How Pakistani politics allows person-centred leadership
A leader is a person in a group or society that exercises disproportionate influence, power and authority over the followers and determines their goals and mobilises them for achievement of the identified goals. In the political and societal domains credible leaders emerge through a gradual process spread over time. It is a lifetime effort to sustain the leadership at a position of significance. The quick rise to position of leadership is possible in non-democratic, authoritarian, personalised civilian and military regimes. In Pakistan, the military pulled up many people to position of leadership through co-option and manipulation of the political process. Such a leadership acquires autonomous status only by developing strong roots in the people and distancing itself from the military and personalised rule.
There are other examples of quick rise of leadership in Pakistan. Dr Tahirul Qadri is the latest example of such leadership. He dominated Pakistan’s media as well as the political scene for a week in January who showed his strength by mobilising his religious followers on a march to Islamabad and then threatened to unleash them to attack the government installations there. By the end of January his political standing has slipped downwards.
Though Imran Khan has been in active politics since 1996, it was in October 2011, his public meeting in Lahore, that took the country by surprise. His public meetings elsewhere, especially in Karachi (December 2011) and Quetta (March 2012), were equally impressive. A number of leaders from different parties rushed to join his bandwagon as an opportunity to build their political fortune with the help of Imran’s surge. Now, in January 2013, Imran Khan’s political graph has gone down and his party faces internal problems as he holds party elections.
The quick rise of such leaders can be attributed partly to the growing alienation among the people from the current political arrangements and partly to the success of these leaders to build on the current frustrations of the people and their aspirations for the future.
This negative perception of the current political arrangement is being reinforced by a persistent propaganda against them by those who want some supernatural person to emerge and solve their problem. They want the replication of the ideal Islamic notion of leadership as practiced in the earliest days of Islam. The people close to the bureaucratic and military establishment also engage in anti-democracy propaganda that describes the political leaders as nothing but corrupt, incompetent and selfish.
The periodic remarks of some judges of the Supreme Court and their judgments in a number of cases, as reported in the media, cause the crisis of legitimacy for elected civilian government at the federal level. It is unprecedented that the Supreme Court removed one elected prime minister and ordered the arrest and filing of a reference against another. These developments have contributed to undermining the reputation of civilian leaders and democratic processes and strengthened those opposed to parliamentary democracy.
The political leaders in power have not done anything significant to nullify the ongoing propaganda against them by improving governance and political management. Their performance continues to be poor.
Such a state of affairs creates acute social, political and economic crises in the society and the people lose confidence in their capacity to change their conditions. They feel dis-empowered, unable to control their future. With the decline of Marxism and Socialism, religious ideologies give hope to the people and society in search of self-confidence and socio-political identity. In Islamic countries literalist and fundamentalist Islamic appeals have attracted a large number of people.
The people’s quest for a leader who will solve their problems instantly creates ample opportunity for those performing in non-political domains to cash their non-political success in the political domain. Imran Khan entered the political domain after performing in cricket and social welfare. He also projects himself as an Islamist and sympathetic to the Taliban. Tahirul Qadri attempted to turn his religious appeal into political force.
With growing religiosity in Pakistan a large number of people view leadership purely in religious term and want to replicate the principles and structures of the earliest idealised period of Islamic history. Therefore, the ordinary people are elated when any leader, like Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan, promises to cleanse the society of corrupt people or that only pious people should contest elections or hold power.
However, the meteoric rise of leadership cannot be sustained merely on criticism of those in power or other political adversaries. These leaders have to go beyond criticism by offering a detailed and practical plan of action to create an ideal social and political order inspired by the earliest period of Islam. What steps would actually be taken given the constraints of troubled economy and stepped up religious extremism and terrorism to change the fortune of the people. Both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have condemned the present political order but have been unable to give a practical plan of action to solve the problems. Therefore, such leaders will lose support if they cannot go beyond criticism of their political adversaries.
Further, most of these leaders favour a solo political flight or want others to accept their lead role. This posture conflicts with the changing realities of Pakistani politics. A single super-leader cannot dominate politics. The success in politics now depends on working with other leaders and parties. They have to build political partnership and coalitions which is not possible without political accommodation.
No matter how one criticises the existing political forces, most political parties have built a core support for them in the society which does not shift because these parties have worked for it over time. The PPP, various groups of the Pakistan Muslim League, MQM, ANP and some regional and Islamic parties have established support bases that keep them alive.
Imran has to compete with a number of political parties of political right and Islamic orientation. Qadri’s religious leadership is not endorsed by those who do not share his Islamic ‘maslak’. A number of Islamic parties with Barelvi orientation also reject his political agenda.
The newly emerging leaders are expected to make impact on Pakistani politics. However, the current indications are that the traditional political parties and groups would continue to dominate Pakistani politics. If the non-elected state institutions extend some blessings to the new leaders and others opposed to ongoing parliamentary democracy, they can pull down the old leadership.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.