Droning the countdown

Droning the countdown
A couple of days before Imran Khan was sworn in as prime minister in July 2018, the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, advised him to make a new prime minister’s customary trip to Riyadh immediately afterwards and follow up with the equally obligatory trip to China. Imran Khan agreed to General Bajwa’s advice because both countries were critical benefactors of Pakistan. Subsequently, however, Imran Khan began to drag his feet. Indeed, he told General Bajwa that he had decided (on whose advice we can only conjecture) to focus on domestic issues and not take any foreign trips for the first three months. Since General Bajwa had alerted Riyadh to this upcoming trip, he had to fly to the Kingdom and explain a “slight delay” in the visit (while his team made frantic efforts to sway the new prime minister). When Imran Khan finally made the trip, his earlier hesitation was not lost on Prince Mohammad bin Salman even as he welcomed him with open arms. The Saudi Royal returned the visit within the year, bearing gifts, investment pledges and soft loans. In fact, the wags say that MBS left a special mobile phone with Imran Khan to enable him to contact the Prince directly at any time.

Unfortunately, a year later, the special mobile phone died and the Saudis pulled out of a proposed $10b investment in Gwadar and asked Pakistan to return the US$1b deposit in the State Bank even as they announced a plan to invest $40b in India. The Saudis’ ire originated with two unthinking “initiatives” by Imran Khan: first, his unsolicited attempt to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran; second, his bid to set up a rival bloc comprising Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Pakistan to challenge the hegemony of the OIC in the Muslim world led by Saudi Arabia. Relations hit rock bottom some months ago when, upon Imran Khan’s urging, the foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, flew off the handle with a stinging public denunciation of the OIC’s lukewarm support for Pakistan position on Kashmir. Worried by the prospect of international isolation and censure especially at a time when the country needs all the economic help it can get to stay afloat  – the Americans are “leaving” West Asia and joining hands with India in South Asia to confront China, a bloody civil war is threatening to engulf Afghanistan with massive spillover hardships for Pakistan, the EU-led FATF is threatening economic sanctions because of Pakistan’s dismal human rights situation amidst the rise of militant Islamic “terror” groups, the IMF is demanding anti-people economic policies, Covid-19 is surging ahead with a vengeance – General Bajwa quickly set about repairing relations. He nudged the Saudis and the Emirates to facilitate a ceasefire with India along the Line of Control. Then he persuaded Riyadh to extend an invitation to Imran Khan to visit the Kingdom and repair the damage. That is why and how Imran Khan’s current visit to Saudi Arabia was immediately preceded by General Bajwa’s short visit to smooth the Prince’s ruffled feathers.

Such reversals of foreign policy have compelled the Miltablishment to become hands-on in the arena of diplomacy – for example, the India backchannel – even as Imran Khan is given to hectoring foreign office cadres to “reform” themselves. Much the same situation exists on the economic front. The PTI’s first finance minister, Asad Umar, refused to go to the IMF for help and made a mess of economic policy. So Hafeez Sheikh was drafted in to get the IMF to bail out Pakistan. But he ran the economy further aground. Now the brass has dragged in Shaukat Tareen to renegotiate terms with the IMF and kick start growth. Thus, barely a month before the budget is due, the third finance minister in three years is burning the midnight oil revising core targets for next year and it is anybody’s guess whether he will last long enough to see the fruits of his labour.

Meanwhile, the administrative mess in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is getting messier. The brass has long advised competent go-getting chief ministers so that the PTI, which forms the bedrock of the hybrid political system in which it has invested so heavily, can deliver good governance to the hapless people of the two provinces. Alas, after relentless rounds of musical chairs for PSCMs, CSs, IGPs etc., the situation is so dire in Punjab now that a forward block of dozens of MPAs has bandied around the outcast Jehangir Tareen to blackmail the chief minister, Usman Buzdar, for tens of billions in scarce funds for “development”, a euphemism for corruption.

Pakistanis are livid. Unemployment has risen by 20 million. Double digit inflation, especially of food, has eroded real wages and incomes of the lower classes even as the big companies are raking in profits of over 100 percent on the back of the affluent classes. The indiscreet charm of Imran Khan has worn thin. The bye-elections have sounded the death knell of the PTI. The PMLN is surging ahead. Nawaz Sharif is looking credible again. As criticism of the Miltablishment rises for hoisting and propping up Imran Khan and his band of juvenile delinquents, General Bajwa and the brass are compelled to return to the drawing board all over again.

Sensing the time is nigh, Asad Umar recently threatened that Imran Khan would rather “dissolve” the assemblies and call for fresh elections himself rather than be kicked out. In this way, the argument goes, he can later claim he wasn’t ready to “take dictation” or abandon his quest to root out corruption by giving an NRO to the PPP and PMLN. But this reasoning is “rejected” by ground realities. The Great Khan of yesteryears is looking more like a modern day Don Quixote and his team of punters is tilting at the windmills.

They say that when a storm is approaching, the parasites are the first to discern it. That is why a notable number of pro-Miltablishment journalists have begun droning the countdown.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.