Strongman Syndrome

Published August 30, 2011

Pakistani politics has always been a messy business, it isn’t pretty and it usually involves angry Pakistani men with an inferiority complex. But it is the public discussion which is the heart and soul of any democracy – it is what the people think that truly tells us about the nature and health of a nation’s ‘civil soul’. Today as we look at the tragic situation in Karachi an attitude has come to the fore: The ‘Strongman Syndrome’.

To sort out the bloodbath in Karachi some would have us believe that more spilling of blood is necessary by calling in the Army. A popular call has been one of mass execution of politicians by the Army and then a messianic ushering in of a glorious leader who can quash any sort of dissent. First these pleas have to be put into context – this type of thinking comes from people who have been driven to desperation. Their pleas are a symptom of a failed democracy – they cannot be blamed. Mass executions though an example of ‘swift justice’ (I use the term loosely) is never a long term solution.

‘We need a strong man’ is a common plea by ordinary Pakistanis and we should be sympathetic to this but recognise that this is no solution. The answer to any political crisis is never a ‘strongman’ but rather is more democracy – real democracy in fact where parties have internal elections, where people don’t pay attention to your surname but your policies, where politicians have to face the public in town-hall style meetings and where the rule of law is strengthened. A democracy where people do not hide behind their ethnicity or faith but answer for their actions and speech directly.

I understand the call for a ‘strongman’ – it is only natural when jungle law is the norm in a city like Karachi. But it is a misplaced request – the rule of law has to be strengthened. Justice cannot be trusted in the hands of men it has to be enshrined in fixed laws that provide proper recourse and accountability. The law so to speak is what brings about equilibrium and reconciliation between the weak and the strong. The law is what mediates conflict and provides consensus and agreement. It is the law that has been shattered in Karachi and that is what has to be restored.

Rule of law is one of the sacred pillars of any modern liberal democracy – there is a reason why we must have a system of governance where there are checks and balances – it is so that we can eliminate the need for a ‘’strong man’’. No one is an angel and to trust mere man to deliver the deeds of saints is foolhardy.

The ‘strongman syndrome’ is an insidious threat to Pakistan’s already fragile if not dysfunctional quasi democratic system. It is what paves the way for autocrats and ensures their survival. The ‘strongman syndrome’ is the glue for the social contract between a dictator and his peoples – it is a deadly rot that crushes the democratic spirit. Karachi’s deliverance (in whatever form it will come) will only come about with more democracy and more dialogue – it will only come about when political parties are held to account and the rule of law established.

Our political conscience is still shaped by the experience of the Mughals and their benevolent and pious autocracies in the name of faith, the notion of a ‘Redeemer’ a quasi-messianic complex that will deliver the people to a state of bliss and salvation.

The reasons why in Pakistan the democratic experiment has never really taken off are many but surely one of them is the ‘strongman culture’. We wait patiently for a saviour who will deliver the solutions to our problems, instead of exercising our own rational autonomy and critical reason collectively in the public sphere in active deliberation. A nation cannot be uplifted on the will of one person.

This dissonance in political psychology while stating in a benign manner allegiance to democratic principles, whilst fervently waiting for a modern day Saladin or Mughal emperor (the Saladin complex) is endemic in the electorate, reflected in the spurt of new radical movements. Paradoxically, this utopian belief fosters a numbing fatalism – individual conscience has been relegated as useless daydreaming.

However, utopianism more often than not is a corollary of fanaticism and extremism and is emptied of the reservoirs of rational analysis, emphasising passion and emotion at the cost of reason.  What is happening in Karachi is an example of groups wishing to establish an ethnic utopia – a paradise where only people who are the ‘same’ have a right to life.

Underlying Karachi’s cancer of violence is a social culture – a culture that has been shaped by schools, governments, public personalities, religious leaders and politicians and that is a culture of intolerance. Laws can prevent violence but in the long run it is our national culture that will be the best defence against future tragedies. You can make laws of course but if the soil is barren then how do you expect roses of peace to bloom?

In the end, this process is never driven by a ‘strong man’ – it is driven by men and women of a strong conscience.

Ahmad Ali Khalid is a freelance writer and blogger based in the UK. He can be reached at or twitter.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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