‘The man at the top makes all the difference’. This proposition has formed the kernel of the political narrative constructed and popularized by Imran Khan over the past two decades.
The narrative, which was designed to turn a cricketer-turned-politician into a cult, worked well as long as he wasn’t sworn in as prime minister. But the last eight months have seen the narrative unravel little by little, as the nation’s most powerful symbol of change has struggled to come to terms with the rigours of governing the country. Governance glitches coupled with the unceremonious exit of finance minister and the PTI’s erstwhile economic wizard Asad Umar are a grim reminder that the narrative was built on sand.
Promoting an idealized image of a leader to defend his/her inalienable right to rule goes back to antiquity. In Egypt, the king was treated as a divine being, whom the subjects owed total submission, as the supreme religious obligation. Julius Caesar, the next great conqueror, was also profoundly impressed with the god-king idea. He had his statute set up in a temple with the inscription: ‘To the unconquerable god.’
The divinity of kings took a milder form in Medieval Europe in the shape of the theory of divine rights. Though he was not deemed to be a god, the king was believed to rule by divine right. That didn’t necessarily imply that the king was above the law. However, he could be judged only by God and wasn’t answerable to the people.
With the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th century, European thought began to assume a secular streak. However, absolutism remained the hallmark of both politics and political theory. The most eloquent expression of the increasing secular temper of the age was Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, which is easily the most influential treatise on statecraft ever written. While brushing aside the religious foundations of political authority espoused by the god-king and divine right theories, the Italian philosopher preserved their fundamental notion that the ruler isn’t answerable to the people.
As Machiavelli puts it, for a society mired in corruption and chaos, absolute dictatorship is the only answer. His prince is single-mindedly devoted to his objective to establish a strong state, unmindful of any ethical considerations. For him, the ends justify the means. Being omniscient, the prince knows when to coerce and cajole the people; when to break his promise and when to keep his word; and when to be good and when to act like a tyrant. He can be as fierce as a lion and as cunning as a fox.
With the growth of democracy in the wake of the rise of the middle class and the industrial revolution, absolutism began to lose ground. The fundamental rights of the people successfully challenged the untrammelled powers of the ruler. However, the end of the First World War saw the resurgence of absolutism in the form of totalitarianism espoused by fascism in Italy, national socialism in Germany, and communism in Russia. Both fascism and national socialism eclipsed as fast as they had arisen but communism lived to fight a pitched battle with capitalism.
The pith of absolutism is thus the belief that the person at the head, being superior to ordinary mortals head and shoulder has an indefeasible right to govern, and that the powers of his office are unlimited and shouldn’t be put under question. The worldwide spread of democracy may have made absolutism look anachronistic. However, the belief that effective governance is essentially a matter of having an exceptional person or a clique at the helm is still virile in several societies, such as Pakistan. A corollary of this belief is the notion that leaders are born, not made; that by destiny and necessity, rather than by chance or contingency, they go places; and that such men or women are not creatures of a specific situation, rather they create situations which suit them. This belief underlies the success of dynastic politics in our part of the world.
Imran Khan has been a vehement critic of dynastic politics but he has subscribed to its underlying notion good and proper. Not only that, he transformed that notion into a potent narrative: leadership crisis has been the Achilles heel of Pakistan. Economically and politically, the nation has been on the rack, because at every turn corrupt and incompetent people were made the masters of its destiny. If tax and investment levels in Pakistan have been abysmally low and the economy is saddled with a massive debt, the reason is that the people didn’t trust successive corrupt governments with their hard-earned monies. Let the right man come at the top and all the problems will go out of the window.
Since August 2018, the ‘right’ man, assisted by a league of ‘extraordinary’ ladies and gentlemen, is at the top but the country seems to be as, if not more, ungovernable as it had ever been. The economy is in the doldrums. Tax revenue hasn’t racked up. The expatriates are yet to invest their hard-earned fortune in the economy. The government continues to lean on borrowing to keep the wheels of the economy moving, such that another credit arrangement with the IMF is a fait accompli. Not only that, the economy is sinking into stagflation – an unenviable combination of growth deceleration and price hike – and consequent loss of jobs and incomes.
The philosopher F H Bradley once stated that every difference must make for a difference. If the right man was the difference between old and new Pakistan, and only the appearance of a maverick leader was what the doctor ordered, the emergence of Imran Khan must have ushered in a better Pakistan. The fact that things are not being set right – but instead are unmistakably going downhill – makes the narrative an old wives’ tale.
The moral of the story is that any theory or narrative which sets down the swings in the fortune of a nation to the character or competence of one man, in disregard of the social forces or institutional framework at work, is necessarily only skin-deep. ‘Extraordinary’ persons don’t stand outside the causal order of things. They are not as much the cause as the effect of the social forces and have to work within the constraints imposed by such forces. In a democracy, in particular, it is strong institutions rather than maverick leadership that matter.
The PTI inherited a weak economy anchored by inefficient institutions of economic governance and undergirded by a corporate culture of cartelization, rent-seeking and tax evasion. Then there were political compulsions that every government must bow to if it doesn’t wish to fall apart. Such political and macroeconomic environment forces the country’s hand to go back to the IMF every five years. As long as the structural constraints persist, every government – whether it’s headed by a Nawaz Sharif or an Imran Khan or whether its finances are managed by an Ishaq Dar or an Asad Umar – will desperately look to friends and donors to bail the economy out. A change at the top hasn’t made, and isn’t likely to make, a difference.