Imran Khan (C) applauses as he observes the fly-past by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) JF-17 Thunder fighter jet during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. Photo: Reuters
Imran Khan (C) applauses as he observes the fly-past by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) JF-17 Thunder fighter jet during the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019. Photo: Reuters

Imran Khan's political innings: gathering of the winds - II

  • Looking at the dark storm clouds that would soon change the match result
Updated 04 Jul, 2022 06:55pm

My previous article, 'Welcome to politics, Mr Imran Khan - I', in this three-part series explored Imran Khan's entry into politics as he ventured into what would be the most important innings of his life. Now, we move on to his political career in office as Pakistan's 22nd prime minister.

Since General Zia-ul-Haq’s death on August 17, 1988, the PML-N and PPP had taken turns for the Prime Minister’s position, each claiming to be the people’s choice and the saviours of democracy. The Musharraf-era PMs could not claim these titles for obvious reasons. Overall, in the past 75 years the prime minister’s seat has been dominated by three parties: PML, PML-N and PPP. Between the three of them they have held the coveted position 16 out of 23 times.

Since 1988 it had become a two-horse race between PML-N and PPP and many voters had become resigned to the situation.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) gave Pakistanis a third choice and upended the status quo. Imran Khan’s je ne sais quoi and a nudge from the right people had won him the Pakistan cup. What a difference 30 years and one day makes in the fate of a nation.

Three decades after Zia’s death Imran Khan became the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan on 18 August 2018 and it seemed the two-party system had been broken, perhaps for all time. Islamabad was rainy with dark storm clouds that seemed portentous. The sun broke through around the time of Imran’s inaugural speech which his zealous supporters took for a sign. A new era was beginning and many of them were seeing rainbows.

The Age of Imran Khan had dawned.

However, it was a dimmed dawn and the thoughts of many savvy supporters reflected Faiz’s verses:

Yeh daagh daagh ujaalaa, yeh shab gazidaa seher

Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh seher to nahin

This light, patchy and spotted, this night-touched dawn

Surely, this is not the dawn we so eagerly awaited

Unlike Nawaz Sharif in 1997, Imran did not get a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly which did not suit his ambitious plans of completely overhauling the system. He had shed many old loyalists for electables to get into power and paid a heavy price for it. PTI’s founding member Fauzia Kasuri had resigned from the party on May 24, 2018, because of what she saw as overreliance on electables and abandonment of the core principles that the party had stood for at inception.

And yet, the result was still not the desired one. After all, a strong central government had been the Holy Grail all along. But it was not to be and encumbered with an unwieldy coalition Imran was attempting to rewrite history. It would be akin to cleaning King Augeas’ stables with a drippy KWSB water connection.

The issue was that of the PTI’s old guard many had been sidelined before the 2018 elections with the likes of Arshad Dad, Naeem-Ul-Haq, Firdous Shamim Naqvi and others not being seen as worthy of the National Assembly seat.

Only a few PTI loyalists were rewarded with cabinet positions and even among them, most got relatively unimportant ones. Arif Alvi was slotted into a ceremonial role while only three members of the 16-person cabinet were PTI members who had never joined any other party: Asad Umar, Shireen Mazari and Aamir Kiyani. Asad got a prized plum, but Shireen Mazari got the thankless and powerless job of human rights minister and Kiyani was handed the then trivial Health ministry.

Photo: File
Photo: File

Within months Asad and Aamir both lost their ministries although the former was given a consolation prize. PM Khan had retained the powerful interior ministry, for at least the time being. This meant that the ruling government had little of the PTI core, the ideologists that had kept the flag fluttering against cold winds and had built it from ground up.

The other members in the cabinet had been a part of other governments. Five of the new cabinet members had served as ministers in past Pakistan Peoples Party governments: Pervez Khattak, Babar Awan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Fehmida Mirza and Fawad Chaudhry.

Photo: File
Photo: File

A few had also been associated with PML-N. Shah Mehmood Qureshi had been Punjab’s finance minister when Nawaz Sharif was the chief minister of the province during the military rule of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Shafqat Mehmood had been Punjab information minister in the PML-N government in 1999.

Once bitter opponent and later close ally, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had served as a cabinet member under former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Khusro Bakhtiar’s entry into politics came in 1997 when he successfully contested on a PML-N ticket for a seat in the Punjab Assembly. Their association with the PTI came after the “Tsunami” and not when it was wandering in the wilderness. For instance, Bakhtair only joined PTI in May 2018, carrying more than a reeking whiff of opportunism.

Farogh Naseem and Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui of the MQM, Chaudhry Tariq Bashir Cheema of the PML-Q, Zubaida Jalal of the Balochistan Awami Party, Dr Fehmida Mirza of the Grand Democratic Alliance, and independent MNA from Fata Noorul Haq Qadri completed the rest of the motley cabinet that would create “Riyasat-e-Medina”. The job would be tough even for Abraham Lincoln, for Imran leading a patchy coalition it would be positively herculean.

On the local front, the PTI government would take over a bankrupt nation. Two weeks before Imran’s oathtaking The New York Times published an article titled, “Imran Khan’s First Test: Pakistan’s Troubled Economy”. The economic mess left behind by the PML-N would have taken the wind out of any incoming government with current account deficit at an alarming $18 billion. Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves would cover less than two months of imports. The Pakistan rupee was shaky and overvalued, it had returned to the FATF “grey list”, tax collection was abysmally low, and it faced rising national debt.

Economists within Pakistan and without were unanimous: an IMF loan programme was unavoidable. Without it, Pakistan would suffer soaring inflation, high import controls, flight of capital and possible bank runs. But for its 22nd programme, the IMF demanded severe fiscal discipline, which would entail reduced public spending and increase of taxes. As George Bush Senior would attest, the last is a tricky pill for any elected government. His presidency sunk because he did not keep his 1988 campaign promise, “Read my lips, no new taxes”.

Low spending and high taxes would drag growth even lower, and these were hardly the messages a new populist prime minister would like to give in his early days in office. Pakistan’s financial markets seemed to favor Imran. As soon as the results of the 2018 elections were clearly in his favor, the rupee gained value and Pakistani stocks surged. The challenge was to keep them liking him.

Donald J. Trump (R) and Imran Khan (L) shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 22 July 2019. The two leaders discussed regional security issues and economic support. Photo: Reuters
Donald J. Trump (R) and Imran Khan (L) shake hands during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 22 July 2019. The two leaders discussed regional security issues and economic support. Photo: Reuters

Pakistan faced external challenges too. Relations with the US were at a low point. Right at the start of 2018 President Trump accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and of harboring terrorists. On January 4 the US State Department announced suspension of most of its military aid to Pakistan. Nine months later, on September 1 the Pentagon announced that “Due to a lack of decisive actions in support of the South Asia strategy, the remaining $300 million was reprogrammed”, confirming the withdrawal and breakdown of relations between erstwhile allies. Global politics were in a flux. On August 7 the US imposed sanctions on Iran, a potential trade partner of Pakistan.

There were rising tensions between China, the biggest investor in Pakistan’s economy, and the US which had been the biggest donor to Pakistan and its main exports’ market. As the African saying states, “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”. Pakistan was in danger of getting squashed and Imran would have to walk a very thin line between the two feuding mastodonts and in a thorny neighborhood.

Imran Khan and Li Keqiang shake hands during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 8, 2019. Photo: Reuters
Imran Khan and Li Keqiang shake hands during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 8, 2019. Photo: Reuters

On August 18, 2018, Prime Minister Imran addressed the nation. He would have to transition from a politician into a statesman overnight and bring the disparate forces in government and outside onto a single agenda. He went straight into the core issues: economic, social, developmental, human, and environmental, inequality. Interestingly, he also said that there would be no victimization of political opponents and he would uphold the rule of law. Austerity would prevail and he would live like a spartan to set an example for everyone. After talking about the many existential crises, he simply said, “Aap ne ghabrana nahin hai” (No need to be afraid). Imran may have tried to borrow a page from Franklin D. Roosevelt who in his 1933 inaugural address had said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Recent political eras in Pakistan can be distilled to a single slogan which is embraced by the acolytes and lampooned by detractors. In the social media age these slogans gather momentum and are kept alive through uncountable memes and posts. For PPP governments since 2008 it is “Bhutto zinda hai” (Bhutto is still alive). For Nawaz Sharif’s last government, it is “Mujhay kyon nikala” (Why was I removed)? The PTI government became known for “Aap ne ghabrana nahin hai”, although given the country’s circumstances at the start of Imran Khan’s prime ministership, a little “ghabrana” would be perfectly understandable.

In his political treatise “The Prince”, Niccolò Machiavelli advised a ruler coming into power to “Examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavor of them may last longer.”

Imran should have heeded this advice as the cure for Pakistan would be painful and drastic policy strategies that would need to be executed with absolute clarity and without consideration for political expediency. There would be a backlash from voters in the short term but eventually things would turn around. Imran was rumoured to have the absolute backing of the establishment and it was expected that he could take unpopular but much-needed decisions such as rightsizing and restructuring of loss making SOEs for the larger good and use his five years to enforce much-needed policy and institutional reform.

In an imaginative move, Imran Khan invited leading economists from around the world to guide Pakistan out of the economic quagmire and join the Economic Advisory Council (EAC). The first indication that “Hanuz Medina Door Ast” (Medina is still some distance away) was the removal of Dr Atif Mian from the EAC on September 7, 2018.

Within a day both Dr Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Dr Imran Rasul resigned in protest from the EAC, depriving it of much-needed academic expertise. The hasty departure of those who had been brought with such fan fare and that too within just 20 days of new government, resulted in a few red faces. The “U-Turn” tag started doing the rounds, and not as favorably as it had for Margret Thatcher. Imran’s supporters were quick to point out that Liaqat Ali Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Benazir Bhutto had all made compromises, but the liberal ones were wondering just how empowered their Prime Minister really was. The Imran Khan brand did get a smidgen of dirt, but successful politicians are covered with Teflon.

The core issue was the economy and controlling the four horsemen of the economic apocalypse: poverty, debt, inflation, and low investment. The US dollar had been artificially held down by PML-N, but the PTI had decided on fiscal responsibility and a free float. Between August 17, 2018, a day before the new government, and April 17, 2019, it had appreciated from PKR 123.2 to PKR 141.7, a rise of 15% in just 8 months. This affected the Pakistan economy which is import driven and the dollar appreciation made inputs more expensive. In 2019 inflation was at 10.58%, a 5.5% increase from 2018.

The larger public did not understand macroeconomics and with a shrinking pocket, the sentiment was turning sour. The stock market was reflecting the general mood, going down to 28,765 on August 16, 2019, from 41,960 on August 16, 2018, a decrease of almost 32% within a year of the new government. Then came the inevitable IMF programme, a bitter pill but one that had to be taken. The negotiations were long drawn with Finance Minister Asad Umar battling hard to secure favorable terms and provide some relief to the nation.

Perhaps he negotiated too hard for on April 18, 2019, 12 weeks before the new IMF programme got underway, Asad Umar was removed from the finance ministry. Wonderkid, corporate celebrity, and the John Keynes of the PTI outfit was leaving the one job that since 2012 everyone and their neighbor knew he would get. PTI-wallas were still wondering about the new finance minister and were in for a surprise.

The replacement was one Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, the former finance minister of Asif Ali Zardari. This was a bigger blow that those dealt by the defections of Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed and former Interior Secretary Tasneem Noorani in 2016 or that of Mairaj Mohammad Khan in 2003. PTI’s bungled inter party elections were one thing but change in arguably the most critical position in the cabinet so quickly into the government gave a pause to the believers and invited the “U-turn” jibe from critics.

There were other changes in the offing. Eventually there would be four finance ministers in the PTI regime. FBR chairpersons came and left through a revolving door, a total of eight in three and a half years. In less than three years as prime minister, Imran changed his cabinet six times. Ministers would be moved from one portfolio to another faster than the news cycle could catch up, an extreme case being Hammad Azhar who held the finance ministry for less than three weeks.

Once again, the media and public were sharply divided which became a firm feature of the PTI regime. Critics called the government indecisive and whimsical. The prime minister seemed to be waffling. Where was the Kaptaan who was so sure about his field placements?

The supporters’ riposte was that Imran was not concerned about loyalties and poor performers would be shown the door. After one reshuffle Imran spoke in words he had said to former Indian cricket team captain Tiger Pataudi decades ago when talking about limited overs cricket, “I have changed the batting order in my team and made a couple of changes too. I will do it in the future as well. I want to tell all the ministers that any­one of no use for the country will be replaced with the one who is beneficial.” Of course, this was a test and not limited overs match and there is a fine line between agility and indecisiveness.

The problem was that the same faces would keep moving around in a ghastly game of musical chairs making one wonder if the transfers were indeed adding to their wisdom. Fawad Chaudhry’s case was symptomatic: he started as information minister, then became the minister for IT, then went back to the information ministry, and also ending as minister of law. Quite a merry go round!

There were other headaches. The cases against opposition lingered, stagnated, and then came to naught. Maryum Safdar, Rana Sanaullah, Saad Rafique, Khawaja Asif, Khaqan Abbasi and Nawaz Sharif all went through the legal process but came out unaffected or stronger. Nawaz Sharif pulled a Houdini and left on a “guarantee” to London because of health reasons. Of course, looking at his instantaneous recovery, London can be confused for Lourdes.

Imran was fast discovering that ruling a complex country and dealing with the judicial system is much more complicated than winning a world cup, specially since he was missing a Javed Miandad or a Wasim Akram. He hand-picked a hitherto unknown Usman Buzdar as Chief Minister of Punjab, the second most important civilian political position in the country.

Photo: File
Photo: File

Labeled as a left field choice, Buzdar was completely out of his depth, and it seemed Imran had picked another Mansoor Akhtar and not Wasim Akram plus. Imran’s obstinacy in supporting the floundering Buzdar would lead to complaints from the public and grumblings from party stalwarts who had their own axes to grind.

The issue was that because the PTI had become a rainbow party, an incongruent cluster of ideologues and electables that kept it off kilter. Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry told the media that Jahangir Tareen had Asad Umar removed from finance ministry and the rivalry between Asad Umar, Jehangir Tareen and Shah Mehmood Qureshi had caused major fissures in the ranks. “When [Asad] Umar became the finance minister, [Jahangir] Tareen had him removed as the finance minister. Then when Umar came back [to the cabinet] he had Tareen removed”, he said. A startling statement like this would be unimaginable from the opposition parties who, until recently as demonstrated by the PML-N leadership’s differing views, always put forth a united front. Managing the multiple camps would test Imran’s political skills.

Photo: File
Photo: File

But the real test was balancing the quest for ehtasaab which had been his first rallying cry and his relationship with the man who had delivered the resources and electables that catapulted him to the prime minister’s seat: Jehangir Tareen.

The PTI regime faced several commodity crises as there were wheat, petrol, gas, and sugar shortages in its short reign. They chipped away public support, but it was the sugar shortage that came to have long term political ramifications. Sugar is an integral component of the daily diet for the working classes whose staple breakfast is bread with sweetened tea.

As sugar prices galloped up, in February 2020 Imran Khan ordered an enquiry promising to spare no one even it was from his own party and formed two high-powered committees headed by the director general of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). On April 4, 2020, the 32-page enquiry report was made public with sugar baron Jehangir Tareen implicated as the main beneficiary of the sugar shortage. The same Jehangir Tareen that was instrumental in PTI getting crucial seats in south Punjab and whose largess gave the party vital financial resources.

Imran embellished his anti-corruption credentials by tweeting, “As promised preliminary reports into sudden price hikes of sugar & wheat have been released . . . without alteration/tampering. This is unprecedented in Pak’s history. After these reports come out no powerful lobby will be able to profiteer at the expense of our public.” He had taken the higher ground and not withheld facts from the public, which is rare in politics, but his transparency caused a rift between him and Tareen. Tareen’s supporters were upset at the public shaming of their senior leader and he himself left on a seven-month self-imposed exile in the UK, a favorite haunt of Pakistan’s estranged or expatriate politicians. Fingers were pointed at internal sources and the unsavoury scandal caused further rifts in the PTI. The wheels seemed to be coming off the PTI regime, but Imran had traditionally played best when cornered, like in 1992. He would get his chance with the pandemic of a century.

In early 2020 the Corona virus spread its toxic tentacles across the world, destroying economies and bringing superpowers like the US to their knees. India was seeing people die faster than it could burn or bury bodies. The UK was an almighty mess. Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were all ravaged. The first cases in Pakistan were reported on February 26 and with its creaking healthcare system wracked by lack of attention by successive governments, the country was expected to be utterly ruined. Except it didn’t.

The government moved with nimbleness and alacrity, going for “Smart lockdowns”, high levels of testing, compulsory vaccination drives, and scaling the Ehsaas programme to help the most vulnerable members of society by direct cash transfers. The key to all this was the creation of National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) on March 27, 2020. Headed by Asad Umar, the Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, it included representatives from the federal and provincial governments, bureaucracy, and the military.

A centrally managed department with cross-functional members bypassing political boundaries was exactly what was needed, and Pakistan handled the pandemic better than most countries.

The world sat up and took notice. As early as July 2020 World Health Organization’s Chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom praised Pakistan Government’s response against coronavirus, “recognized the positive trend of virus curtailment,” and said that Pakistan only stemmed the spread of virus but also allowed the country’s economy to recover amid the pandemic. The WHO would repeat its admirations several times over the course of months. Others were equally amazed “Is Pakistan really handling the pandemic better than India?” incredulously questioned the Economist in September 2020. “Every week of the past month has claimed more Indian lives than the entire nine months of the pandemic have in Pakistan. The Asian Development Bank predicts that its GDP will shrink by fully 9% in the current fiscal year, compared with a contraction of 0.4% for Pakistan,” it reported.

The question Economist asked in 2020 was unequivocally answered in 2021. The publication ranked the world’s top 50 economies according to their response to Covid. Pakistan was ranked third, India was ranked near the bottom with more than half a million dead and its healthcare system in tatters.

The accolades kept on coming, thick and fast. The US government issued a laudatory statement. Bill Gates gushed about Pakistan’s handling of Covid and said that the Pakistan’s “innovative” NCOC “blew him away.” The vaccination drives worked as noticed by the WHO which tweeted in March 2022 “Heartiest Congratulations to Pakistan. The WHO applauds Govt of Pakistan for having over 100 million individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19 virus.” The highest compliment though is what comes from the harshest critics. In May this year, at a global summit on the pandemic which was co-hosted by the White House even Bilawal Bhutto praised the previous government’s response to Covid.

Photo: File
Photo: File

Covid’s successful handling was formed around a hybrid strategy of partial lockdowns with essential business and services allowed to continue, despite opposition by different political groups and sectors. Post the first lockdown on March 13, 2020 the economic intervention was done by disbursement of Rs 12,000 through the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program directly to those negatively impacted by closures. The scope of Ehsaas was expanded until it was able to cover many of the most vulnerable thus ensuring Pakistan’s working classes were spared the pain experienced in India and other countries.

By April 2020 the government had allocated Rs144 billion for 12 million families of the marginalized daily-wage earners. The programme’s announcement was quickly noticed. In early May the World Bank praised Pakistan by stating, “Cash transfers will be instrumental in mitigating the impact of the upcoming recession by ensuring that consumption by the poorest and vulnerable contributes to the local economies. No doubt this response was one of the best investments that a government could make in a crisis”. It recommended that emergency cash transfers were an ideal option to manage economies destroyed by Covid. From May 18, 2020, millions of disadvantaged people started getting cash transfers.

By the end of 2020, 15 million households or 100 million persons, nearly half the country’s population, had been saved from disaster through cash transfers. In May 2021 the World Bank listed the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program among the top social protection interventions in the world. Pakistan was ranked 3rd in terms of the percentage of population covered and 4th in terms of number of beneficiaries. It also ranked among the highest in terms of planned versus actual coverage rates. Bill Gates was suitably impressed and called it a “state of the art” initiative that played a key role in alleviating poverty alleviation and helping the marginalized communities.

The Ehsaas programme was not just focused on cash transfers. Seeing the plight of the underprivileged, Imran Khan launched a range of programmes under the Ehsaas umbrella including Ehsaas Rashan, Langar and Panahgah. Panahgah (lit. shelter) provided visitors two meals a day and shelter for the night. The program was made a key part of the government’s mandate through legislation such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Panahgah Act 2020 and the Punjab Panahgah Authority Act 2021. Thanks to this initiative no longer would the underprivileged members of society need to sleep on footpaths exposed to heat, rain, and cold. More than 100 panahgah were established across Pakistan and the PTI government ensured right standards by strict monitoring and taking disciplinary action against officials for negligence and poor services. The one at Korangi is often visited by out-of-town visitors coming for treatment at Indus Hospital. Besides two hot meals, a bed and quilt, and clean washrooms, they also have access to a TV lounge where they can relax and a have a space where they can pray. From September 1, 2020, when the Panahgah program stared, almost 8 million have availed their meals and shelter facilities.

The Ehsaas programme is now being studied by academics. In June 2022, Stanford University published a report titled “Frameworks for a Developmental Welfare State: Lessons From Pakistan’s Ehsaas Program.” In the report the authors stated, “Ehsaas has crucially moved beyond the singular cash transfer model that BISP offered. Instead, in forming a comprehensive approach to anti-poverty, it is increasingly moving towards developing the capacity and human capital of beneficiaries. Altogether, Ehsaas is a landmark in anti-poverty programmes in the history of Pakistan…and takes a holistic approach to poverty alleviation including: social safety net measures, education, human capital formation, livelihoods, and health.”

Another major social programme by the PTI was the Sehat Insaf Card, initially launched in September 2016 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) which provided health insurance cards to millions of households which allowed free medical treatment up to Rs 540,000 from designated private and public sector hospitals.

The services were gratefully accepted by the public and soon the PTI government expanded the reach of Sehat Insaf Card which had now increased the annual cover to Rs 1 million. The Sehat Card would be distributed to around six million families in KPK, thus ensuring that the entire 40 million people of the province could receive free medical treatment at over 250 public and private hospitals across the country.

On February 15, 2020, the programme was extended to Punjab where 31 million families or 110 million persons would be able to utilize it and to fund it, Punjab’s healthcare budget which had been Rs 169 billion in the PML-N government was raised to Rs 399 billion by the PTI. The plan was to expand the health insurance to the entire country and give Pakistanis much-needed healthcare support. The Sindh government was less than enthused for the Sehat Card, mayhap for political reasons, and people in the province were unable to get the healthcare coverage they needed.

In a country where healthcare has been ignored by successive governments and the underprivileged struggle for even basic health services, a universal insurance coverage was a truly revolutionary step. Many Pakistanis who couldn’t have afforded healthcare signed up in droves.

Just between January 1, 2022, and April 8, 2022, two days before the end of PTI government, more than 400,000 patients availed health cards across Punjab against claims of Rs. 8.5 billion. Unfortunately for underprivileged Pakistanis, as it became apparent that the PTI government will be ousted, public and private sector hospitals surreptitiously refused to treat patients entitled to Sehat Insaf Card or started using delaying tactics with patients who had been assigned days for operations and other medical procedures.

There were other social initiatives. To boost employment and entrepreneurship, the Kamyab Jawan Program was launched on October 17, 2019, to assist young businesspersons who struggle to get loans from banks for their business ventures. Pakistanis between 18 to 45 years could take a loan of up to PKR 25 million at an interest rate of 5% and payment period of maximum 9 years. Interest rates for lesser amounts were lower and 255 of the loans were earmarked for women entrepreneurs. In 2021 Rs30 billion was disbursed to 22,000 applicants and Rs. 50 billion had been budgeted for 2022.

In a country where according to World Bank over 24% of the population lives in poverty and which was vulnerable to the biggest pandemic the world had seen in a century, the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program, Sehat Insaf Card, Kamyab Jawan Program, Langar and Panahgah were lifelines for tens of millions of households. But the biggest investment done by the PTI government for Pakistan’s future was arguably the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project (TBTTP) which was a direct intervention to Pakistan’s biggest long-term challenge: climate change. Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. Only 5% per cent of the country has forest cover, against a global average of 31% making it one of the six countries most suspectable to climate change.

The TBTTP was a follow-up to the Billion Tree Tsunami which was launched in 2014, by the PTI government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). The Billion Tree Afforestation Project was supported by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) which provided EUR 13.5 million and KfW, one of the world’s largest national development banks and rigorously monitored by World Wildlife Federation (WWF). The PTI provincial government hit its billion-tree goal in August 2017 – months ahead of schedule, surpassing its 348,400 hectare commitment to the Bonn Challenge which targeted restoration of 150 million hectares of deforested land worldwide by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030. It was also able to secure 8 million jobs connected to ecology. KPK’s achievement was the first Bonn Challenge pledge to reach its goal. Inger Andersen, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the NGO in charge of administering the Bonn Challenge, described it as “A true conservation success story”.

Imran Khan addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. Photo: Reuters
Imran Khan addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. Photo: Reuters

The TBTTP is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and was launched in 2019 to plant ten billion trees by 2023. From inception to December 2021 1.42 billion trees had been planted which covered 1.36 million acres across almost 10,000 sites. Besides tree planation. The PTI government also committed to increasing its Protected Areas to 15% by 2023. In 2018 they stood at 12%, by mid-2021 it had gone up to 13.9%. The project is expected to create almost 85,000 jobs and the Protected Areas initiative will also give long term employment to nearly 7,000 persons.

The TBTTP has been globally acclaimed for its work in reversing climate change and global warming. In June 2021 Dechen Tsering, UNEP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific said, “We are at a point in history where we need to act, and Pakistan is leading on this important effort.” Other global institutions including the IMF and World Economic Forum and countries like UK and Japan hailed Imran’s vision while global media outlets were equally effusive. Pakistan is often in international news for the wrong reasons but in this case the likes of The Independent, Al Jazeera and others gave well deserved praise. “Pakistan’s northwestern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), has planted an unprecedented 1 billion trees in just more than two years” the Voice of America reported while Reuters said, “Billion tree tsunami surges across northern Pakistan.”

The successful handling of Covid, international acclaim from international institutions and media, and a seemingly strong relationship with the brass made it seem that PTI was fully in control. Many had said that the PTI had taken some time to get into its groove when they formed the government in KPK in 2013 and would do same in Pakistan. Right around the time the 1.42 billionth tree was being planted, they seemed to be validated.

In March 2021, PTI won a crucial political victory when its candidate Sadiq Sanjrani was re-elected as the Senate Chairman. Emboldened by the victory, Imran gave the impression that he was not only poised for completion of a first term but might make history by retaining power in 2023. No prime minister in Pakistan’s 74 years has completed their term, let alone get re-elected for a second consecutive tenure.

On December 30, 2021, he blithely told the media that it was unlikely that despite the PML-N supremo’s bold statements, Nawaz Sharif would not return to Pakistan without a deal. The opposition’s claim that the PTI government was in danger was handled with a curt dismissal, “They make such statements every three months.” Shahbaz Sharif’s recent speeches were derisively waved off by Imran who said, “[A] speech of Shehbaz Sharif is like his job application.”

Going by his demeanor it looked like Kaptaan was heading towards an innings victory. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. Unbeknownst to many and almost against the run of play, dark storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. They would soon change the match result.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

This article is part two of a three-part series


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