In awe of ‘awami’ leaders

02 Oct 2020


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

I DON’T know whether it’s his own idea or a borrowed one, but the popular Indian stage show host Kapil Sharma does understand how keen the audiences are to associate celebrities humanised by him with the teeny-weeny moments from their own lives. Sharma is able to create a delicate make-believe but comforting proximity between the larger-than-life personalities on stage and the dreamers in the crowd by asking questions about apparently unimportant things.

He asks them if it has ever happened to them that they had to rinse the shampoo bottle of its last little remains with water, or have they ever had to join little pieces of soap to make a whole that could then be used during a shower. He put the question to Amitabh Bachchan, and Bachchan – being a veteran practitioner of the art of charming the awam – was quick to seize on the opportunity, winning instant applause with his answer: “Often, it happens often.”

Sitting next to him for the last four and a half decades, a politician of sorts, critically acclaimed actor and in-charge of the Bachchan household, Jaya ji was not equal to the task when asked the same question. She was apparently taken aback by this invasion of privacy and found shaking her head as if in disbelief, “This never happens in our house.”

It’s logical that Jaya Bachchan is not an automatic choice for the title of the most people-friendly politician as a debate today divides the Indian film industry into two rival political camps. A performer with the softest image, she has failed one test that is vital to the image of a politician and that may have cemented her haughty, aloof presence in many hearts.

There is work to be done to rid the latest in the long line of heirs of her aloofness in aid of a softer image.

It’s like the box office. You never know exactly what to do to endear yourself to the people. But a certain presence of mind at crucial moments is definitely needed. As was displayed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once, in a world apart. Legend has it that as he spoke at a jalsa about rising prices of essentials during his government, he found himself up against a group of men waving shoes at him. He promptly responded: “I know, I know… shoes have also become too expensive.”

They say the tradition is still best kept alive by those who claim to be ZAB’s followers. Around the 33rd birthday of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari a week or so ago, an admirer posted a special picture of the PPP chairman. It was from the category of moving images where a leader — born in privilege and benefiting from an elite upbringing — was shown hugging a lady twice his age with few signs of any worldly affluence to brandish. It was the uninhibited nature of the embrace between the leader and the awam that had caught the fancy of the gentleman who shared the image.

The frankness, the ease with which you socialise, was there even when BBZ had first arrived on stage. To his credit, the quality has not deserted him, even though he must have learnt by now that these popular huddles alone do not turn ambition into a successful career. In fact, away from the simple loyalists, he has shown quite a remarkable ability to mingle with politicians of all kinds quite naturally, something that his father should be proud of and his mother would have definitely approved of.

Given the persistence with which he has courted politicians, it would be tempting to dub him a new Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. The glaring difference is that BBZ’s party has a couple of more assembly seats in Punjab than Nawabzada’s Pakistan Democratic Party could ever hope to secure.

The race for coveted vacancies in Pakistani politics apart, the issue is: who is holding whom from going the whole hog on the popular hug? The question gains in significance as another heir from another dynasty is urgently pushed for a pressing assignment.

Obviously, not all baray log, or the elite as they are called, have the same disposition, and there are also certain limitations imposed by gender. This is a point to ponder as we realise there is work to be done to rid the latest in the long line of heirs of her aloofness in aid of a softer image.

The rumours may be unfounded but there is nothing wrong with the idea itself. Why not get Ms Maryam the services of teachers who fit the description given in these rumours? The kind of tutors who supposedly know when to punctuate their well-ironed English with a line of chaste Punjabi to strike a ready chord with God’s motley crew and simultaneously with those blessed by the Lord with resources and taste to dress in designer khaddar.

The haughtiness, perceived or real, can be a huge disadvantage — unless the faithful know a politician long enough to allow them a certain kind of distance without in any way jeopardising their popular appeal. Like, after so many years, the people recognised that Mian Nawaz Sharif did a few things in a certain withdrawn manner that didn’t necessarily mean disrespect to the awam, leaving the antics to the more youthful Shahbaz Sharif. His daughter, on the other hand, will need much greater flexibility and a much more popular, in the sense of ordinary, persona to hit it out with people quickly.

There are excessive signs of pride on display, perhaps natural for a member of a dynasty that has produced three prime ministers, a handful of chief ministers, some sundry ministers and a few industrial magnates to boot. Not to forget the most capable of them all, the lady who got them all out of jail, literally. There are also sometimes signs that all too frequently betray a sense of entitlement, which can be dangerous for a leader who is really earnest in going on an expedition to rediscover and reclaim her father’s lost fortune.

Who knows, she may end up getting the role of her famous middle-of-the-road uncle Shahbaz, with father dear taking it upon himself to lead the resistance brigade. He has just said he will lead from London as Shahbaz sahab is put behind bars. Ms Nawaz must learn how to tone it down, just as she must practice drills about how to feel at home among the less unfortunate creatures with the most sorry tales the popular politicians cannot avoid. The idea is to inspire, not hold them in awe.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 2nd, 2020