Paucity of leadership

17 Oct 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

POLITICS in Pakistan moves in circles, with no prospect of change. The actors remain the same, only their roles change. The paucity of leadership is reflected in the ongoing political discourse. Political battles are fought in the name of democracy but it’s more about power and control. A recent public speech of the prime minister and a TV interview of opposition leader Maryam Nawaz Sharif last week reflect the poverty of our politics.

Addressing a convention of his party’s lawyers’ forum Imran Khan declared: “I am democracy”. That assertion resonates in the words ascribed to Louis XIV of France: “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). The speech reflected an inflated sense of self-importance. For the prime minister, all opposition leaders are criminals and should be sent to jail. The authoritarian streak inside the ‘democrat’ is evident.

Most pitiable, however, were his comments referring to the monitoring of politicians by intelligence. “They know the ISI is aware of all their theft. They try to control it and that’s where the conflict starts,” he declared. He claimed the security establishment supported every agenda of his government because of his “clean record”. This strange logic exposes his claim of being a democratically elected leader. A responsible political leader, particularly one holding the highest public office, is not expected to make such a statement.

A sense of entitlement can be discerned on both sides of the political divide.

This also appeared to place the military, which is constitutionally bound to serve an elected government, in an embarrassing position. It is not the job of the security agencies to keep tabs on political leaders. Dragging the security establishment into politics cannot be dismissed as naivety. Such statements give credence to allegations of “a state within the state”.

In fact, these sort of comments will be seen as a political leader’s sense of insecurity and his going too far in the politics of confrontation. Flaunting establishment support would only weaken claims of being democratically elected.

That the inability to deal with critical political issues at hand increases the government’s dependence on the establishment does not bode well for the democratic process in the country. The prime minister’s statement at the lawyers’ convention is a negation of the very concept of democracy. The sense of entitlement such remarks convey is becoming insupportable.

Meanwhile, Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s interview to a private channel was also reflective of a sense of entitlement that is so deeply entrenched in our dynastical political culture. The 40-minute interview of the vice president of the PML-N reinforces the view that the party is still largely a Sharif family affair. Uncle Shehbaz may have a different approach but the elder Sharif is the final authority. In an earlier press conference, she described her father an “imam”.

Maryam has already been accepted by the PML-N as the heir apparent in the Sharif political dynasty and she is very much conscious of her elevation as deputy to her father. There may be some reservation among the senior leadership of the party on her crowning but it does not matter much in our dynastical political culture. It’s all in the family.

Of course, there was nothing in the interview about dynastical entitlement that is not known. Yet it shows how family interests determine PML-N politics as in the case of most mainstream political parties that constitute the newly formed opposition alliance under the banner of the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

The persecution of opposition political leaders in the name of accountability and the government’s irrational approach may have pushed the opposition to the wall, but failure to reach a deal with the powers that be, has also been a reason for the PML-N taking a hard anti-establishment stance.

Less than a year ago, the PML-N had voted for the bill granting Gen Qamar Bajwa a second term as chief of army staff. While the PML-N continued with its tirade against the prime minister, the security establishment was spared. Both Nawaz Sharif and Maryam went into hibernation giving currency to the speculation about an impending reconciliation with the security establishment. Maryam failed to come up with a plausible explanation to questions regarding this.

It seems that a breakdown in backchannel negotiations led to the Sharifs breaking their long silence. The warrant of arrest against Nawaz Sharif and the summoning of his daughter by NAB for questioning in a new case signalled renewed tension. That was probably the reason for the former prime minister’s angry outburst against the security establishment in his virtual address to the opposition gathering in Islamabad.

In his address to his party, he repeated his allegation about how the establishment conspired to bring down his government. But this narrative now seems to have been muted. In her interview, Maryam denied that her party has any quarrel with the establishment. We have problems with a few people and not the institution, she maintained. Other PML-N leaders too are now on the defensive. The aggression is certainly missing in the party’s discourse now.

Pakistan’s politics is more about what happens behind the scenes than what appears in the public domain. The opposition parties forgetting their rivalries are now united in challenging Imran Khan’s government, which is seen as increasingly relying on the security establishment for survival.

There is no precedence in this country of a government being ousted through public rallies. But they could bring the ineffective administration under pressure. What the opposition alliance could achieve at the end would depend on various factors. It is evident that the main objective of the PDM is to gain greater space for the opposition and create conditions to compel the establishment to withdraw its apparent support for the government. Surely it will be a serious test for the prime minister’s sense of entitlement. But there is no hope of weakening the stranglehold of dynastic politics that is the biggest impediment in the evolution of institutional and inclusive democracy in the country.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2020