Imran Khan’s obsession with winning has disfigured him as a politician (2018)

I had written the following letter to the Financial Times in the summer of 2018 prior to the general elections in Pakistan. The FT didn’t publish it. I’m posting it here now. I think I got at least some things right. Some of my observations are still relevant today in light of recent developments, such as the build-up to the no-confidence motion and the motion’s aftermath which is still unfolding.

One of the many important lessons of Richard Sennett’s study of craftsmanship in The Craftsman has to do with the nature of obsession. In the practice of any craft, obsession left unmanaged and lacking self-awareness will disfigure both the person and the work. Imran Khan, a poor practitioner of the craft of politics who may be Pakistan’s next prime minister, is a case in point.

Khan’s anti-corruption stance (“Pakistan heads for dirtiest elections in years”), and hence his relentless opposition towards Nawaz Sharif, have been more than just that. The past five years have been marked by one statement after another filled with ill-feeling, ill-will and bitterness. For five years he has stayed on the offensive and there has been no sign of retreat. For many of his supporters this firm commitment to fairness in elections, to a supposedly principled politics and to bringing corrupt politicians to account is exactly what makes him worthy of support. However, Khan lacks a key skill for a politician – to be able to retreat and recover for the next political offensive. His offense has been obsessive and tiresome. It is not a surprise that he has lost part of his support base since the last elections, and it appears he has been happy to pay that price.

Far from being a political virtue, the obsessive single mindedness with which Khan is leading his party towards the hope of winning power in the upcoming elections has disfigured his own political identity. Observe the association of the party with the likes of Amir Liaquat, once unimaginable to Khan’s supporters. It has also disfigured his understanding of global politics. His recent suggestions that politics in Europe are somehow cleaner and less immune to the influence of money than in Pakistan make him look completely out of touch with significant developments such as Vote Leave’s violation of spending limits and the still-unfolding aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Whether or not Khan has won favor with the military, he certainly has blinders on, and having lost all sense of perspective he is now a poor fit for the public office which he now seeks with such open desperation. Regardless of the results of the election, it will be interesting to see what will happen to Khan and his party when the blinders finally come off.

Notes in Circulation # 2

Between a capitalist rock and a democratic hard place

Capitalism and democracy, for all their beauty, are also brutal systems, subject to the volatility and absurdities of human decision making. Guided by the profit motive and the exclusionary power of capital, capitalism is a powerful but difficult beast to tame and put to work for the well-being of the general populace. It is a web which hangs together as a complex whole, where a disturbance to one part will send the whole thing moving, sometimes gently and sometimes violently. Democracy, for all its promises of inclusion and collective decision making, is tough work. Democracy done poorly ends with Trump and Johnson at the helm of affairs. But it is important work, for democracy not done at all ends with military dictators and Putin.

And right now, the PTI and the Prime Minister are stuck between a capitalist rock and a democratic hard place. They are feeling the heavy burdens of democratic governance and managing a capitalist economy. They are learning that democracy and capitalism are both works in progress, and both require that people be persuaded, because we cannot force people — whether to invest or to agree with our point view. People forget that the big shift in Keynesian thinking about the economy is not just about the role of government, but thinking about decision making under conditions of uncertainty rather than scarcity. (For example, inflation is not just a problem because of how it eats into buying power, but also because it triggers uncertainty about the future. It puts people in a position where they don’t know what to do, because they don’t know what the future will bring, and how they will cope with it.) None of what the government is doing is going to help settle fears about tomorrow. Both in its words and actions, it is not being very persuasive.

And the Prime Minister knows people must be persuaded. Hence the desperate speeches and subsidies (“Stung by criticism, Khan rolls out massive subsidy plan”). Hence an “industrial policy” was promised in the February 28 speech. What was on offer in the March 1 speech however was an industrial “package” which seems to be little more than an amnesty scheme for now. (Industrial “package”, as if it was a pay-as-you-go phone data bundle.) I’m no fan of the National Security Policy document, but at least a similar effort to articulate an industrial policy could have been undertaken. The government knows that for all this talk of neutrality and not taking sides in foreign policy, the public will not stand neutral come election time. They will take sides. There is no facade of neutrality at the voting booth.

Even faithful supporters must be kept on side. Following the February 28 speech, a PTI and Imran Khan supporter admitted to me his frustration that the Prime Minister’s message is not clear, that everything is jumbled up. Recall that the PTI once used to be all about young people. Then it was all about the overseas Pakistani. And now the business community. Imran Khan is pro-profit, admitting in yesterday’s speech that support for the business community should have become the focus earlier. He is also pro-capitalism. Welfare state type capitalism, but capitalism still. And you cannot tell people what to do in capitalism, as much as the Prime Minister might want to. And this is why he and his party are feeling the full force of the difficulties of democracy and capitalism, wanting to make things better but without having to deal with the inconvenience of facing political opposition and persuading the public. They are also trying to keep everyone happy without appearing to pick sides.

While I agree with many of the insights of Marxian political economy and do not deny the sharp analytical edge from which those insights are yielded, for me the more relevant writer for our time is not Marx but Keynes (the godfather of managed capitalism), who himself lived through a time of economic crisis, war and authoritarian strongmen (or “madmen in authority”, as he put it in the concluding chapter of The General Theory). One of my key take-aways from my reading of Keynes is that in modern capitalist economy and politics, one should pick a side. (See his essay Am I a Liberal?.) Amidst all the NATO whataboutery, neutral foreign policy and whether or not the Prime Minister’s visit to Russia was a success, one image was crystal clear. At the center of this image was our prime minister. One would have thought that Imran Khan — with his legendary status as leader of cornered tigers — would love, admire and champion the cause and fighting spirit of the Ukranians at this time, just as he was championing the breaking of “shackles of slavery” in Afghanistan last year. Instead he was reduced to a man beside himself with joy at having landed in Moscow to meet Putin. So much for democracy and capitalism.

Pakistan’s National Security Policy document is more about power than security

I had penned the following on Saturday, January 22, 2022. The day after, the prime minister began a surreal broadcast by complaining about not being able to speak in parliament.

The recently published National Security Policy of Pakistan (along with its summary) pretends to be technical and apolitical in claiming to put economic resources and their re-distribution at the center of its framework. The reality is that this document’s political character and not-so-trivial implications are better understood if we take into account recent remarks made in two interviews by Mr. Moeed Yusuf, currently national security adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

First, consider the following from the interview with Saleem Safi on Geo News: “We cannot have national security until we have sustained economic growth in the medium and long term. To that end, there are some things… it’s not a matter of this government or that government. This is not a political document.” Consider the connection being made between security and growth. It is very admirable that the document focuses on the security of vulnerable citizens. But the fact of the matter is that insecurity – financial, physical, legal, psychological – is rife in Pakistan. There is a persistent threat of the outbreak of violence anywhere and everywhere. There is very little trustworthy protection and security against those threats, and even lesser recourse to law after the security of citizens has already been violated. The idea that security on the street and in our homes will be improved when we have growth and when we redistribute the gains from that growth is laughable. The lack of security for citizens on the street or in the home is not because we are not rich enough as a country. It is because we as a country are suffering from deep seated socio-political and institutional pathologies.

Also consider the supposedly apolitical character of the document. The fact is that all matters of the economy and policy are political, because they are concerned with the fundamental questions of production, distribution and allocation (especially allocation of human energy or human “resource” as a lot of people are fond of calling it) which are inherently issues of power and hence of politics. What is going to be made, how much and by whom, and to whom is it going to be distributed and how much – these economic questions are really about who wields how much power. And even if Pakistan were to somehow set itself upon a stable growth path, it is not clear why the beneficiaries of growth would give up their advantages in the name of some lofty national agenda unless persuaded to do so. Growth can entrench the status quo as much as it can change it.

Second, consider the following statement from the interview with Peter Dobbie of Al Jazeera English: “Politics is politics. I don’t belong to that world. The opposition will say what it says. This is a document that no Pakistani government, I can guarantee you, will go back on.” This claim was made with supreme confidence. The implication is that this is the agenda set by the country’s traditional security apparatus for anyone who might want to be in government – take it or leave it. No Pakistani government will go back on it because if they have objections, they will not be in government in the first place. If it has a change of heart afterwards, it will not be in government for very long. And the fact that this document was kept partially classified does suggest that this is more a secret agenda and less a public policy document presented by the government of the day in a democratic society.

People who profess to be apolitical or lacking an ideological orientation are either mistakenly fooling themselves or purposefully fooling others. Mr. Yusuf is smart enough to know that this is in fact a political document and that he very much belongs to the world of politics: he is closely tied to the governing party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i Insaaf (PTI), now that he is advising the current prime minister and also speaking on his behalf in public regularly. This document is not so much about a national security dialogue or focusing on the security and welfare of the citizens. It is more about the economic policy and management of the country being subsumed within the traditional security apparatus of the country. That is, it is about who holds power in Pakistan. If this document were really about the welfare and security of the most vulnerable Pakistanis, there would be no need for part of it to be classified. If the current government wishes to bolster its democratic credentials ahead of next year’s general elections, it should share the classified parts of the document with the public. Given the poor track record of this government so far, this is unlikely to happen.