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Sycophant culture

August 28, 2018

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FOR now, the mention of Prime Minister Imran Khan seems synonymous with hope. Even those opposed to him seem willing to go with the argument that it’s worth testing someone new.

Of course, he isn’t the first leader to espouse such massive hope. Many statesmen around the world have. But only a few have lived up to the expectations.

So what should the new prime minister do to end up on the winning side? Since the elections, newspaper columns have been filled with solid advice for him. Still, I find one missing link: how should he conduct himself to avoid falling prey to the perverse political culture that pervades our system? At the heart of this perversion lies the curse of sycophancy.

Sycophancy is the brain-eating amoeba of Pakistani politics. It affects everyone — the upright and the compromised. Sycophants are simply rational actors who recognise that sucking up to the boss offers greater benefit than objective critique in cultures with weak integrity and an absence of meritocracy.

Khan should rule Pakistan as a last-term prime minister.

To be sure, different leaders have different levels of susceptibility to sycophancy. But no one comes into office believing that they’ll fall for it. Yet, most end up addicted. Leaders tend to get surrounded by a group of people who act as gatekeepers. The leader’s reality begins to be shaped; they gradually lose touch with the view on the street. This problem tends to be acuter in contexts like Pakistan’s where there is no end to bad news; praise, genuine or not, offers leaders welcome relief from the constant stress and anguish of dealing with the country’s myriad problems.

Talk to people who worked for Benazir, Musharraf, or Nawaz and they’ll tell you how each one’s inner circle changed from the candid and objective to the sycophants over time; how this was perfectly correlated with these leaders’ transformation from being patient listeners to imposers of their will and dismissive of anything unflattering.

Khan won’t be immune to these pressures. And no matter how different he may be from his predecessors, sycophancy will begin to affect his outlook unless he consciously acts to nip it in the bud now.

First, he will need to deal with his immediate surroundings. Four steps are in order: one, explicitly tell the cabinet that they are barred from praising Imran Khan, the individual; make an example of the ones who think he’s bluffing. Two, appoint one or two individuals to attend cabinet meetings specifically to play devil’s advocate in every policy conversation — in military terms, ‘red team’ it. Three, regularly meet different opinion-makers (policy experts, journalists, business elite) who are critical of you; let them speak their mind and absorb what makes sense — appreciate them and force your team to act upon their constructive suggestions. Four, keep the gatekeepers — formal ones like your principal secretary or military secretary or self-anointed ones pretending to protect you from the riffraff — in check.

Second, Khan should rule Pakistan as a last-term prime minister. As the political realities of an in-power party hit home, so will the inherent tradeoffs between populist, vote-solidifying moves and decisions that are in the country’s long-term interests but could hurt a government’s support-base. As this begins to become apparent, sycophants will pounce. They’ll convince the boss that visionary decisions with only long-term gains will force them out of power. Often, this argument becomes potent as a leader gets into the second half of his or her term in office. In the PTI’s case, Khan’s populist promises and the sky-high expectations associated with him could make it attractive much earlier. To forestall this, Khan needs to shun any conversation that pleads populism for re-election over merit-based decision-making.

Third, the prime minister should devolve important decision-making in ways that make it unattractive for sycophants to target him. Khan should consider his job to be a recruiter-at-large and resist any and every urge to micromanage things. Pakistan’s problems are too vast and complex for a hands-on leadership approach to work. Instead, the prime minister’s time should be spent recruiting the best talent for the key public-sector political and technocratic positions around the country and empowering them to deliver results. The sycophants would then find more value in flocking to these decision-makers. This is a far less damaging prospect as long as the prime minister can set up a mechanism to evaluate the performance of these individuals on a regular basis and penalise those unable to perform — because the sycophants have got the better of them or otherwise.

All this is easier said than done. But evidence is unflinching: you fall for it and you become delusional — no matter who you are.

The writer is author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018).

www.moeedyusuf.net

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2018