punjab.

What has become of those socialist dreams of Mr. Bhutto’s? They have degenerated into economic nightmares. The most prominent failure amongst them is the Pakistan Steel Mills – a flagship of Pak-Russian collaboration, now a stricken Titanic that refuses to sink.

Over a hundred taken-over industries and businesses have been denuded by generations of government appointed administrators, chosen from sticky-fingered bureaucrats, retired military officers given a shot at supplementing their meagre pensions, and politically peripheral upstarts. Appointed to run these enterprises, they ran them instead into the ground.

One has only to read the reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Privatisation Commission to gauge the condition of these failed experiments in Islamic socialism. The term ‘sick industries’ used to be applied to those businesses in the private sector that teetered on the edge of insolvency. Today, there are more ‘sick’ industries, companies, and corporations under the government’s management than in the private sector.

Unlike the private sector which cannot afford to be inefficient or unprofitable, units in the public sector refuse to die. They hobble like geriatric pensioners, dependent on dole milked from the national exchequer.

The PTI government’s election manifesto promised to exact looted wealth taken abroad by the PML-N and PPP bigwigs. It was to be the quick-fix to Pakistan’s economic stagnancy. That might have been the reason why the present prime minister, soon after taking oath in August 2018, gave the Chairman NAB a ringing endorsement, intended to resound in the Sharif’s flats in London’s Belgravia and the Zardari chateau in Normandy, France.

Forty months on, that self-imposed Herculean task has made a Sisyphus of the PM. He continues to shoulder the boulder of recovery uphill. He sees it roll down again, then repeats the same exercise with myopic zeal. The original Sisyphus had eternity to accomplish his task. The PM’s failure to surmount that distant crest may well become the boulder that crushes its own Sisyphus.

A prime minister who learns on the job receives an expensive education, at state expense. Undergraduate Khan took three years to obtain his privately funded degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (gaining a weak Third) from Oxford University. He has spent as long already swotting politics and economics and expounding his philosophy in Islamabad. Will he be allowed to graduate (he hopes, with honours) in 2023?

The Indian columnist Shobha Dé in her book Selective Memory (1998) contends that he doesn’t like women: ‘He certainly does not respect them.’ She met the once debonair Khan over dinner, recalling: ‘He had bags under his eyes, and a huge chip on his shoulder. He carried on like there was a heavy burden he had to bear – Pakistan had to be saved at all costs.’ She added: ‘This was the future prime-ministerial hopeful talking, a mixture of mullah-speak and politics’, addressing airily some ‘distant spot as if that helped him focus on his own pearls of wisdom.’

How soon, one wonders, will it be before those presently in love with him fall out with him? Or he, with them?

Fakir Syed Aijazuddin is a well-known writer and columnist from Pakistan. This column was published in Dawn today.

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