• July 19, 2024

Vacuums of leadership

(First published on July 20, 2019)

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The question was simple. Who would win the approaching elections? When they all had their say they turned to me. With only a few months remaining in 2018 elections, I did not hesitate to point the obvious. It was the PTI’s turn to win.

But it was not an easy answer to explain. Despite the extraordinary turn of events during the PML-N’s painfully long-drawn exit from power closure had eluded the national discourse. Of course, there was a perception that some measure of public sympathy for the incarcerated former premier would translate into votes for his party.

But my argument was that the PML-N needed no enemy and it would defeat itself. After the former premier was disqualified, a silent but messy war of succession was raging on. It started with the bye-election of the then NA 120, the seat vacated by Nawaz Sharif. We saw Maryam Nawaz canvassing for her mother as a candidate and the striking absence of the house of Shehbaz Sharif from the process.

Consequently, late Kulsoom Nawaz barely won the seat. When the shoe was on the other foot and the house of Nawaz was either behind bars or in self-inflicted exile and Shahbaz Sharif led the party, it was payback time.

And that was not all. Chaudhry Nisar, another potential party candidate for the premiership, painted a different picture of political incoherence. During Nawaz Sharif’s rule, whenever a serious political crisis surfaced, we heard rumours that the former interior minister was ready to form a forward block in the PML-N with a substantial number of MPs.

When the elections approached he was denied the party ticket. He vowed to contest the election as an independent candidate with the particularly quaint election symbol of the jeep. This rallied a flurry of independent former PML-N candidates around the symbol of jeep. So basically, it was a deeply divided party. And divided parties defeat themselves. And at the heart of this chaos existed a crisis or vacuum of leadership.

All this was reminiscent of two crucial transitions in our history. The 2013 election and Benazir Bhutto’s emergence as the PPP’s leader. After the party’s premier was disqualified in early 2012 and the office assumed by a mere political placeholder, the party had no clear candidate for the premiership in 2013.

Asif Ali Zardari was the president and couldn’t run for the premier’s job. Bilawal was still young. Yousuf Raza Gilani had been disqualified and the party leadership was too paranoid and insecure to nominate someone for the job. Hence, it was a choice between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. The electorate then went with the known known.

When Benazir Bhutto returned to the country ending her self-imposed exile following her father’s death, she was confronted by a horde of skeptical uncles. Her mother also saw her brother as a better candidate for premiership than her. The party now states that it regrets boycotting the 1985 non-party elections, but there is a strong chance that had it chosen to contest the election the internal disunity would have reared its ugly head.

By the time it contested the 1988 elections, Benazir Bhutto had effectively seized control of the PPP and replaced the party uncles with her own loyalists. She, therefore, managed to become premier despite remarkable pushback.

The 2018 elections, then, were a case study in realpolitik 101. The PML-N and the PPP lacked clear premiership candidates and those who were there, if they were there, did not enjoy the entire party’s support. The PTI had no such problem.

It was a party united behind one leader and one prime ministerial candidate. That leader and the candidate for prime minister’s office is now the country’s Prime Minister. Of course, owing to the lack of closure there was residual sympathy with the PML-N which was bound to result in a hung parliament. But make no mistakes. It was primarily the PML-N which defeated itself in those elections.

Unfortunately for the PML-N, the disunity at this critical gesture may prove very costly. For one, it is still deeply divided and the messy process of transition is far from over. For two, it is guilty of not quite grasping the true essence of the popular impulse that brought the PTI into power. That for the old parties where elevators for upward mobility are broken, there is a limit to the popular appetite.

In a country with such a huge youth bulge, these parties seem remarkably out of touch with the sentiments or aspirations of the millennials, now the core target audience of just any party. In view of such disconnect, even the most ardent supporters eventually throw in the towel against the counter-narrative.

You can argue with your neighbours, colleagues, friends, and foes, of course, but how will you argue with your own children? Not knowing the voters of today and tomorrow is a cardinal and lethal sin of politics.

The same tragedy is unfolding elsewhere. In India, while Rahul Gandhi enacted Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the BJP and the RSS managed to organise and permeate the grassroots levels.

Meanwhile, Rahul’s performance of Hamlet has not concluded yet. But remember millennials as party workers, after all, are far more skilled at organising themselves than the tired old guard of the parties of yesterdays and they are remarkably free of the burden of past. An Indian who was only two years old in 2002 when Gujarat riots broke out could vote in this year’s elections.

A Pakistani who was only seven years old in 2007 when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated could vote in the last year’s general elections. Why would they care what happened back then? Politics can work with intolerance, anger, dynasties, corruption, even bigotry. It, however, cannot work with incoherence, uncertainty, and disunity.

The condition of Democrats in the US is no different. In 2016, the Bernie-Hillary tiff visibly destroyed the party unity, but the process had begun when Obama and a Democrat-controlled Congress struggled to work together.

In the 2016 election, there also was the factor of mutual distrust. Bernie supporters were continuously fed the rumours that the party establishment was rigging the system against their choice. This time an attempt is being made to keep the system transparent.

However, the divide generating more paranoia has already been spotted in the example of the polarisation between Speaker Pelosi and what is now being dubbed as the squad. So eager are the maximalist new political breed to impeach the President that in trying to do so it wouldn’t mind risking his reelection. And they did not even have to contest elections. They came to the house through primaries.

As I said earlier, these parties and their vacuum of leadership is chiefly responsible for their fall. President Donald Trump must be very happy right now.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2019.

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