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What will PM Khan’s legacy be?

What is Kaptaan’s legacy going to be? It is a question worth asking as the stars begin to line up for Prime Minister Imran Khan in the third year of his first stint as PM. Let’s first get the big one out of the way.

An obsessive reliance on the civil-military disequilibrium is not unreasonable, both as an explainer of what has happened in Pakistan thus far, and what is likely to happen in Pakistan in the future. Will PM Khan fall out with the security establishment eventually? Everyone else has, so why would he not? But everyone else also had a different path to the top office in the country. Could the military rank and file finally have found a PM that they can really get behind? Maybe. But there is no such thing as an obedient superior. There are also no guarantees in life. PM Khan may or may not fall out with the security establishment – but is that how legacies are built in Pakistan? Not really.

Despite bad outcomes for every elected prime minister that has taken on the security establishment, each one has a legacy that endures far beyond and far above the fray of the tawdry civ-mil binary. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto democratized the Pakistani state and created stakes for poor people. The undulating waves of BPS 22 officers whose parents were villagers with little to no stakes in how Islamabad operates is now two generations deep. That is a Zulfi Bhutto sadaqa. So too, one might argue, is the two and three star that came from almost nothing in Jhelum, or Chakwal. Although that dynamic is more complex and layered.

Did Bhutto help create a bloated public sector, rife with inefficiency and petty corruption? Almost certainly – but the social mobility that Bhutto’s socialist reforms created, especially in terms of how the civil service was structured and layered, was transformational – for good. That’s the Zulfi Bhutto legacy. It is untarnished and unassailable, no matter his judicial assassination, and the contest with the military.

His daughter’s tragic martyrdom at the hands of terrorists may define her for some Western audiences, and die hard Bhuttoists. But it was Shaheed Mohtarma’s contributions to the design of the Pakistani state that endure as her legacy. The Lady Health Workers’ Programme, the First Women’s Bank, the learning of the 1990s and, most of all, the alignment with the Punjab’s political upper middle class on federalism, and resulting 18th Amendment are BB’s sadaqas. She endures in the prayers of Pakistanis, no matter how virulently she and her legacy are despised by millennial middle-class Pakistanis whose diets have been prepared by anti-democratic forces over the last two decades.

Nawaz Sharif’s story is not over yet. But his legacy, no matter how misguided his daughter is about this, is not how he took on General Musharraf, nor General Bajwa. Instead, Sharif’s sadaqa is much more meaningful and profound. The spring in the step of the peri urban and urban Punjabi, the sense of political and social awareness, the high consumption patterns in that demographic are all anchored in Nawaz Sharif’s twin towers of contribution to Pakistan: infrastructure and growth.

Were these compromised by an overvalued exchange rate, or by expensive contracting of generation capacity? The numbers are a clear indictment. But as legacies go, Sharif’s nearly two decades in and around chief executive positions in Lahore and Islamabad, helped alter the landscape and discourse of Pakistani development. His legacy is secure, no matter how hashtag driven some of the PML-N’s recent tactics are.

And so now the question of Imran Khan’s legacy is upon us. Whether a beef with Rawalpindi emerges or not, his legacy will not be a civ-mil fight. Why? Because there is nothing new or distinguished about such a contest. It may be inevitable, but it is also moot. What can Imran Khan do then, that would be memorable and enduring?

In some ways, he may already have begun putting together that package. There are three areas in which PM Khan is clearly driven and motivated to make substantive change.

The first is the human condition of the poorest and most vulnerable Pakistanis. The unfortunate quarrels over the title of the BISP/Ehsaas programme cannot tar and feather the records – neither the PPP’s, nor the PML-N’s, nor indeed, the PTI’s. PM Khan has oxygenated the social protection mechanism in the country with new energy through Dr Sania Nishtar and the establishment of the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division. The problem is that this is an area in which he will forever be forced to share credit with the PPP for establishing, and the PML-N for sustaining, BISP.

One pathway through which he can really set himself apart is the consolidation of social protection instruments to create a universal basic income payment – starting off with the original BISP / Kifaalat recipients, and expanding to the Ehsaas Emergency Cash recipients’ list before the 2023 elections. To do this, he will need to ‘release the kraken’, and ask Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin to substantially increase the BISP / Ehsaas budget. Instead of releasing Rs.12,000 every six months (meaning a payment of Rs2000 per month), PM Khan needs to insist on at least a tripling of the payment, so that each recipient family nets at least Rs6,000 per month – and thereby covering about a half to a third of the food consumption bill for the average first and second income quintile family. That would be a legacy-shaping transformation of BISP, meriting the renaming of the programme from BISP (its current legal title), to Ehsaas – the desired brand that PM Khan prefers.

The second area in which he clearly has a plan is in the reform of public finances. This is quite an interesting area as his key reforms people are supposedly all in Islamabad (Shehzad Arbab and Dr Ishrat Husain). Yet his primary reformers are in Peshawar. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Mahmood Khan, and KP Finance Minister Taimur Khan Jhagra, have been putting together a slow but steady moving freight train of public-sector reform that is at once, both incredibly vital to the health of the Pakistani republic, and incredibly risky for elected officials to undertake.

Pensions’ reform is among the most politically volatile issues for elected leaders to engage with anywhere in the world. The only kinds of regimes that tend to successfully alter the pensions liabilities faced by taxpayers are ones under the duress of international or multilateral organizations – see Greece, Italy and Portugal since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

For PM Khan to underwrite the reforms taking place in Pakhtunkhwa then is to behold a leader that is finally delivering on his two decades plus long promise to actually alter and reengineer how things work in Pakistan. If he pulls this off in KP, and initiates the same in Punjab, PM Khan may well be able to silence those among us that have doubted his capability and credentials to be the reformer he has wanted to be since 1996. This would be a grand legacy to leave behind.

Finally, PM Khan happens to be PM at a time of intense regional disquiet, as the US leaves Afghans to fend for themselves, and Pakistan to carry the burden of its failures in the state building of post conflict societies. Can PM Khan direct the Pakistani state to oversee a proactive, positive, geoeconomics-driven rehabilitation and recovery for Afghanistan and the region? If he can, his legacy will endure and overshadow any other in this country’s history.

Which of these is he likely to be able to build and deliver? And how can he assure success? This should be top-of-mind for him, for the remaining two years of his term as PM.

Mosharraf Zaidi, "What will PM Khan’s legacy be?," The News. 2021-06-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political class , Political awareness , Corruption , Terrorists , Democratic , PM Imran Khan , Mahmood Khan , Jhelum , Peshawar , BISP , PPP , PMLN