Local leader?

September 17, 2023

Can devolution of powers to the grassroots throw up a potent leadership?

Local leader?


risis is no longer news in Pakistan. Rather, it is a familiar fact approaching the rank of an axiom. That every crisis is an opportunity, is a cliché representing a laid-back approach to exploring the reasons and causes behind a crisis. Leon Trotsky once quipped that the crisis of humankind could be traced to a crisis of leadership. Leadership is not just about individuals; it is a collective endeavour as shown by political upheavals of modern times.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, leadership is reduced on one hand to domination and on the other condensed into the person of charismatic individuals. Although tensions among individuals, institutions and ideologues are not rare in the country, the most go-to strategy for all kind of contestants has been cultivating personality cults.

Both civilian and military rulers have banked on charisma and patronage instead of developing a rule-based system of government. Ayub Khan sought the image of a moderniser and was fond of being called Pakistan’s De Gaulle. Zia wanted to be seen as a protector and promulgator of Islam; Musharraf, the enlightened Atta Turk. To sustain their control over levers of power, they ended up bolstering their personal images.

Similarly, civilian leaders too used cultural and religious scripts to bolster their charismatic appeal. The military vs civilian dynamic is therefore not of much help in understanding the leadership crisis.

Following the ouster of Musharraf, some fundamental changes were introduced through the 18th Amendment to deal with this problem by opening more leadership positions at provincial tiers. However, the promise of devolution was not met. That compounded the problem and blocked the entry of new faces into leadership positions. Can there be an end to this cycle?

There are no ready answers to this question. There have been many examples recently of strong leaders across South Asia and beyond rising from local governments. There is Narendra Modi in India and Tayyab Erdogan in Turkey; both were outsiders in their respective systems who after getting into power went on to become powerful leaders of their nations.

However, Pakistan is neither Turkey nor India. The political system is configured in such a manner that no new politician can dream of making it to the top. India, due to its deeper democratic penetration, and, Turkey, due to its more complete modernisation, were able to allow such anomalies to occur. An authoritarian governance system regulated by military and judiciary and a kinship-centred social system do not allow an inclusionary political ethic to take root. It cannot also not happen due to the exclusionary nature of the country’s political economy and the existence of staggering levels of inequality that prevent ordinary citizens from reaching high office.

Pakistan is neither Turkey nor India. The political system is configured in such a manner that a new politician cannot even dream of making it to the top.

Moreover, these paths are not worthy of being followed. The authoritarian Sultanism adapted by Modi and Erdogan is being manifested at the cost of ethnic and religious minorities after the consolidation of a more muscular nationalism inspired by the reimagination of a ‘glorious past’. Additionally, these leaders have also cultivated and used personal charisma to achieve political capital, a recipe that has already failed in Pakistan.

Rather than following this top-down model of leadership, it is time to seriously engage with the idea of building a collective leadership connected to the society that is more accessible, available and adaptable to its changing needs; can understand its aspirations and expectations; and can speak its language and understand the challenges faced by its citizens. The messianic model of leadership has hit the dead end, but that does not mean that no leadership is available.

The leadership could be found in the nooks and corners of the country. Neighbourhoods, villages, towns – wherever you look, you will find men and women intermediaries providing various services to their constituents. These actors are political by nature and are ambitious enough to build political careers.

Had political parties seriously dealt with the question of local governments after Article 140-A of the constitution allowed a third tier of government, the current crisis could have been thwarted. However, all parties tried to find ways of avoiding a meaningful devolution of power. The attempts of provincial ruling elites to block this transition ended up blocking any avenue of meaningful political engagement for a majority of these people leaders. In large metropolises, where there is a huge concentration of youth, the absence of local governments has led to a general political apathy coupled with sporadic violence.

Small political parties such as the Awami Workers Party, Haqooq-i-Khalq Party etc could also be seen as alternative forms of grounded leadership. These parties neither have the financial muscle to compete nor the mass popularity to win elections for provincial and national parliaments. However, they can potentially compete in local government elections, which can build pressure on the national leadership to be more responsive and vigilant.

The current politics is divisive and fragmented. There are ethnic, sectarian, class and gendered lines of discrimination and exclusion. A charismatic leadership is not going to solve most of our issues. Politics is a collective endeavour. A collective endeavour requires consultation, rulemaking and division of labour. Even the Greeks were aware of the pitfalls of leaving power in the hands of a few. The Pakistani polity has drowned in the squabbles among chest thumping generals, judges and politicos steeped in a messiah complex. Common citizens are left with the option of either becoming a partisan or suffering in silence. The time has come for serious political activists, civil society organisations and concerned citizens to find ways of bringing effective local governments on top of the political agenda. Local governments are not only a source of good governance but also an avenue for the blocked political leadership that can potentially take us away from the old civilian vs military binary to a more institutionalised democratic republic.

The writer teaches politics and history at Habib University, Karachi

Local leader?