Tale of the missing PM

Published June 21, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” — Shakespeare

FRANKLIN Roosevelt won four terms as president of the United States before the two-term bar was put in place. He was the only American president to have done so. But along with his unprecedented four terms, Roosevelt is also known for having led the country during some of the most difficult times in the country’s history — the Great Depression, Pearl Harbour and a world war. And he did all this as a man stricken with polio and confined to a wheelchair.

But what may be less known about Roosevelt is that he was the first president to understand and use modern technology for communicating directly with the people. By the time he came into power, nearly every American household had a radio, and Roosevelt realised he could use it to talk to the people directly without a messenger. Called the ‘Fireside Chats’, his speech would be broadcast directly into people’s homes; about the difficult times, the New Deal, and the war in Europe. Compared to his predecessors, Roosevelt used casual language, referring to himself as ‘I’ and those he was addressing as ‘you’, unlike the more formal style used in the speeches given by presidents.

His speeches from those times are still quoted as examples of good communication strategy — the language was clear and simple; he began by saying “my friends” and walked those listening through the many crises facing America. One of his most famous phrases — “You have nothing to fear but fear itself” — is still widely quoted to this day. Not only did his message get across, the new deal he set in place reset the relationship between the government and the people, and eventually Roosevelt ended up winning four terms.

Communications matter, especially in difficult times. And crises have and can turn men and women into leaders.

Who is going to convince the people that this is an unprecedented time for us?

Hence, it is quite difficult to understand the absence of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif at a time when the country is perhaps going through an unprecedented economic crisis. The government has had to make the tough choice of raising petrol prices by over Rs80 in 20 days; diesel even more. The inflation spiral this will lead to is still to kick off. The attacks by the PTI are relentless, and the government is under pressure.

But pleading the government’s case and explaining the crisis is apparently the headache of the second-tier leadership; hence, we see the finance minister, the energy minister and the information minister holding a press conference. This is then followed by a second round where the allies make an appearance; one day, this included Qamar Zaman Kaira and Maulana Sahib’s son flanking PML-N’s Khawaja Asif. A third round usually includes a talk by a figure from the Sindh government and another by someone linked to Hamza’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t cabinet in Lahore.

But where is the real deal? The man at the top — in fact, all the men at the top, who couldn’t stay away from the cameras when announcing and then seeing the vote of no-confidence through?

And now, when difficult decisions are being made, a ‘bayan’ to be run on television or a tweet is about the most we have seen — be it Shehbaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari or Maulana Fazlur Rehman. There are vague messages and hints about the prime minister’s address to the nation but nothing concrete.

And in the absence of this, there is little chance of the people understanding the urgency of the situation. Who is going to convince them that this is an unprecedented time for us, a war-like situation? The finance minister? Or the petroleum one? No wonder then that Imran Khan’s interviews and speeches about how the vote of no-confidence has tanked the economy and how he had warned of this sounds more plausible. He is winning the war of narratives because he has a more palatable story to tell, and he is the only storyteller in town.

If nothing else, the government should glance back to the beginning of Covid. Once the PTI government of the time realised what it was facing, it put its most important man on the job of communication. Then prime minister Imran Khan gave televised speeches aplenty; he spoke to journalists again and again, and he had his key people with him when he interacted with the press. Undoubtedly, he wasn’t as precise as he needed to be, and his messaging wasn’t accurate at times, and he got the flak for it too. But the government was not deterred. The seriousness of the situation got communicated.

Read: Leadership matters

And along the way, the PTI also managed to make clear what its policies and priorities were, despite the criticism. From the aversion to the lockdown to social protection, to work being done at the NCOC; the information was there, and it could be debated, praised and criticised. And this is why, today, the PTI claims credit for avoiding strict lockdowns as well as for its social protection programmes.

In contrast, at present, the absence of the prime minister and the other parties’ top leadership means nothing is being discussed except the price hike in the most general manner or the usual bak bak on politics, neutrals and elections. There is little to no debate on even the targeted subsidy of Rs2,000 the government has announced. Perhaps this is not because the amount is small but because the messenger has not been the man in charge.

And if the government is not interested in the optics, perhaps someone in government should think of what this difficult time can do for a first-time prime minister. Crises are not easy for politicians or for societies, but they can also turn politicians into leaders. If the Covid example doesn’t interest the prime minister, he could look further afield — Volodymyr Zelensky is now a leader and a statesman at home and for the world. And this happened during a crisis, not because of economic prosperity.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2022

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