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March 22, 2020

Imran’s Hamletian dilemma


March 22, 2020

What is the use of charisma if it does not serve to inspire people and bring them together at a moment of grave national crisis? After all, one justification for resorting to charismatic leadership in a country of low political culture like Pakistan would be that a charismatic leader is believed to be capable of working miracles.

And there is always a strong popular yearning for magical solutions of problems that have festered for ages. Besides, it is the charismatic leader who can get away with promises that are not meant to be kept. Still, it is the leader’s charisma that sustains a people’s dreams for change makes them feel protected.

Ah, but Imran Khan’s charisma seems to have suddenly lost its shine against the onslaught of a contagion that has wreaked havoc on the world. Pakistan, to be sure, is facing a greater challenge because its public health system is all but broken and the economic deprivations of a large section of the population are monumental in their magnitude.

Enter the monster of coronavirus. We have been watching in disbelief the story of how this pandemic first attacked China and then descended menacingly on Europe. Italy’s unending tragedy has acquired mythical proportions. Actually, the virus has infiltrated across almost the entire world. We are familiar with the pattern of how it comes creeping and then steadily rises to become a twister to engulf the entire population.

Since the virus has already landed in Pakistan, the leadership is now saddled with the task of managing its outbreak. One had expected Prime Minister Imran Khan to forge national unity to confront a situation that has aptly been described as a war. The first thing he had to do, when the momentum was beginning to pick up nearly two weeks ago, was to take the people into confidence about his strategy to defeat the contagion.

Sadly, he wasted precious time and when he did address the nation on Tuesday this week, his message was not at all reassuring for the people who are under tremendous stress. His words did not bring us together. Instead, he used the occasion to play politics – and he was blatantly playing foul.

For instance, he praised Balochistan to seemingly gloss over the inadequacies of the quarantine camps of Taftaan and did not have even one word for Sindh where the provincial government had excelled in its response to the spread of the virus. Indeed, Murad Ali Shah has stood out as a chief minister. Punjab must have missed an administrator of the competence and passion of Shahbaz Sharif.

In any case, Imran Khan’s address to the nation was an opportunity that was lost. It did not portray a leader who would command authority and determination to rise to an occasion. What we had were the rambling thoughts of a prime minister who is in office and perhaps not in power.

Let me explain why I think that Imran Khan has lost an opportunity. Any leader with a great potential and high ambition would wish for a big crisis that he or she would take charge of and then seek to resolve it with courage and confidence. History would certify that only great challenges produce great leaders.

Incidentally, we had a glimpse of what leadership is all about in the press conference addressed on Thursday by PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. The young leader appealed for national unity and made no criticism of the prime minister. He termed the situation a national challenge.

But it was his maternal grandfather who invested his charismatic authority in that heart-lifting response to an exceptional challenge in December 1971. At that darkest hour in our history, he spoke to the nation at a late hour and launched his mission to “pick up the pieces”.

This is another difficult moment for Pakistan. Irrespective of how anyone would judge Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a leader, it appears that every aspiring leader in Pakistan secretly wishes to become another Bhutto. Imran Khan, too, has expressed his admiration for the founder of the PPP. But all leaders have their own limitations and though Imran certainly has charisma and a dedicated following, his performance this week was clearly underwhelming.

One measure of his present leadership is his Hamletian dilemma: to lockdown or not lockdown. There is also the question of timing. There is the Chinese example, the only success story we have so far. Yes, the implications of a lockdown that Imran Khan had brought up in his television address are critical. We have to have a proper plan to provide relief to those who are bound to be deeply hurt.

There is no doubt that the sufferings of the underprivileged are becoming unbearable even without a severe and extensive lockdown. It is early to think about it but some lessons that will emerge from this crisis are very much on the surface. We always knew that this nation will have to bear the cost of a policy in which social justice and welfare of the people are sacrificed on the altar of national security.

The irony here is that this is not the first crisis or disaster that necessitates a radical shift in our sense of direction, in terms of social development and national priorities. Our addiction to business-as-usual is as difficult to cure as it is to check the spread of Covid-19.

At this time, however, we are on the edge of something that we are not able to fully comprehend. Some scientific assessments are very scary, if higher temperatures do not help. Our heart sinks when, for instance, we look at Italy. There is also the economic fallout to take into account.

It is in itself a calamity that we are not equipped to deal with an emergency of this magnitude. Our system is not designed for the welfare of common citizens. We now have to protect their lives when we do not even protect their fundamental human rights. Will our rulers be able to make better choices when all this is over?

The writer is a senior journalist.

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