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August 19, 2018

Raise words, not voices


August 19, 2018

Imran Khan's speech after he was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan.

There are times to raise one’s voice. There are times to raise one’s words. Leaders ought to pick the occasions for both wisely.

For almost five years, Imran Khan – now Pakistan’s 22nd elected prime minister – raised his voice at the right time. He smashed his opponents’ reputations with the lash of his tongue. He destroyed their names with demonical persistence. He built a narrative soaked in poison and hate. He lifted national anger, heightened frustration and eventually created a climate where he got himself catapulted to power on the back of the claim that he will change everything. He lowered his words to embarrassing levels, but raised his voice enough to be heard in the corridors of real power in Pakistan – and won their confidence. On the day of his election as prime minister he was supposed to do the exact opposite, though – but he couldn’t.

Imran delivered a speech that was a sorry throwback to the days when he was perambulating up and down on an iron cage, speaking at times to only dozens of people. The day of his election as PM there was a full world out there all ears for a bundle of messages of his vision, his flight towards big ideals, his heart-winning ideas, his grand strategy, and his national policy to bind domestic wounds, heal a bruised society and make a pitch to the region and the globe that a new man has arrived on the scene.

Imran, however, missed that entire stretch of audience, and instead dipped into forgotten stories of four halqas (constituencies) that he believed were rigged in the 2013 elections. He broke into a frivolous tirade against the opposition – mocking them, daring them. It was more like a school gang staring at another than a mega leader prodding his opponents to look at the stars instead of the gutters.

Why does it matter what Imran did that day? After all, leaders make ordinary speeches all the time. Some of them make complete idiots of themselves when they take the mic. For his part, Imran will have other occasions to make amends and to play the tunes he messed up that day. Why focus on those forgettable few minutes in the larger scheme of things that went so right for him, defeating his opponent with a wide margin and taking a seat that only a few months ago looked so far away from his reach?

It matters for a variety of reasons. The occasion was most apt to set the tone of the new house and make the opposition look like lolling Lilliputians standing before a giant of a man. Instead, he chose to dwarf himself by getting into a useless sparring match. And as he did that he ended up creating a template that the opposition will now follow every time he walks into the house.

Getting the leader of the house riled up so easily and then managing to distract the whole business of the house at will is a dream for every opposition. More important, staying clear of ruckus and moving ahead with the agenda – whether of policy or of debate – is the job of the government, particularly of a government that does not have enough numbers of its own to survive in power is and totally dependent on its allies to stay intact.

It needs to be emphasised that this is not a presidential form of government where you can bypass the nastiness of the representative house and still govern through decree. Even basic policy decisions and core legal framework legitimising policy initiatives need to pass through the divided aisle. For the Imran Khan government, a basic functionality of the house is absolutely essential since they have proposed a large agenda that requires vast legislation in practically every field of life. How will this government function with naked swords drawn? How will consensus be crafted? Who will lead the movement towards change?

The incredible challenge of governing Pakistan looks particularly troubling now that Imran Khan, in response to the Opposition’s provocations, has decided to take the battle to them. Some of this poison seeped into the proceedings of his oath-taking ceremony where other than his own party and guests no one from the opposition was present. Even some of his allies were not in the gathering – marking the divided and broken path he has to tread to implement all that he has promised.

Whether he likes or not, de-poisoning this environment is Imran’s responsibility. That won’t happen if he continues to lay punches at his opponents and speak the language of the battlefield. He needs to re-craft his entire political persona to make the system work to his advantage. Can he do that? Well most of us don’t change our spots beyond a certain age. And when habits are hardened through experience and exemptions from scrutiny, they are even harder to shun. Imran Khan has had a free run with his words all his life. He has faced no public compulsion to modify his conduct and his idiom. His recent success in politics has reinforced his view that hard words can break enough bones of his opponents for him to walk over them. However, the change of his role, from a pugnacious leader to the 22nd prime minister, requires that he raises his words and calibrates his voice.

If he can’t do it himself, he needs advisers around him who constantly remind of the need for tact and caution in rhetoric. This essentially means that the coterie in his party that helped him a great deal during the days of oppositional politics need not surround him anymore. Instead, more sober voices in the party have to be allowed to filter up to his ear. This is essentially an intra-party (or advisory group) adjustment function without which he won’t be able create space for himself in the house for legislation and long-term policy formulation.

For now, from what we have seen in his decisions, there is a deep desire to play to the gallery of loyalists and a strong pitch for populism. The appointments of the speaker and the deputy, governors in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh and the candidate for the Punjab chief ministership are unfortunately very ordinary decisions in extraordinary times. His justification for nominating Usman Buzdar (a Baloch with a suspect track record as town nazim ) – that he comes from the most backward area of the province – is neither here nor there. If widespread poverty of domicile is the now the merit for selecting a candidate to one of the toughest jobs in Pakistan, then the whole definition of competence truly stands on its head. Putting inexperienced hands or loyalists to positions of power may look nice for a while but it cuts deep into the quality of governance in the long run.

Imran Khan’s job is not to look strong or speak in strong idioms to please his hardliners and warm the hearts of the vast army of supporters who have grown up chanting ‘down with this, down with that’ slogans. His job is to bring divisions in parliament to a minimal level, introduce functionality in parliamentary business, take substantive rather than symbolic measures and push through his reform agenda.

All of this requires give and take, talks and dialogue, humility and respect for the opposing point of view. Getting embroiled in useless controversies will sap his energies. It will not allow him and his government to grow in the job. This country has suffered wars of hate for long. We have seen trivia trumping national needs and intrigue and trickery of the most vile nature dominate national discourse. We have seen demons unleashed to achieve political ends and legal chicanery deployed shamelessly to make a long, cruel and endless joke out of justice. There is enough of that; we don’t need more.

Imran Khan has a unique opportunity to make a difference. He needs to raise his words, not his voice. As says Rumi: ‘It is the rain that grows flowers, not thunder’.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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