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May 31, 2020

For want of a leader


May 31, 2020

In his column in The New York Times on Friday, David Brooks wondered “what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House”.

I have to grab this as a peg because the same thought has bothered me for some weeks, specifically in the context of the coronavirus crisis in Pakistan. But this week has flashed so much else that deepens this sense of bereavement about not having the leader that the people of this country deserve in these difficult times.

For all these years, PTI stalwarts have chanted slogans for a ‘Naya’ Pakistan, promising a radical overhaul of the entire system. Some of those pledges were made with the flourish of a sorcerer, casting a spell on starry-eyed followers. Given the track record of the PTI in office so far, there is likely to be some yearning not for a ‘Naya’ Pakistan but a ‘Naya’ leader.

Our focus, naturally, is on the personality and performance of Imran Khan. It was his charismatic leadership that led the party to the seat of power, though not without some dubious assistance. That charisma has somehow not yielded the wonders that are associated with this kind of leadership.

The irony here is that the frightful situation in which we find ourselves would call for a leader that has the same characteristics that Imran Khan was supposed to possess. These challenges would be the test of a leader’s character and his ability to inspire the nation. We have the example of Zulfikar Ali Bhuttto picking up the pieces at that dark moment in December 1971. At a higher level, there was Winston Churchill.

So, what has gone wrong with the promise that Imran Khan had personified for so many? This would be a serious study for a social scientist, taking into account the evolution of Imran Khan’s leadership and the dynamics of Pakistan’s politics and its power equations. In this quick, journalistic assessment, just a few points can be highlighted.

There is no excuse for his refusal to build a national consensus to deal with the pandemic. In fact, this crisis has bolstered his party’s hostility towards its political opponents. So much effort is deliberately being invested in scoring political points as the coronavirus situation becomes more serious.

When political acrimony is business as usual and the pandemic is left to be handled by committees, we had this terrifying incident that has further exposed the limitations and the enigma of the current prime minister's leadership. Yes, I am referring to the PIA plane crash in Karachi and its consequences.

It is surely a major national tragedy, striking us at a time when we are already struggling with a deadly pandemic. That the aircraft crashed into a densely populated area was an additional source of alarm. Besides, its timing was crucial. It happened on the last Friday of Ramazan, two days before Eid.

It is incredible that there were reports in local media that a day after the crash, PM Imran Khan left for his Eid holiday in Nathiagali. He did not come to Karachi to commiserate with the families of the victims and take charge of the rescue operation.

What matters here is that in these times we do not have a leader who can play his political role and, in David Brooks’ words, “simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers”. Imran Khan remains on his high pedestal, with the multitude down below craving for affection and support. It is a measure of the federal government’s reservations – and some would say hostility – with the government of Sindh that the prime minister has not even visited Karachi in the wake of the pandemic.

For that matter, I do not remember seeing a emotion-charged and enthusiastic tribute to honour and applaud the sacrifices made by our frontline doctors and the paramedical staff. Perhaps I missed it.

I am hesitating to go into the heartbreaking stories of pain and distress that relate to the aftermath of the PIA crash. It has been a mess all around. There are some very emotional appeals made directly to the prime minister that should have prompted him to make a personal contact with the bereaved families.

Meanwhile, the pandemic situation is becoming scary as infections and fatalities are mounting. Experts have been warning about it for a long time. Again, a proper strategy that is contingent on national unity is necessary. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that this is an existential crisis and no one in authority should have time for any other pursuit.

Looming on the horizon are the locusts, bearing the unimaginable threat of scarcity of food in the near future. It is said to be the worst plague of locusts in recent history. Any campaign to deal with this attack is likely to provoke some more discord between the centre and Sindh.

With all this, look at the time our political leaders spend in fighting their partisan battles and in this tussle, Prime Minister Imran Khan is certainly leading from the front. The other side – the opposition – is dutifully playing the game. But Pakistan is losing because it has no leader.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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