• February 23, 2024

Management style of supreme commanders

Almost the entire title of this piece is lifted from Tom Holt’s book, The Management Style of the Supreme Beings. Almost but for self-explanatory reasons, not quite. In my pantheon of modern writers, Mr Holt has found a venerated place. He sits right between Douglas Adams and Haruki Murakami. My accidental rendezvous with his work came as a result of a quest. When you have read Douglas Adams and thoroughly enjoyed his Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, you realise that apart from the situational humour, unfettered imagination and breakneck plot twists, even the sentence construction is a source of great amusement. The man knew how to turn a phrase. And there were moments when I read a sentence and kept chuckling for a long, long time.

In ordinary fiction, you will find such instances often. I find the prose by PG Wodehouse and Jerome K Jerome most enticing. In Urdu, Mushtaq Yusufi does the trick for me. But where do you find a flight of fancy coupled with such multi-dimensional humour? I have been looking ever since for something similar. I explored Eoin Colfer, who has written a sequel to the guide apart from his famed Artemis Fowl series. And many other authors like Barry Hutchison, Grant Naylor, and even Craig Alanson. All good in their own right but nothing like Douglas Adams. That was until I stumbled upon Tom Holt’s YouSpace series. Every sentence bursts with hilarity. Imagination and a plot that made it nearly impossible to put down. Try his JW Wells and Co series too. You will thank me later. The genre is called mythopoeic.

If you thought we are done introducing the topic, I have a space station to sell to you. We are not.

A Pakistani mind is a resilient object. In a country where the people’s right to choose has so often been taken from them, what has emerged can only be classified as gallows humour. It is often said that the country has two rulers. One nominally elected, the other promoted. The elected one is dispensable, and the promoted one is for keeps. Before you take exception to this construct, let me remind you it is humour, nevertheless, and there have been times when even both sides did precious little to keep this tenuous balance of power from prying eyes. Why do you think so many pundits on television and tube gleefully tell you who is the boss? But there were times when those involved made genuine attempts to right the ship or at least made appropriate noises to this effect.

In the long list of Pakistani army chiefs, three generals are rightly celebrated for preferring to leave quietly than topple the apple cart or stay for an extended period. General Kakar, General Karamat and General Raheel Sharif. Despite this, one thing that often comes up in discussions is the Kakar formula — essentially a political arrangement. Likewise etched on my memory is an interview that the then opposition leader Nawaz Sharif gave to Herald where he said Karamat would never remove Benazir to bring him to power. All of this is a part of written and published history. An army chief, by virtue of his office, has no power to remove or install a prime minister. But this debate somehow readily became a part of our collective psyche over decades.

Nominally the president of Pakistan is the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces. But to actually believe that would be akin to believing that a defence minister is an army chief’s boss. As I said, we have made peace with this reality over decades. If it quietly changes, do not expect the skepticism to vanish overnight. In the long run, it is in the institution’s interest. Even in terms of tactics, it is helpful to remember that real power is underrated, understated.

The debate about General Bajwa’s legacy that began before his departure has taken a vicious turn. And the reasons are apparent. Even the knights in the shining armours who come to his rescue, like our Chaudhrys of Gujrat, do not realise they are not helping. I don’t particularly appreciate when people assail someone’s integrity once out of power. It is a cowardly thing to do. Nor do I believe in such tribalism that forgets all norms of civility. Since it is too soon, I will reserve my detailed thoughts about his tenure for a later date. For now, all things good and bad can be summed up in one adage: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I contend that the intentions were usually good even though not everything turned out to be as peachy. But details matter, and you will have to wait for a granular commentary.

But some important lessons emerge when you compare the management style of the past three chiefs. General Kayani, General Sharif and General Bajwa. Why is it that despite attempts otherwise, Gen Sharif mainly emerged unscathed out of his term? Yes, he was popular. But what else? Solid results. And no extension. He gained popularity on the day when after diverting Gen Musharraf’s motorcade to AFIC, the former dictator’s militant fanbase embraced him. But that is not where the story ends. He used this goodwill to build consensus against terrorism and took direct action. This produced tangible results. Gen Bajwa’s hard work through intelligence-based operations against terrorism came undone in the end. Where he really made a difference was his action against Covid-19. People don’t realise where we would be without that intervention. But his attempts to help the economy, which are often lauded, did not produce any substantial results except that it did not collapse despite constantly staying in the ICU.

In the end, I think he sustained so much damage not because there was anything wrong with his intention but because he was too eager to share his thoughts with all and sundry. Familiarity breeds contempt. When people start calling a set of your rapidly evolving personal thoughts a doctrine, you should seriously be alarmed. Interactions, consultations are good. Bragging, not so much.

I want to close this piece by quoting a few lines from General MacArthur’s prayer for his son, which my late father used to make me read when I was very young. “Add, l pray, enough of a sense of humour, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.”

Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2022.

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