In 2012, a tsunami of self-delusion swept across Pakistan. A self-styled engineer by the name of Agha Waqar Pathan claimed creating a “water kit” allowing cars to run solely on plain water. Once mass produced, Pakistan’s problems would miraculously disappear. Oil and petroleum imports would cease as would load-shedding. The national treasury would overflow with dollars once his fabulous invention was sold overseas. So far and wide did this vision of a fool’s paradise spread that the New York Times and others around the world wrote commentaries.
Political leaders, media anchors, and most Pakistani scientists – including national super heroes like Dr AQ Khan and Dr Samar Mubarakmand – rushed to endorse the water car. President Asif Ali Zardari expressed delight and the federal cabinet met three times to discuss Pakistan’s post water-car economy. Some anxiously called for protecting the new national treasure, Agha Waqar, from being kidnapped by America’s malign secret forces. To Pakistan’s miracle-seeking, America-hating millions this made perfect sense.
In 2022, another kind of water car is also making perfect sense to millions. Expertly piloted before cheering crowds by ex-prime minister Imran Khan, a yet bigger miracle is being sold at rally after rally. Khan says he will resuscitate a country gasping for breath. Imperial America conspired with corrupt local politicos and generals to remove him as PM and install an “imported” government. Put me back into the saddle, says Khan, and all will be well again.
Whereas Agha Waqar refused to reveal his water kit, Imran Khan is making his plans fully public. Those of his speeches that I have heard tell of his agenda upon regaining power:
Just as the water car violated thermodynamics, Khan’s agenda for Pakistan violates commonsense.
Economy: Twisting the arms of crooked politicians of Pakistan Democratic Movement formed to oppose Khan will force them into repatriating looted billions and trillions; Pakistan will teach the International Monetary Fund a lesson by refusing to accept any conditionality-based loan; expat voters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will shore up the falling rupee by sending home bales stuffed with dollars; Putin is so grateful to Khan for being in Moscow just as the Ukrainian operation started that he will supply Pakistan endless super cheap oil and gas; and millions of Westerners will flock to Pakistan’s tourist havens for spending their wealth there.
World politics: Protecting Islam from insult will be the central plank of Pakistan’s foreign policy; France – and the French ambassador to Pakistan – will tremble each time some crazy Parisian goes on a blasphemy binge; bolstering Afghanistan’s Taliban government will become paramount notwithstanding its quiet approval of the terrorism of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or Pakistani Taliban; and Narendra Modi will receive such stiff tongue lashing that India will quit Kashmir. Indians will finally understand why Khan had Kashmir Highway renamed Srinagar Highway.
Governance: There can be only one Great Leader and, as in North Korea, allegiance to him is the highest virtue. Those dissenting with Khan commit “shirk” or polytheism, says Khan, a view confounding even his closest supporters. All secondary public figures – like former Punjab chief minister Usman Buzdar – perforce must be diminutive ones. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution providing Pakistan’s provinces a measure of fiscal autonomy must be dumped.
Moral revival: Pakistan’s moral fabric is badly torn with girls immodestly dressed and boys wearing knee-less jeans and inverted baseball caps. Khan took the first step towards changing this in October 2021 when he created an authority tasked with guarding public morality by preventing vice and promoting virtue in a manner that it shall determine.
Education: As is well-known, Khan is no science buff. Therefore, Pakistani kids will not be stressed with excessive math and science. The stuff is too difficult, not really needed, and must be packaged in readily memorisable morsels digestible by madarsa students. Instead, a hefty dose of Khan’s Single National Curriculum will make every boy dream of becoming a horse-mounted Ertugrul Ghazi with sword ready in hand. Research into Sufism at Al Qadir University will, in Khan’s words, “groom our youth as leaders”.
One cannot foretell how much of Khan’s pre-election agenda will survive his U-turns but every populist knows this doesn’t matter. As Donald Trump famously declared in 2016, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”
Experts of mass psychology say voters exhibit such pathological behaviour because their biases, weaknesses, and pre-conditioning are cleverly exploited by leaders. People are not rational consumers of information. Instead, they seek swift, reassuring answers and messages. As the redoubtable Julian Huxley hypothesised, the human mind filters out much of reality because handling detailed impressions and received images would be unbearably difficult. Successful leaders massively simplify a complex and confusing world.
Super-simplification explains the attraction towards water kits of mentally lazy individuals. If for cars, simply add water and enjoy the ride – you need not bother about learning thermodynamics. If for White America, then every evil is traceable to a single source – liberal conspirators and their agents. Hence Trump’s magic formula: close the door to immigration, confront China, and disembowel Washington’s big government mafia. And then, bingo! America will rise to the skies.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s formula is equally simple with slightly altered ingredients: countering Islamophobia should be Pakistan’s top priority; India is out to destroy Pakistan; America is eternally conspiring against Muslims; and corruption explains Pakistan’s failures. Restore Khan to his throne and all will be well. This cost-free, readymade solution requires minimal use of the cerebellum and no change of national habits.
Unfortunately, those enchanted by Khan’s narrative miss what’s crucial. Real prosperity comes from harnessing science and technology and civilised behaviour demands respecting even those one disagrees with. Chasing phantoms of the past doesn’t bring progress. For positive change, clear thinking and hard work is needed.
Imran Khan’s water kit is as unworkable as Agha Waqar’s. One violates the laws of physics and the other defies commonsense. All bubbles eventually burst and so will Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ’s. But when and how this will happen, none can say. If we are lucky, Pakistan will recover from the explosion to come. But if not, then terrible times lie ahead.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author.
This article first appeared in Dawn.