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March 30, 2020

Leadership in the time of corona

Opinion

March 30, 2020

During his cricketing career, if there was one attribute that differentiated Imran Khan from other cricketers, it was his ability to lead from the front.

Indeed, as captain of the Pakistan cricket team, we saw Imran Khan take full responsibility for his decisions and in most cases help Pakistan win matches from difficult situations. The 1992 World Cup is a case in point.

Millions admired his leadership qualities, as demonstrated during his cricketing career. Those qualities played a critical role in his political career as many Pakistanis believed that these qualities were enough for leading the country as prime minister.

But leading a country is vastly different from leading a cricket team. That became evident as soon as Imran Khan became the PM – but more so in the last one month since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Right now Pakistan looks like a country without an effective leader. And this is a nightmarish scenario in these most difficult times.

Just when we needed a strong leader who could steer the country with the least amount of damage, we have someone who is embroiled in unnecessary debates and arguments.

Every time the PM speaks in public, the discussion is mostly about the definition of a lockdown vs a curfew. While the PM is simply stuck on whether we should go for a lockdown or a slowdown or a complete curfew, the provinces have taken decisions according to their own understanding of fighting the pandemic. And those provinces include Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where his own party is running the provincial governments.

The recent crisis has badly exposed the PM and his team. The inability to take timely decisions could be disastrous going forward. And even in this worst crisis that Pakistan is facing, the PM refuses to work with the country’s main opposition parties.

In all major crises throughout our history, we have seen the government and opposition parties coming together and working out a joint strategy. In times of crises, people expect the government and the opposition to sit together and plan out a joint strategy. While the opposition has to play a critical role in supporting the government’s efforts, it is the PM and his team which has to ensure that all major stakeholders are taken on board.

The APS attack was an example of how the then government handled a crisis situation. The attack took place on December 16, 2014. Within an hour of the attack, then PM Nawaz Sharif flew to Peshawar and was seen sitting alongside major political leaders the same evening.

All modalities were worked out in the following days and an All Parties Conference took place on December 24, 2014 – within eight days of the attack. Not just the political leadership but the top military leadership was also present at the conference during the entire day. The result: a 20-point National Action Plan was agreed with all the stakeholders. The then PM Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation late at night informing that an agreement had been reached – a classic example of how a crisis situation is handled taking along all major stakeholders.

While all opposition parties fully cooperated in the preparation of this joint strategy, essentially the success was the responsibility of the then government led by Nawaz Sharif. More remarkable was the fact that the APC took place despite the serious acrimony between the then government and the PTI, which had staged a 126-days dharna including a call for a complete lockdown. Again the efforts of the then PM made it possible to ensure the success of the APC in spite of possibly the worst political unrest due to the PTI’s dharna.

Compare that with the recent happenings. According to PM Imran Khan, the government understood the gravity of the situation way back in mid-January and started planning the country’s response. Even after two months, the PM has been unable to even sit with the opposition political leadership. We have hardly seen the PM talk to the chief ministers of Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan and the PM of Azad Kashmir – regions where opposition parties are in power.

Even in his addresses on several occasions, Prime Minister Imran Khan has deliberately underplayed the efforts of the chief ministers of Sindh and GB. The entire country has admired the efforts of CM Sindh who has done a commendable job in the most difficult circumstances. Not to forget, the government of GB which has faced more serious challenges but shown remarkable decision making to fight out this menace. But the PM cannot stop doing politics by completely ignoring the efforts of governments led by the opposition parties.

After much effort finally a meeting was called last Wednesday which was to be attended by the PM and heads of parliamentary parties. The result: total confusion, with the main opposition leaders including Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto forced to walk off after the PM left the meeting without listening to the opposition leadership. Holding one proper meeting is an issue for the PM and his team. The government ministers, as is the norm, have come up with reasons justifying why the PM left. But why the misunderstanding? Why the confusion in everything the government attempts? The reason is simple: lack of capacity and incompetence.

The coronavirus is the most serious threat the country has ever faced. This is a war-type situation. Fortunately or unfortunately, Mr Imran Khan happens to be the PM.

Time is running out and failure to take corrective measures on a timely basis can lead to devastating consequences. All the major stakeholders understand the gravity of the situation and that includes the main opposition parties, our military leadership, the business community, the corporate world, the religious leadership and of course the people.

All are looking towards the PM and his team for steering Pakistan from this difficult situation. This will only be possible if we work as a team and the captain leads from the front. This is no time for politics. The PM needs to take all major stakeholders on board and show the kind of leadership that has been missing since he took over in August 2018. For us Pakistanis, we have no option but to hope for the very best from our prime minister.

The writer is former governor Sindh and former minister for privatisation.