Pakistan at the Helm is Tilak Devasher’s second book on the country, the first being Pakistan: Courting the Abyss. A former member of India’s civil service, he writes on developments in South Asia with a focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan. In his new book, Devasher, beginning with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, attempts to provide a detailed examination of Pakistan’s leaders as they ruled as dictators, prime ministers and presidents, or even influenced the country’s politics from behind the scenes over the past seven decades. Instead of simply giving his own opinions, the author has meticulously researched each person by delving into a wide range of books written on Pakistan, and via a historical lens he provides insights into how they shaped the country.
The book examines the role each leader played and their style of governance. In the manner of putting together a jigsaw puzzle, Devasher culls, piece by piece, vignettes which he then arranges in chronological order, enabling readers to understand the personality of each leader. He pinpoints traits and characteristics so precisely that the reader can pick out patterns of follies and similarities of, and between, leaders which can at times leave one bemused and, at other times, crushed.
The author also writes how each leader shaped regional and international geo-politics; this provides a concise summary of Pakistan’s relationships with the United States and with India. However, while he does well in giving the reader an understanding about each leader, there is a tendency in the author to focus on the negatives — the damage each leader caused to himself or herself and to the country. It is almost as if Devasher has chosen not to focus on any of their positive traits. He is sympathetic to the country and notes the tragedies that have unfolded on this unfortunate nation, but his narration of the personalities is harsh and critical, concentrating more on their flaws. While some can argue this does not provide a fair picture, there is no denying that the book still works, enabling readers to get inside the head of each leader.
An Indian author insightfully examines the personality traits and leadership styles of the individuals who have held Pakistan’s reins
As the chapters are divided chronologically, it is easy to pinpoint repeated patterns of behaviour — both personal and governing style — and it makes for a poignant read as through the decades one can see how Pakistan deteriorated with regards to its position on the global stage, and how institutions weakened to a point where foreign powers either stepped in to fill the gaps or forced their way into dictating policy. For example, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is shown to be a sucker for sycophancy fuelled by his own megalomania and, years later, his daughter Benazir Bhutto failed to appreciate that she needed to work with what she had instead of adopting an arrogant approach that made her blind to the advice of well-wishers. What is most remarkable is the rise of dictators such as Gen Ayub Khan and Gen Ziaul Haq, both of whom were soldiers with zero — as was assumed initially — political aspirations. Call it luck or consequence or even survival, but from their perspective, gaining power was a matter of ‘national duty’.
Then there are colourful characters such as Gen Yahya Khan, who had a penchant for drinking and partying, and Nawaz Sharif, who is a peculiar mix of the comical and the dangerous. The book ends on Gen Pervez Musharraf’s leadership which again gives an insight into how the establishment works and its relationship with the US.
A majority of Pakistanis will be cognisant of life under almost all of the leaders mentioned in Devasher’s book — although those who remember life from the time of Partition will most likely be in the minority now — and so will undoubtedly form their own opinions on events and the leadership. But what Devasher also does is that, by examining each leader, he breaks down crucial elements that have come to define Pakistan’s historical and modern trajectory.
Here it is important to remind readers of two things: first, what Devasher has written is fact. Throughout the book he meticulously references each piece of information that reveals a facet of the person and the decisions taken by him or her. Secondly, history is something to learn from. Pakistan at the Helm does not attempt to predict future policy nor does it provide any solutions or indicate what a Pakistani leader ought to do, but it is a good reference book for anyone who needs a succinct history of the country. More importantly, it is a book that any future leader of Pakistan ought to have by their bedside, simply because it is the sum of all that has gone before. And this book delivers one massive lesson: the importance of the type of individual at the helm cannot be understated. From the elite-college-educated to the soldier, Pakistan has seen it all. Yet somehow, somewhere, something keeps going wrong and instead of a civilian democracy there is a praetorian state.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based writer
Pakistan at the Helm
By Tilak Devasher
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 26th, 2018