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Sunday March 03, 2024

Messiahs, saviours, heroes

October 12, 2023

Charles De Gaulle was a towering figure in the modern history of France. He organized the resistance to Nazi Germany, headed the provisional government set up after the end of World War II, and introduced the state-directed capitalist economy that ensured thirty years of economic growth. When the political order in France collapsed in 1958 during the war in Algeria, De Gaulle returned to power.

He proposed a constitution with a strong presidency, was elected president twice under that constitution, ended the war in Algeria by terminating French colonial rule there, and presided over France becoming the fourth nuclear power in the world. Although a French nationalist rather than a European integrationist, General De Gaulle contributed to the project of European unity that has evolved into the European Union. But none of these accomplishments made him believe that he was indispensable for France.

In fact, De Gaulle repeated the saying, “The graveyards are full of indispensable people”, to remind himself and others that no single individual should be considered so crucial that the business of a nation or state cannot run without them. In 1969, when voters rejected his proposals for political reforms in a referendum, De Gaulle resigned the presidency and retired to his private home. In his long career, as a military officer and statesman, De Gaulle had been France’s hero many times. But he never thought he was an indispensable messiah or saviour and nor do the French people.

There is a reason I have cited the example of France, a country exhausted by decades of political instability, and General De Gaulle, a man who led the country out of that instability. Pakistan’s leaders, as well as the people, have sought a messiah or saviour almost since the country’s inception. Supporters of almost every major public figure believe that their chosen leader is the panacea for all that ails the country. And the leaders themselves, from military dictators to politicians and sports heroes, also start believing in their indispensability.

If Pakistani leaders could learn from General De Gaulle, they would learn that there is no need to cling to office at all costs. A patriot puts forward his ideas and if people support them, he leads the people into implementing them. When the people withdraw their support, it is time to recede to private life. There is no need to attack those who disagree with you as foreign agents or traitors. Sometimes your ideas can continue to guide the country even after your own withdrawal from the public scene.

Similarly, the people of Pakistan also need to learn something from the French supporters of De Gaulle. It is one thing to consider someone the right man for the leadership role. It is quite another to start believing that there is no future without your preferred messiah or saviour. Many in France admired and loved De Gaulle but they did not adopt the ‘Our leader or nothing’ mode that we have sometimes witnessed in Pakistan’s political history. There is a difference between a political movement and a personality cult. The French understood it, but many Pakistanis have not always done so. The Gaullist political tendency still exists in France, long after De Gaulle’s retirement from politics and even after his death.

To see someone as a nation’s saviour, and indispensable leader, one must consider them supernatural. Creating the image of supernaturality requires a lot of lies and sustained image building. The focus on their image produces self-love, self-righteousness, and complacency among those professing to be, or perceived as, messiahs and saviours. Among the public, it creates artificial hope and a tendency to be unrealistic.

The fascination with messiahs, saviours, and heroes has resulted in the absence of a self-regulating system of governance in Pakistan. Each government in Pakistan’s history, civil or military, has revolved around the individuals who run it. Policy choices have been made without sharing information publicly and without open debate and discussion. Commitments made by one government have often not been fulfilled by its successors.

Such decision-making is usually erratic. It is also subject to reversal with changes in the ruling hierarchy. Since changes in governments are themselves unpredictable, there is no guarantee of how long a policy will last. Only those who feel they can make a fast buck without making a long-term commitment make investments in such an environment. A few multinationals stay in the arena, tapping the large consumer market, hoping that international backing will protect their business. Indigenous enterprise or hard work does not govern Pakistan’s economic cycles. Its economic cycles move from IMF package to IMF package.

Long-term and sustainable economic development requires a stable political framework. Political stability does not mean continuity in power of a single individual or even political party. Italy has seen 70 governments in 78 years since the end of World War II. Japan changes its prime minister almost every two years. Stability in these nations is provided by the continuity of their political system. Economic policies do not change with every change of face in the Prime Minister’s Office. The whims of individuals are subject to institutional checks.

Leaders in most successful countries are pragmatic consensus builders and policymakers. They run their countries, instead of pretending to save them. Since Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan has been on the path of searching for saviours. Each saviour has sought to re-invent governance, instead of building on the foundations that already exist.

De Gaulle operationalized resistance to Nazi rule of France and stepped up at multiple times of crisis with plans for what the French nation needed to do to overcome the crisis. Some of his choices and decisions were likely wrong or erroneous. But neither he, nor France, embraced the ‘great hero rescues nation and is indispensable’ theory of statecraft that seems to have become a major factor in Pakistani political thinking.

The writer, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, is Diplomat-in-Residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.