Is Pakistan leaderless?
There is no shortage of political ‘leaders’ and political parties in Pakistan. But do they provide leadership? What does leadership involve? Is it in short supply in the country? Why is leadership needed now, more than ever?
Pakistan today is in the throes of a polycrisis. Multiple crises – political, economic, institutional and constitutional – are overlapping to produce a bigger challenge than that presented by any single crisis. The most consequential is the economic crisis. The economy is still in the critical ward despite a bailout from the IMF which is just a short-term arrangement and obviously does nothing to deal with the underlying problems that constantly push the country to the edge of default and force it to seek repeated bailouts. The country’s structural issues need to be tackled by a credible plan to escape from the trap of anemic growth, low savings and investment, high deficits, limited exports, heavy borrowing, growing indebtedness and soaring inflation. The cost-of-living crisis has already triggered street protests and strikes, which raises the spectre of wider social unrest in the country.
In a deeply polarized country, the political and constitutional crisis is being exacerbated by the delay in calling the general election. Legal battles continue in the courts, which are also hearing petitions challenging the arrests and detention of scores of political leaders and activists. The room for dissent is shrinking due to official controls and coercive actions. The security challenge is growing with militant violence posing a rising threat. August saw the highest number of militant attacks in almost nine years according to an Islamabad based think tank. Close to a hundred incidents of terrorist violence claimed the lives of 112 civilians and security personnel last month alone.
This situation of unparalleled challenges in conditions of economic, political and institutional disarray calls out for capable leadership that understands Pakistan’s deep-seated problems and has the will and competence to tackle them. Governments in the recent past have simply muddled through without a plan or strategy to deal with long standing problems. Today the country seems rudderless, lacking direction and the means to meet challenges and inspire public confidence about the future. Successive public opinion polls show a deeply demoralized nation bereft of hope in the future.
Leaders are elected to public office but without a purposeful plan, capability and credibility to enthuse and unite the country. That is why wielding power does not translate into leadership.
Pakistan has had leaderless moments before. The present mess has in large part resulted from that and is reflected in the persisting gap between challenge and response, between rule and governance and between power and purpose. But leadership matters even more today given the enormity and complexity of the challenges. The present vacuum in leadership is therefore especially telling and far more consequential.
It is generally agreed that leadership whether in government or beyond has at least three essential components. One, fashioning an implementable vision and then a strategy to execute it; two, pursuing this by placing competent people in the right positions; and three, having the ability to motivate and inspire people behind the public goals that are identified. Evaluated against this criterion it is apparent how far the country’s present array of ‘leaders’ falls short of this test. No vision, strategy or program of action has been rolled out by any leader. Politics now is all about power and not public purpose. No leader so far has tried to offer a serious solution to any of Pakistan’s problems. Slogans and vacuous rhetoric are all that are on offer.
As for the second attribute of organizing a credible team, this too is conspicuous by its absence. A personalized approach to team-building has taken precedence over considerations of skill, knowledge and competence. The premium is placed on loyalty to the ‘leader’ and other ‘connections’, not on who is qualified to get the job done.
As for the third ingredient, motivating and inspiring people, this is done by example and by the ability to connect to citizens, understand what they want and respond to it. But increasingly, our leaders are disconnected both from facts on the ground and the needs and aspirations of ordinary people. The paradox that defines Pakistan’s predicament today is this: Leaders are elected to public office but without a purposeful plan, capability and credibility to enthuse and unite the country. That is why wielding power does not translate into leadership. Nor does rule produce governance.
In his insightful book Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, Henry Kissinger wrote that “Ordinary leaders seek to manage the immediate; great ones attempt to raise their society to their vision.” Courage to set a direction and strength of character to stay the course makes for leadership. Leaders shape history, he says, when they transcend the circumstances they inherit and carry their societies to the frontiers of the possible. Pakistan today yearns for such leadership with the vision to break from an unedifying past and the ability to create a hopeful future for its people.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha