Leaders’ legacy

Published April 6, 2021
The writer is a political economist.
The writer is a political economist.

TRANSFORMATIVE leaders positively change a state’s direction. They induce big changes in political, economic and social institutions and policies whose influence lasts for decades to give major progress. Lincoln, Mahathir and De Gaulle adorn this category.

Such leaders differ from revolutionary ones like Lenin or Mao who led armed struggles to overthrow a regime and change the basic political and economic system, eg from autocracy to democracy, though usually with mixed results. Transformative leaders work within the existing system but bring about major changes in institutions and policies.

Yet the literature on such leaders eschews a messiah syndrome by tying their success not to individual supernatural qualities but to experience, a capable team and favourable context. Thus, populist leaders promising change based on personal traits like honesty or work in unrelated fields like sports are perhaps not transformative. Also, while the focus is usually on those giving positive change, one can also talk of transformative leaders who gave lasting negative change.

Which Pakistani leaders gave lasting positive or negative change? One must begin with Jinnah. While he was a transformative freedom fighter, his role in setting the economic and political direction of the new state was modest, partly due to the short time he lived on. Liaquat Ali ably dealt with the refugee crisis and set up a governance apparatus but one that replicated colonial institutions. He failed to set a new economic and political direction. His most lasting legacy was becoming a US ally which we continued to faithfully be for decades. US ties gave more pain than gain over the years.

Which leader gave us lasting change?

Ayub is wrongly seen by some as our best leader. Yet his centralised political system ended with his era and didn’t gel with our ethnic diversity. His economic model fuelled by short-term US aid was elitist and ignored equity. Both directly led to the 1971 crisis. His economic and political policies were reversed soon after his departure. His lasting legacies were corruption in the highest office, cementing of the army’s political role and elite state bias. His industrial and green revolution policies had some lasting impact but also led to elitism and inequity.

Bhutto dismantled Ayub’s system quickly. He introduced a devolved parliamentary constitutional system that was well-suited given our ethnic diversity and which has survived for decades despite the best attempts by unelected forces to end or hobble it. Yet, while introducing it in theory, he himself undermined it in practice via his autocratic rule. He politicised the bureaucracy. His state-led economic model was in line with the times but was poorly executed. He crafted an independent foreign policy but it did not survive his end. But his nuclear ambitions did. The ties he formed with Gulf states continue to give remittances that balance out our perpetual trade deficits. But it also led to brain drain and dependency.

It was Zia who mainly shaped the deeply flawed social, political, economic, security and foreign policy structures of today’s Pakistan. In each sphere, he injected new toxic strains, elevated existing ones hugely or reversed gains from previous eras. Socially, he cemented bigotry, deep conservatism and politics of faith. Politically, he ensured a move from issues-based to corrupt patronage politics. Political corruption became endemic in his era. The foreign policy mix included raising militants to achieve regional aims, which unleashed huge terrorism at home later. The security policy mix included extensive surveillance of society by intelligence agencies. Economically, he left a state that ran high fiscal and external deficits and debt levels. The involvement of the military in business increased hugely to reduce private sector space.

Pervez Musharraf ruled for long but gave no lasting political or economic change. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had brief, interrupted eras that too gave little lasting change. That said, the 2008-2018 civilian era preceding the current failed hybrid one did produce incremental and gradual positive political change without being transformative.

So our most transformative ruler was Zia, but unluckily, one with a very toxic legacy. Other dictators also gave major negative legacies. The most positive legacy is Bhutto’s parliamentary system though he gave many negative legacies too. Unelected forces have partly undermined even that positive legacy. No leader gave a positive economic legacy in the form of a vibrant, sustainable and equitable economic model. Given this sorry story, its unsurprising that Pakistan suffers today from major perpetual political instability, economic stagnation, external servility, extremism and insecurity, even by South Asian standards.

The writer is a political economist.


Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2021



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