Pakistan’s New Captain
As Imran Khan assumes Captainship of the Pakistani State, the challenges that he faces are immense, not the least being the state of the economy. Ajay Singh outlines the multifarious issues Pakistan’s new captain faces and the challenge to his leadership skills in pulling his beleaguered nation out of its present economic and political morass
As Imran Khan marks the start of his bowling run-up in the most crucial Test of his life, he has his job cut out for him. The economy is on the verge of collapse, the nation is plagued by fundamentalism and Pakistan itself has become an international pariah. Its relations with both its immediate neighbors are bordering on the hostile andits greatest benefactor, America, is tightening the screws. You could say the pitch conditions are definitely not in his favor.
The only thing that he has going for him is that for a change, the Prime Minister and the Army are on the same page. His party the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, has come to power with the covert support of the Army, and he himself lent willing support in numerous stand-offs to weaken Nawaz Sharif’s government. The hobbling of the main political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (including the perfectly timed imprisonment of Nawaz Sharif before the elections) and the Pakistan Peoples Partyseem to have been deliberately engineered by the Army to help propel his rise. It seems to be a case of the Captain and the Coach getting along well - a rarity in both Pakistani cricket and politics.
But how long will this cozy relationship last? He has promised a ‘Naya Pakistan’ but to achieve it he will have to take measures which will be strongly opposed by most elements of Pakistani society – including the Army. How far would he be allowed to go ahead with the measures which are essential to transform his nation? And more importantly, does he truly want to take the radical steps that would veer his nation back to normalcy? That answer will only unfold as the innings progresses.
The Economy First
Imran Khan has taken over an economy that is literally in shambles. Its $340 Billion economy has grown at 5.5% in the past year, but much of its growth is due to foreign borrowings. The Pakistani Rupee is virtually worthless at Rs 128 per dollar. It has an account deficit of $10 Billion and holds foreign reserves enough for just 43 days of imports. And the lenders are knocking on the door.
Pakistan is straddled by a $2.8 Trillion foreign debt and requires $5.4 Billion a year just to service the debt. To prevent default on its payments and bail it out of its immediate economic mess, Pakistan has approached the International Monetary Fund for a whopping $12 Billion, which is twice as high as the $ 5.3 Billion it received in 2013. It is the 21st time it has asked for financial help, only this time the IMF is not biting.
Pakistan had joined the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor with great enthusiasm hoping to develop much needed infrastructure. China helped provide Gwadar port, a highway right up to the Chinese frontier, electrical sub-stations, dams and economic zones. This came with a ‘soft loan’ of $ 62 Billion, though there was nothing soft about it. Interest rates are exorbitant and most of the projects are being executed by Chinese companies and Chinese labor. In other words, most of the money plowed into CPEC is going right back to China. The USA which is the largest contributor to the IMF has thus flatly refused a bail-out stating that ‘IMF Dollars, and by extension US Dollars, will go to Chinese bond holders and China itself’ – a nation with whom it is engaged in a bitter trade war. Even should the IMF agrees, it will be with the pre-conditions that Pakistan share all details of the CPEC projects, including exact scope, costs, payment conditions and future projects – something which the Chinese will not permit. With the IMF playing hardball, Pakistan would be pushed further into a corner where it either collapses economically or is forced to turn to China for more aid – with more conditions attached – and fall into an endless spiral of dependence.
Pakistan and USA – The cozy relationship Unravels
Compounding its economic woes is the worsening relationship with USA. Pakistan has received $ 33 Billion in US assistance since 2002 in return for its ‘help’ in the War in Afghanistan. Not any longer. President Trump has flatly refused any more aid saying it has “got nothing but lies and deceit in return for millions of dollars of US aid”
The Pakistan policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds has finally caught up with it. USA has suspended a $1.5 Billion in Security assistance this January and blocked another $500 Million in Coalition Support Funds in March. In a latest rebuke another $300 Million has been blocked last month, an indicator that the USA will take even harsher steps if Pakistan does not fall in line.
To compound the issue, Pakistan has also been placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s ‘Grey List’ for three years for its support to terrorist organizations. Pakistan now has to take demonstrated action against the Daesh, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Haqqani network, the Taliban and the other organizations or else face crippling financial sanctions. These groups have been covertly supported for decades and even now a large section of the establishment want to retain them. Many of these fundamentalist parties were instrumental in Imran’s rise and should his government act against them, they could well turn against the state and provoke another wave of fundamentalist violence. But a refusal to act will invite international sanctions and a further tightening of the screws which can lead to complete economic and strategic collapse.
But will Imran be able to act against them? The sway which hardliners have in his government was revealed when Imran Khan was forced to remove the renowned economist AtifMian from his Economic Advisory Council. AtifMianis a renowned Pakistani – American economist (and a likely future Nobel Prize winner) who was inducted by Imran himself to help Pakistan extricate itself from its economic mess. Yet, he was forced to be removed due to opposition from religious hardliners. His crime - Atif is an Ahmadi, whom the fundamentalists do not recognize as ‘true’ Muslims. The abject backing down is an augury that fundamentalism is likely to prevail in most policy matters of his government.
Relations with India
Imran promised to improve relations with India in his acceptance speech, but would that remain anything more than words. Yes, he has called for a resumption of dialogue, he has agreed to allow Sikh pilgrims to visit Gurudwaras in Pakistan and promised to increase trade. But beyond that,there is unlikely to be any major changes. In fact, Imran is likely to be more hardline than his predecessors. There may be marginal increase in trade, and other cosmetic changes in the initial days, but nothing more.
Trade, normalization of relations and every else hinges around the Kashmir issue. Not much change can be expected on that. The Pakistani army will never allow any dilution in their engagement to keep Kashmir on the boil. The militant organizations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen andthe hardline fundamentalist party the Tehreek- e-Labbaikwhich Imran has allied himself to will also not allow any change in their hardline agenda. Any hopes of improved relations have been dashed in the first month itself when Pakistani involvement in the killing of SPOs in Kashmir came to light forcing the cancellation of the meeting of Foreign Ministers which was scheduled on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting later this month. The new government has done little on ground to match its professions of peace and with elections coming up in India, no forward movement can be expected. If anything, ties would become stormier.
Nor could much change be expected in its policy towards Afghanistan.US and international sanctions may lead to a temporary respite, but propping up of the Taliban, and the edging out of Indian influence will remain a keystone of Pakistan’s policies there.
Imran Khan had promised a ‘Naya Pakistan’ – a strong, stable Pakistan living in peace and prosperity. To achieve this the first thing that is required is good relations with both India and Afghanistan. And that can only come if it abandons its policies of interference and focuses on the battles that really matter – the war against poverty, illiteracy, illness, sectarian strife and fundamentalism.
To do so will require a radical change in thought process. As of now the signals emanating from Imran’s new government do not indicate any such desire for change. Rather it signals a hawkishness and a dangerous impetuousness. Imran has promised to transform Pakistan in the same manner in which he transformed their Cricket team in 1991 and led them to World Cup triumph. This transformation would not be so easy. Politics and cricket are played on different pitches and this will be a different ball-game altogether.