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July 4, 2014

If only leadership was a pizza

Opinion

July 4, 2014

Islamabad diary
What will you say of a country whose leading newspapers, best English ones included, on their front pages carry identical photos with this caption underneath, “Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif shakes hands with Leader of Opposition in National Assembly Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah on Wednesday”? In any country claiming to be sane would this even count as news?
And our newspapers, in their more self-satisfied moments, like to think of themselves as the nation’s intellectual guides. If this be the state of the guides spare a thought for the guided.
The same morning as that inspiring photo there was an editorial in a leading paper calling upon the ruling party to show some leadership. Well argued, it did not ask the obvious question: where was such leadership to come from?
To suggest that Nawaz Sharif should somehow become Churchill is like saying that I, the writer of this column, should reform myself and become a mutaqqi and a parhezgar, saying regular prayers, observing the fast, and otherwise becoming a completely different person from what I am. Short of undertaking a camel journey through the burning deserts of the Hejaz, and there through some miracle of conversion rediscovering myself, it can’t happen. My habits are set. I am not made that way. I am wired differently.
True to Evelyn Waugh’s wry observation that it is only second-rate minds which are drawn to journalism and politics – minds in the first division being drawn to the natural sciences – the only thing in my life I have been able to do to earn a living has been journalism. Give me a flourishing business and I’ll soon ruin it. Put me in charge of a municipality and I won’t be able to run it.
It’s just our luck that while our current PM and his extended clan may be possessed of other peerless qualities they just don’t have it in them to become the conquering warlords that anguished editorial writers and columnists, when overcome by a fever of

patriotism, want them to be.
They are good at other things, no one to beat them when it comes to turning political office to economic benefit – their own benefit. On this subject Harvard Business School would be amazed at the useful tips it could receive. But discussing matters with the army high command…that’s just not what they are particularly good at. Often it seems that media pundits and gurus have a problem understanding this.
Not that our generals are products of the German Imperial General Staff. Stephen Cohen’s cautionary words in his book on the Pakistan Army are worth remembering: “The Pakistani army officer is not distinguished by strategic brilliance. He is increasingly drawn from sectors of Pakistani society in which reflection, contemplation, and analysis are not outstanding characteristics.” (As if American generals are drawn from sectors of life given to contemplation…Afghanistan and Iraq strongly suggest otherwise.)
But the average Pakistani general can more than hold his own against the politico who has never read a book in his life or is overawed by the English or the superficial glibness of a DMG officer. Hamza Shahbaz may be very good at running his egg-and-poultry business and all praise to him for that. But running Punjab is a slightly different ballgame.
As a political party the PML-N is completely out of the governance loop. Ask any MNA and you will know soon enough. A tight cabal presides over what passes for decision-making. Even most ministers perform on the fringes. Interior minister Nisar’s real grouse is not about policy differences. Where there’s little of policy there is little scope for such a high-sounding thing as that. It’s about not being given the importance he thinks he deserves.
In normal times a triviality (some triviality) like absence of policy would not matter. Proving the government’s existence through half-page newspaper ads every day, singing of imaginary achievements, would also not matter. All Pakistani governments succumb sooner or later to the lure of governance-by-advertisement, so much more soothing and comfortable than the hard slog of real governance.
It is just the present lot’s bad luck that these are not normal times…otherwise there would be no end to the fun to be had from Chinese and Turkish contracts. We are in the midst of an economic crisis and an energy crisis, and we are at war…with demons of our own past creation. For even competent pilots this would be arduous business. For minds fixed on the next lollypop to the sweating awam, it is too much to handle.
Those with free advice to offer are not deterred. Wringing their hands in distress they call upon the Sharifs to display leadership. If leadership could be ordered like a pizza the thing would be done. Beggars would then ride horses and leadership could be ordered from the nearest takeaway.
Reality is a bit different. Editorial writers can moan as much they like about Pakistan facing an ‘existential’ crisis but the hakumat’s answer to all that is a metro-bus service between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Pakistan Rangers must be called for the defence of Islamabad. The army must be called for the protection of the Margalla Hills. But the priority remains the metro-bus service…and if only the PM could have his way a train through the hills (no joking) to Murree and onwards to Muzaffarabad.
And it is not really the ruling outfit’s fault. They know nothing better. Their answer to every problem has been a variation on the lollypop theme. Give the awam a lollypop: yellow taxis, laptops, Ramazan sasta bazaars, sasti roti (what has become of that?), sasta tandoors (what has become of those?) …anything visible and glittering that can be sold as solid achievement. For a long time this trick has worked. Pakistan being where it is, can it work much longer?
Have we forgotten the Sikander episode last year? A lone gunman, waving two guns, making the entire Islamabad police look foolish for over 5-6 hours…an astonished nation watching this drama on TV, spellbound. Sikander performed a national service by holding up to ridicule the competence of the capital police and its parent, the interior ministry. But no lessons were learnt. So the government has ended up handing over the capital’s security to the Rangers, a force commanded by army officers.
The Model Town incident – 12 dead, scores wounded – exposed something much more. It took out the janaza, the funeral, of the Punjab government’s tall (and grating) claims of good governance. The nation watched in disbelief the horror of good governance unfolding. And the Punjab chief minister wept crocodile tears and made it out as if he knew nothing of the drama being played out in his own locality.
If the Sharifs were able to deliver, nothing else would matter. If they had it in them to lead a nation at war, the nation would have rallied to their call. Their leadership would have been strengthened. Detractors would have been silenced. They would have secured a place not among the footnotes but the main charter of our history. But they are proving not big enough for the moment.
While the nation needs a stirring call to arms, they, true to their limitations, remain stuck in sasta bazaars, laptops, flyovers and metro-bus services. Will metro-buses fight the last battle against the Taliban?
Email: [email protected]