The message to world leaders is loud and clear: In a dramatic shift from the past, our country is no longer a pawn, a joke or a global bystander. But there's still a long way to go
Imran Khan’s election victory in Pakistan last year was greeted by an outpouring of optimism and derision. The day he won, he appeared on television, visibly elated to address a celebrating Pakistan. Though he stuck to his campaign promises, he sounded different. As he stared straight into the eyes of his people, offering assurances that it wasn’t time to worry, presenting himself front-line for accountability, promising a Naya (new) Pakistan, it seemed he had finally transitioned from politician to Statesman: honest, conciliatory, human. In a country where hope had long crossed its sell-by date, his words offered a renewed lease of life and people clung on fiercely. Since then, his authentic, stirring avatar has reappeared, evoking long-buried patriotism among hungered Pakistanis.
What Khan’s rallying for a Naya Pakistan did, however, was inflate expectations. Between wild-eyed fanaticism and outright bashing, most forgot the messy, scattered, gargantuan prospect Pakistan really is. Undeniably, Pakistan has been heading in the wrong direction for the last five decades; an extractive political system created a rent-seeking political and economic elite, benefitting a sliver of society at the expense of the masses. Fleeting periods appeared when the sea wasn’t choppy, but change never sustained. Amid the backdrop of such misgovernance, Khan’s rise as a legitimate political alternative led to the fanning of irrational expectancies.
However, as is commonly believed, it is darkest before dawn. With expectations suitably calibrated to the tough reality that Khan’s leadership faces, it is possible to see green-shoots emerging in political and economic arenas. What Khan is trying to implement is a wholesale reform that steers the country towards an inclusive political and economic system. By revamping strategic objectives of Statecraft, the game of smoke and mirrors by previous governments is being laid to rest. The speed of reform is slow and bumpy, and the slew of benefits won’t rain down immediately, but crucially, the direction seems to be right.
For Pakistan’s economy, the inherited legacy of debt and deficits, enormous even by Pakistan’s own standards, has created immediate issues of economic growth. A deeper dive, however, reveals that the rent-seeking culture of yesteryear is finally being reined in. Discouraging investment in non-productive land and consumer goods imports, while promoting exports and import substitution is a long, drawn-out process, in a country where productivity has been steadily dwindling. After years of neglect, investment in exports is on the rise and entrepreneurs have begun setting up businesses based on import substitution. The technology eco-system in Pakistan is belatedly but ultimately coming into place. An ambitious task of bringing more people into the tax net is reaping dividends, with a 65 per cent increase in tax filers over the last year.
This indicates a longer-term shift of realigning incentive structures; as we unlearn the old tricks of the trade, such upheaval is bound to create ripples. The road ahead is long and arduous but Khan’s vision is beginning to reverse the self-destructive path on which Pakistan was treading for decades. It counts as success that his initial slate of reforms is termed as irreversible by the business community.
On the international stage, Khan’s leadership style is a departure from his predecessors. Recognition prior to politics, coupled with the promise of “incorruptibility”, signal his diplomatic stature. Incidents such as Pulwama, followed by the Kashmir crisis, put Khan’s diplomatic headship to instant test and both times, he scored. Requests for him to serve as an honest broker to mediate between the US-Afghanistan and US-Iran evidences the same confidence. Pakistan has surfaced as a responsible global player; a harbinger of peace with its narrative ubiquitously conveyed. The message to world leaders is loud and clear: Pakistan is no longer a pawn, a joke, a bystander on the world stage. It is active, engaged, relevant and responsible. This is a dramatic shift from the past, one which may garner greater recognition retrospectively.
The “Naya Pakistan” that Khan envisioned may be a dream too far-fetched for this perplexing country – at least for now. But by expecting an overnight panacea that turns Pakistan around, we are turning best into the enemy of the good. Instead, what warrants recognition is that despite the cacophony, political winds blowing across the country are putting the architecture for real, tangible change into place – although its pace and scope have left many dispirited.
Whether one gushes over Khan or remains a trenchant critic, as Pakistanis, the more realistic conversations we should have are about aligning our ambitions for an economically stable Pakistan, a relevant and responsible actor on the world stage. If that in itself is achieved, a version of his Naya Pakistan would become reality. Even short of that, for attempting the herculean reform agenda of retracting a nation of 200 million people from the abyss, the cricketer-turned-politician deserves more claps than condemnation.
Farrukh Karim Khan works in Pakistan’s capital markets as a portfolio manager and Saba Karim Khan works at New York University’s global campus in Abu Dhabi