THE advisers to the chief executive of the country have once again come into sharp focus as the nation squares up to one of the biggest health challenges in its history.
Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to talk only about the fight against the coronavirus that lies ahead. There are people, such as those in the group we recently saw grappling with him on television, who are not moved by this demand. They seek to expand it to a point where the discussion has to take into account the mistakes — some very grave ones, given the tone of the questions thrown at Mr Khan — of his government.
Harsh as they may sound, they are polite enough in pursuance of a Pakistani convention to not indict and dismiss the prime minister then and there. There is no need to actually do that with so many advisers around to bite the bullet for the prime minister. You can always accuse the adviser of the darkest things possible.
Those who raise the questions are knowledgeable souls. They cannot underestimate the power of a top prime ministerial aide, and the political scandal inherent in any mistakes that can be traced to these aides. Many if not all of those asking questions today have enjoyed advising Mr Khan on sundry issues in the past. They appear to have a clear idea of what a difference good, timely advice can make. In a majority of cases, they probably had a bad experience and their counsel, it seems, did not receive the official approval they thought it deserved. The prime minister did not quite adhere to their advice, according to the signs.
There are many advisers around to bite the bullet for the prime minister.
The guilty advisers who protect Mr Imran Khan against any onslaught by their would-be replacements and ‘neutral’ observers go back a long time in history. Every great man or woman has had the company of clever and not-so-clever aides whispering ideas into their ears. In moments when a particular leader has to be redeemed, these advisers emerge by his or her side, seeking to hog the attention, absorbing blame and making the principal feel as light as his or her conscience and political requirements would allow.
One of the earliest headlines that has stuck in my memory was about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. A newspaper in Lahore that had apparently supported him through his rise to power and glory was now upset with the way he had ‘allowed’ himself to be influenced by those that some left-leaning journalists did not approve of. The header was laden with emotion as it direly warned ZAB: ‘Bhutto Sahib, khushamdiyon say bachiyay’ — Mr Bhutto, beware the sycophants. As it turned out, the Herculean task was beyond the first elected prime minister of Pakistan. He stumbled badly, choosing to act on counsel that had doom written all over it. And by doing that, ZAB helped firmly establish a tradition that has been followed keenly to judge others in power after him.
It is a tradition that absolves the elected leader of most of his follies, if it does not cleanse him of all wrongs that he might have knowingly or unknowingly committed. The leader, more specifically the leader coming from the elected, political stick, is seldom at fault in this country. It is always the advisers, the sycophants, who are responsible for the misdeeds and mistakes that occur under the nose of an elected leader — say, a prime minister.
This is in contrast to our general national understanding of a military ruler. He may torture you endlessly with his nasal refrain about his rufqaikaar or close associates, but the advisers of an Ayub Khan or a Ziaul Haq seldom get the blame for putting obnoxious ideas in the heads of their bosses — unless the project is as huge as Operation Gibraltar and the guilty adviser manages to scale the heights that ZAB did.
Perhaps the military leader’s image precludes anyone sharing any sort of power with him. The military ruler or his party, generally, is also not looking to fight an election and thus can do without an attempt at popular redemption by explaining certain past happenings.
ZAB as first the president and then prime minister of Pakistan was faced with the need of a lot of urgent decision-making. He did what he must have thought best for Pakistan, its people, his party and himself personally. Many of his steps continue to be debated as controversial and unnecessary to this day, depending upon which side of the politician in him appeals to whom. However, while he may have erred and blundered and then compromised a bit more, he always enjoyed the good services of his advisers to relieve him of the burden of guilt.
Nationalisation could and could not have been a wise scheme back in those days when left-wing ideology was still quite in vogue. But if Bhutto Sahib has to be defended against the critics of whatever ‘socialist’ ideals he might have been responsible for chasing ever so briefly, he had the facility of pointing a finger at the comrades who had infiltrated the PPP for the nationalisation ‘disaster’. Equally conveniently, the blame for the faith-based measures the PPP founder took to appease a majority of Pakistanis and to enlarge his support base is placed at the door of his right-wing advisers.
The role of the uncouth, or simply unwise, adviser was expanded during the tenures of Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif to reconfirm just how the person at the top was incapable of committing a wrong. There was always an Asif Zardari, a Saifur Rehman or an Ishaq Dar around to provide leaders the political alibi they were desperately looking for. The number of advisers who have built this defence line around Mr Imran Khan are repeating the same noble exercise, of saving their leader against as many direct attacks as possible. The blame is theirs to take. The fate of the fall guys has been written.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2020