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The faltering skipper

In the midst of all this upheaval in the economic, political and national security sectors, one needs to worry about the kind of leadership that Pakistan is fated to have at this time. Putting it simply, has Imran Khan been able to translate the promise that he had become for his ardent supporters into performance during this period of more than eight months?

Yes, there is always a problem in meeting high expectations that are unrealistically raised in a political campaign. We should concede that the situation that the PTI has inherited is exceptionally grave, though this should not have been a surprise for any prudent observer of the affairs of the state. After all, Imran Khan had steadfastly built his case by citing the shortcomings of the former regime. His relentless concentration on corruption necessitated a good understanding of the system he would have to work with.

In any case, there has been ample criticism of Imran Khan after the recent reshuffle in the cabinet. The highlight, of course, was the sudden removal of Asad Umar from the pivotal Ministry of Finance. The timing of it was inexplicable. However, some other changes further raised concerns about the democratic credentials of the present arrangement.

In response to apprehensions that the system may covertly be shifting towards presidential authoritarianism, Imran Khan had an interaction with senior mediapersons on Friday to defend the induction of a number of un-elected people into the cabinet. Another sensitive issue that was raised in this meeting was that of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). For me, Friday’s encounter of Imran Khan with mediapersons was remarkable not for what was discussed. What was not discussed – and I can only refer to reports that have been published – is something that actually defines the quality of a democratic dispensation that has put Imran Khan in the seat that he now occupies.

Come to think of it, Friday, May 3, was World Press Freedom Day. Because of what has happened to the media in Pakistan, it provided a timely opportunity for the prime minister to affirm his faith in democracy and in the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Indeed, the Pakistani situation has figured in all global assessments of the existing state of the freedom of the media.

Take this as another measure of the leadership that Imran seems capable of that he has not meaningfully defended media freedom and, by implication, the fundamental rights that constitute the basis of a modern, progressive society.

Talking about media freedom, I must take note of that uplifting news some days ago that the International Press Institute (IPI) has named Cyril Almeida from Dawn as its 71st World Press Freedom Hero. Considering the global stature of the IPI – a network of editors, media executives and leading journalists in over 100 countries – we should see this as an honour also for the Pakistani media that has been under attack for so long.

Since Cyril is a friend, I will not go into any detail about the justification for the award he truly deserves. It has a lot to do about how freedoms are curtailed and politics engineered in a country like Pakistan. Here is also an example that the life-threatening profession of journalism still attracts intrepid professionals like Cyril. For that matter, how many Rhodes scholars or people with equivalent qualifications can Imran count in his inner circle?

I have raised the issue of Imran Khan’s leadership and its attributes that are reflected in the decisions that he has made so far. All politicians can be chastised for what they had said or promised before coming into power. But Imran Khan takes the cake in this category. We have endless clips from his speeches and interviews in the past, juxtaposed with what he is saying or doing now.

This is something that one cannot explain just as an obligatory U-turn, in Imran’s own view, that only great leaders are capable of. For God’s sake, how many U-turns make a leader? Then, there is the phenomenon of the slip of the tongue. A slip of tongue, even if it is Freudian, is excusable. But one becomes conscious of it right away and a correction is made. Nothing like this happened when Imran put Japan across Germany’s border. There is also something about his sense of numbers. One billion trees can become five billion in a very deliberate statement.

I do not have the space to go into more examples. There are other lapses that make sense, given the balance of power that exists in our system. After the cabinet reshuffle that brought one-time PPP ministers into Imran’s lap, columnist Khurram Hussain wrote these words in Dawn last week: “Less than a year into his term, and he has already become the closest thing to a lame duck without actually being one. It’s hard to tell who his own people are anymore”.

I know that any assessment of Imran Khan’s performance as the prime minister must take into account the fact that he is – or was? – a charismatic leader. It is also true that any society in crisis would yearn for such a person. Some would place him alongside Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who, too, was a flawed person. But Bhutto was a giant intellectually and as he demonstrated in those dark days when he was thrust into power, he was a leader in a hurry. He took decisive action from the word go.

But the idea is not to compare the two. One problem is that Imran Khan earned his charisma in a game and not in the practice of politics and governance. What he brought to politics was mostly a sense of outrage and an indecipherable longing for change. In 23 years after the formation of the party, Imran Khan was not able to draw the sketch, as an architect would do, of a ‘Naya’ Pakistan.

If it is in anyway relevant, the PPP was founded in November 1967 and it had to go into national elections in three years and in power, in extremely tragic circumstances, in four years. Perhaps a charismatic leader should not be an apprentice for long years. But a study of the uses and limits of charisma in a country in which power does not reside in the political domain is a subject for another time.

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