“If Imran Khan delivers at end of his 5-year term, he will easily outclass all of his political opponents.” But if he fails….

Originally written for Arab News Pakistan:

The election of Imran Khan as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan has heralded a new era in the country’s political history. For the first time, a third political force has not only managed to break the political status quo, but has also been successful in forming its government in the center and in two provinces. Khan’s victory signals that a majority of Pakistanis have had enough of the bad governance and corruption being done in the name of democracy over the past 10 years. Simultaneously, this also has raised the bar of expectations for the new PM much higher.

Prime Minister Khan’s maiden address to the nation gave some insight into his vision for a new Pakistan. The style of the speech itself was probably as new as its content and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Pakistanis have waited a long time for something like this from their ruling class. Breaking off with the traditional robotic and emotionless style of reading from a teleprompter, the speech very much looked and sounded like a frank conversation between Pakistanis and their prime minister.

It was not an address but an interaction that swiftly touched all the right nerves of the audience. Khan pitched up problems, then brought up anecdotes from Islamic history (including mentioning the “Madina model”), discussed their operationalization in the modern day Western world (such as tax practices in Scandinavia), and finally came up with his own plans of action.

The speech started with an honest estimate of the state of the country’s economic affairs and urged overseas Pakistanis to invest within their country to help with stabilizing the economy. It then moved on and covered a plethora of issues, ranging from the need for broadening the tax net, rooting out corruption, health and educational reforms, bureaucratic and judicial transformations, improving the state of the police, addressing the water crisis and environmental hazards and, lastly, the devolution of power to the grass roots.

Relatively non-structural and non-institutional themes regarding cleanliness, being compassionate to the underprivileged and taking ownership of things also found their way into this speech. The talk echoed a sense of awareness of the acute issues faced by the country for decades and the need for institutional restructuring, while also acknowledging the need to reform some of our collective national habits. This was probably Khan’s first rather vague blueprint of state-building.

Interestingly, foreign policy got only a very minor chunk of time in this overall quite lengthy speech, and was barely limited to the resolve of improving relations with Pakistan’s neighbors. Judging by the scale of domestic political and economic challenges facing Khan and his government, it can be expected that, initially, the new government might adopt a rather inward-looking approach. Even if any significant foreign outreach does take place, it will be dictated by the pressing economic woes.

The real test of Khan will be how to do all of this. Khan himself has no track record in terms of governance, but the same cannot be said about his party and its cadres, who have remained in power for five years in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Although the party’s government managed to significantly reform the police, education and health sectors, a failure in establishing a provincial accountability commission, non-completion of major development projects and instances of crony capitalism have marred its overall performance.

Khan has to understand that, thanks to the high standards he has set himself, a repetition of what Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf did in KP at the national level might well be considered an underperformance and be enough to disillusion his voting base. Taking inspiration from the KP model might be fine, but it should not be considered the gold standard.

A lot will depend on Khan’s selected team, who will have to fully implement and materialize his vision. Khan has picked up a reasonable economic team and additionally has a good set of advisers to help with reforming the country’s powerful bureaucracy, but the fact remains that changing the prevailing working environment within Pakistani institutions and taking on the powerful officer cadres firmly entrenched within civil service structures won’t be easy.

In the meantime, it will be advisable to keep a robust check on the performance of his Cabinet members, while also keeping himself away from the usual political flatterers that surround every new power-holder and cajole him into believing a mirage of non-existent reality, eventually resulting in his demise.

If Khan delivers at the end of his five-year term, he will easily outclass all of his political opponents, while also weakening the apolitical power structures prevalent within the country. Conversely, if he fails to live up to these expectations, he will be consigned to the rubbish bin of history and won’t live a day longer in the political memory of the people. There’s simply no choice but to perform.