A populist leader comes to power promising to disrupt a moribund status quo dominated by corrupt and out-of-touch elite. On the campaign trail, this leader vows to resolve one of the most pressing problems facing the nation by investing in a massive infrastructure project. Critics of the plan decry it for being unrealistic, with experts and politicians from across the political spectrum suggesting that alternative measures might be cheaper and more effective, but the leader remains undeterred; using the bully pulpit of his position, and through the services of his many acolytes on social media, the leader castigates the opponents of his plan for being unpatriotic and unwilling to take the drastic steps needed to bring about meaningful change. Fueled by messianic zeal, cold political calculation, or a potent mixture of the two, the leader thunders forward; the project will be completed no matter what the cost, and opponents will be silenced no matter how trenchant their criticisms might be. As an added bonus, the frenetic championing of the leader’s pet project crowds out debate over other issues, such as the lack of the government’s performance in other areas of concern.

The scenario described above is one that is currently being enacted in two very different parts of the world. In the United States, Donald Trump has long promised to build a massive wall along the country’s southern border, claiming that the billions spent on erecting this massive structure will, once and for all, stem the flow of illegal immigrants coming into the USA from Mexico. The plan is absurd at many levels; Democrats in Congress have repeatedly made it clear that they will not endorse attempts by the Trump administration to get funding for the wall, and also point to how the plan is impractical since it is an extremely imperfect way to address both the flow of migrants and the broader structural factors that lead them to come to the USA. Other than the fact that the plan to build a wall is also motivated by arguably racist intentions, given the language and rhetoric deployed by Trump and his supporters when describing both the purpose of the wall and the Mexican migrants it aims to deter, opponents of the plan also argue that if illegal immigration is to be deterred, more efficient methods might include better policing and enforcement within the USA itself.

All of these criticisms have, however, fallen on deaf ears. While Trump’s claims that he would get Mexico to fund the wall were always little more than bombast, and while Congress remains adamant in its refusal to authorize funds for the project, Trump continues to use the issue as a way to fire up his supporters. Regardless of whether or not it will ever be built, the emotive nature of the debate around illegal immigration in the United States means that Trump can and will continue to use the issue to rile up his base, demonize his opponents, and deflect attention away from the myriad problems besetting his administration. This has been the standard tactic of demagogues throughout history.

Similar things can be said about the Diamer-Bhasha (DB) Dam in Pakistan, albeit with some important caveats. Unlike illegal immigration in the USA, which is an issue intrinsically tied up with race and identity, thereby making both its gravity and resolution subject to considerable partisan debate, there is little argument with the fact that Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, and that urgent measures need to be taken to forestall what could become a water crisis of existential proportions. It is also not problematic to suggest that building dams might be one possible way to resolve this problem.

What is contentious, however, is the manner in which the campaign for building the DB dam has been launched in Pakistan. Since the Chief Justice of Pakistan first took up the issue several months ago, with Prime Minister Imran Khan now taking charge of the cause himself, Pakistanis at home and abroad have been asked to donate funds for the construction of the DB dam. All of this has been happening in an atmosphere in which criticism of the project is increasingly not being tolerated; this week, the Chief Justice repeatedly declared that opposition to the DB dam would not be tolerated, and that all who speak against it are doing so at the behest of some hostile foreign agenda.

That this is a troubling line to take should be self-evident, if not surprising given how this is the standard accusation made against all who happen to oppose the state in Pakistan. What is more worrying is the fact that there are serious questions that need to be asked about the DB dam. As has been argued by experts like financial journalist Khurram Hussain, academic Daanish Mustafa, and development practitioner Michael Kugelman, there are a variety of concerns regarding the DB dam; crowdfunding and relying on donations is a poor and impractical way to fund massive infrastructure projects, there is reason to believe that the location and design of the DB dam raises technical difficulties that might render it unviable, the DB dam will inevitably create a host of environmental issues, and there are cost-effective alternatives to the dam that can help to address Pakistan’s impending water crisis (such as improving and upgrading the country’s irrigation infrastructure).

In the normal course of events, one would expect such issues to be resolved through sustained debate in parliament and the bureaucracy, with elected representatives and policy experts sitting down together to work out the best way to tackle Pakistan’s water crisis. The fact that Pakistan’s democratic institutions are dysfunctional should not take away from the fact that it is open and transparent discussion of issues that is most likely to yield viable solutions to the problems the country faces. Whether or not the DB dam is the best way to deal with Pakistan’s water scarcity, and whether or not there are better alternatives to it, can only be determined through constructive engagement with the plan’s critics.

Instead, the approach being taken right now, which is aimed at stymieing debate and brooking no opposition, is deeply counterproductive for two reasons; not only does it preclude the possibility of arriving at the best possible approach for solving the problem at hand (by considering alternatives to the DB dam), it also sets a precedent for future policymaking whereby unelected elements in the judiciary or popular leaders can unilaterally make policy without engaging with the institutions of the state and in civil society whose input should be required. In such a context, the process of policymaking will ultimately be hollowed out, leaving behind half-baked plans, harebrained schemes, and gimmicky stunts that do more harm than good.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.