Like any man of honour, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is a man of conviction. That’s how he and his party have been trying to hawk his credentials as a leader to the people of Pakistan.So, it was out of conviction and principle that Imran slapped a total ban on trade with neighbouring India. This came on the heels of the crisis triggered by India’s decision to do away with the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of its own Constitution. His cronies and acolytes, along with a strident news media, hailed his decision to put all trade ties with India on hold.
But Imran is also carrying on his shoulders the huge burden of leading a country mired up to its eyeballs in problems. The challenges for Imran, both domestic and external, are staring him in the face and like any man of conviction—who also happens to believe that he’s Pakistan’s ‘man of destiny’—that puts him on the horns of a dilemma.
One major problem that quickly confronted Imran in the wake of this total ban was how his government would fill the people’s requirement for medicines and drugs, the bulk of which came from India.
Pakistan’s domestic pharmaceutical industry has long been wanting as far as fulfilling the requirements of the people for affordable drugs is concerned. The country’s abysmal public health system has long been a sore point for the people. Government after government has given a short shrift to public health. Pakistan spends just about 1% of its GDP on public health, one of the lowest in the world.
The bottom line of this yawning gap between people’s expectations and the performance of the state in a sector as vital to the people as their health and well-being is that people have to fend for themselves. They have to cater to their health issues largely on their own and buy their own requirements of drugs and pharmaceutical products.
Indian pharmaceutical products have long been the people’s ‘saviour’ in the sense that they were affordable to them, especially when they were strapped for cash just like their government, begging friends all around to fill its coffers.Importers of pharmaceutical products from India cried for reconsideration of what seemed a knee-jerk reaction of the government.
Pakistan’s domestic pharmaceutical industry raised the alarm, telling the government that it wouldn’t be able to fill the void created by the blanket ban on Indian imports. The ball was well and truly lobbed into Imran’s court to decide what to do to answer the challenge.That Imran played on the front foot in response to the alarm looks like he was, actually, looking for some leeway to wriggle out of his emotive decision to freeze all trade with India. He could well be looking for just one opening to tamp down his own rhetoric.
Giving the benefit of doubt to Imran, his decision to immediately lift the ban on imports of medicines and drugs from India—ostensibly to answer the people’s cry for help—sits in complete sync with his oft-repeated preference, in relation to India, to keep a window of opportunity open and not slam the door shut for good. The blanket ban on trade with India was announced last August 9, but the ban on drug imports was lifted three weeks later, on September 3.
In his recent interviews and op-ed pieces penned for the western news media—part of his aggressive campaign to win over western media outlets to Pakistan’s view point—Imran has pointedly highlighted his initiative to take two steps forward if India would take just one, and regretted that India’s unilateral decision to change the complexion of the Kashmir issue threw his initiative out of gear.To buttress his peace and reconciliation paradigm with India, Imran is going full speed ahead on his pet project to complete a quick-access corridor on the Pakistani side for Sikh pilgrims, in time to mark the 550th birth anniversary of their patron-saint, Baba Guru Nanak.
It was in that spirit that Imran, in his keynote address at the three-day International Sikh Convention at Lahore’s Governor’s House, reiterated his commitment to work for peace with India, subject to India reciprocating his call. One wonders how much appreciation, if at all, there is in India that Imran is in the cross-hairs of a battle on two fronts: a war of words with India, and a war of nerves within the ranks of his own government.
He is resisting his hawks’ call to close Pakistani air space, for good, for flights to and from India. It’s taxing his leadership to the hilt.Cricket may not be ideal schooling for the tricky business of politics. But what it does is make it easy to switch tactics when situation demands. Imran may well be doing that to overcome his myriad challenges.