Watching a New Pakistan from the diaspora

The July 2018 election victory of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party (abbreviated as PTI and translated as Movement for Justice) has made headlines around the world. Headed by the superstar-cricketer turned superstar-politician Imran Khan, the PTI’s has shattered Pakistan’s dynastic two-party system, with the breaking of an electoral electoral duopoly an impressive feat in any country. Khan’s program of Naya (New) Pakistan may finally have its chance.

Entering politics in 1996, Khan struggled for years in the political wilderness, winning only one seat in 2002. But the last seven years have proved seminal, with the PTI crucially attaining provincial government northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in the previous election, performing reasonably well and in tandem building a steady momentum on a national level. This rise has been aided by the ignominious downfall of Khan’s main opponent, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, currently jailed after failing to defend himself against explosive charges of corruption and looting public money, revealed in the Panama Papers. All this in a country that has for half its history been ruled by military dictators, with these elections marking just the second time that power has successfully been transferred from one civilian government to another.

Pakistan faces enormous structural problems and a tough geopolitical position. In attempting to outline these, one is at a loss on where to begin. Perhaps with the country’s alarmingly high maternal mortality rate and criminally deficient healthcare system, an explosive birth-rate, an average 42% illiteracy rate, endemic corruption, outrageous inequality, regular terrorist bombings, a long-running separatist insurgency and simmering ethnic tensions, an out-size and restrictive military establishment, a bankrupt economy and a mutually antagonistic relationship with neighbouring India.

All this just scratches the surface, and all this is to say that in Pakistan, politics is a matter of literal life and death. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the country will disintegrate again if it does not deal with these pressing structural problems via bold, courageous and honest leadership. That’s why Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan means so much to so many.

Now in 2018 - Imran Khan and his party, once mocked, derided and written off, stand at the precipice of power in this, the world’s fifth biggest, extraordinarily complex, and deeply troubled country. In spite of all these challenges, or precisely because of them, Khan’s victory has brought about a wave of optimism through the country. There is a feeling that finally, Pakistan may have the competent, legitimate leadership it has not truly had since its inception.

Yet there is a curious dissonance between this shared feeling and the impressions projected by international media coverage. Pakistanis are of course no strangers to misrepresentation, having been a regular punching bag of the West's prejudice for the past two decades. But it is worth repeating that coverage of this election season has been resoundingly unimpressive, and characterised by caricature. Take for example, the comedian Trevor Noah's spectacularly ill-researched piece on Imran Khan. More importantly, serious analysis has also been lacking. One commentator has suggested that international media narratives of the elections have more to do with Khan’s principled stance on Pakistani sovereignty vis a vis US foreign policy in the region. Another oft-highlighted issue is the blasphemy law, with Khan's stance on the statute roundly criticized.The problems of projecting foreign political spectrums into the Pakistani context aside, an alternative view on the blasphemy law would acknowledge that it actually bans insults against all religious groups, has wide support, and that this law is quite frequently abused to settle personal vendettas - indicative of a broken legal system, mass poverty, and state-failure. Ultimately, what caricatured narratives so often omit is that structural problems of the kind that PTI aims to ameliorate are precisely the inhibitor of productive intra-communal dialogue that Pakistan desperately needs.

As an overseas Pakistani here in Australia, these elections mean a lot. For me personally, in an experience which I think was mirrored by many other young diaspora members - growing up here in Australia was like growing up in two different worlds at the same time. It was a dichotomy of confusion, anguish and even shame - especially because we have very few moments where we can be genuinely proud of our home country, and all the reasons to be proud of our adopted one. To be a young diaspora Pakistani is to inhabit a constant dichotomy of hope and humiliation. For us, Khan’s promise of a Naya Pakistan means a chance to escape this demeaning cycle.

In the Australian context, most members of the Pakistani diaspora left due to escape the twin miasmas of political mismanagement and economic crisis. Yet Australia’s approximately 60,000 Pakistanis retain strong familial and emotional ties, generally constituting an educated, motivated and economically significant resource for Pakistan itself, and are overwhelmingly in support of PTI.

After the election, overseas Pakistanis have been celebrating the result with great passion. At one such event in the Gold Coast, I interviewed some attendees and asked the following questions, which give a brief insight into the hopes, dreams and frustrations of the Pakistani diaspora.

Q: What does Naya Pakistan mean to you?

A: The change I want to see is in education … we need a revolution in our education system, we need one system not two. Right now we have an ‘O-level’ [private English system] and Urdu [state-run] system. Our youths in government schools are talented but because they can’t afford good schools and get left behind. These English schools like Atchison College produce the ones who become bureaucrats and get privileged positions in society and government. This has to change. (Shahida, independent business owner)

A: Naya Pakistan is an entirely different Pakistan in every aspect. As the country is running now, there is a different law for the poor and the rich. This should be equal for everybody, where the poor are not heard, in Naya Pakistan they will be heard. It will be a state, as Imran Khan said, to emulate the polity of the Prophet Muhammad. (Najam, doctor)

Q: Can Imran really change Pakistan?

A: It’s not that Imran Khan came on his own, God has gifted him to us. The condition of Pakistan was such that whenever you used to ask anybody about change, people would say it is impossible. People tried to be optimistic but the pessimism was overwhelming. They would say things like ‘things have deteriorated so much, each and every person is corrupt therefore nothing can be changed’. And that concept, God has changed. Everybody can see that what was considered impossible in the past has now been proven possible. For example, our top leader [former PM Nawaz Sharif] is in jail now, which would never have happened in the past. (Najam)

A: Of course! You just have to see the obvious differences in hospitals, roads, police system, cleanliness, the justice system that PTI’s tenure in KPK province brought about, the improvements are immense. (Laila, doctor).

Q: During election time, the international media, in a strong and consistent narrative, alleged that these elections were rigged by the military establishment. This has also been alleged by the incumbent party and its allies that lost. What do you think?

A: I think this was the most clean election ever. If there was rigging then how did the PPP win in interior Sindh, how did the PMLN win in interior Punjab. I’m shocked about the mindset of those who voted for these parties. Their leader is in jail for corruption but they still got so many seats. So how did rigging happen? (Laila).

A: I think this is wrong. You just had to turn on the TV every day, or to onto the streets and attend rallies and see how many people were with Imran Khan. (Nadeem, chef).

A: Some are saying this, but has anything been proven? And if rigging did happen – then the recounting never would be allowed to happen. Imran Khan said there was rigging in the last elections, but the parties who were in charge then never wanted transparency. Controversies’ are always there, but what matters is how these are handled – Imran has promised to allow investigations, which should be taken as a gesture on how Imran is planning to run the country (Najam).

[As an aside, my personal thoughts on the role of the military establishment can be viewed here]

Q: Imran’s constant promise has been for a Naya Pakistan to be focused on human development. Yet, indications are strong that Pakistan will have to approach the IMF for a bailout in lieu of the country’s dire economic situation. Given the neo-liberal basis of the IMF and its conditional loans, is Naya Pakistan simply an impossible endeavor?

A: Naya Pakistan is certainly not an impossible endeavour. However, we must understand Naya Pakistan as a change to be worked towards, rather than an overnight reality. Imran Khan has inherited an economy affected by years of mismanagement and cronyism. While we should have hope in Imran Khan’s vision, we should also be pragmatic about the timeframe in which Pakistan’s economic challenges will be overcome. (Adeel, tertiary student).

Q: If Naya Pakistan is a reality, will you and others immigrate back?

A: Definitely. We are already planning the next 10 years. My sister who lived in Adelaide has already moved back due to the improvements in KPK, and they are loving it. (Laila)

A: Some of us have been living in Australia for 15 years, for 30 years, for 40 years. We just want to see people happy in Pakistan. We want to see both our countries Australia and Pakistan happy and prosperous. Pakistan should be just like Australia (Nadeem).

Pakistan is a country with excruciating structural challenges and seemingly insurmountable problems. I think we ought to have realistic expectations on what is achievable in the short and long term. But what is certain is that these election results will almost certainly put the country on a positive forward path. Honest, principled, passionate leadership can move mountains. There is profound optimism and hope, and that is not a luxury Pakistanis have had in a long time. My personal hope and prayer is that Khan’s structural reforms will enable a more humane, compassionate and thoughtful society. Naya Pakistan could mean so much. 



Hamza Surbuland is a fourth year Arts student at the University of Queensland, currently completing an Honours project on the ‘meaning and method of an Islamic political framework’. He is the President of the University of Queensland Pakistani Students Association.