Seven tragic flaws in Pakistani politicians

Seven tragic flaws in politicians
By Dr Athar Osama: Dawn, August 24, 2007

ONE characteristic of Pakistan’s messy and uninspiring politics is that it is dominated by personalities rather than issues. Personalities, in the absence of checks and balances, have often become bigger than institutions with the result that we have failed — in the 60-year-old history of our country — to create institutions. This alone has caused immeasurable damage to the country over time.

The recent talk of a deal between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf has forced some politicians and analysts to forewarn the end of the People’s Party should the deal go through. But would it? Do all of us — or even most of us — hold our politicians to a certain set of standards that they must meet to earn our votes? Should we?

I asked myself that question and it got me thinking about how one might glean from a reading of Pakistan’s history a certain number of tell-tale signs of a leader’s insincerity and ultimate downfall. When is the time to ditch your favourite politician? Switch your political party? Or demand a change in your party’s political leadership? If our politicians can switch their loyalties, why can’t we?

Drawing upon our rich and colourful political history, what criteria can we apply to make that decision? Based on my own limited reading of Pakistan’s history, here are my Seven Habits of Highly Dispensable (Political) Leaders:

1. The leader acts as if he or she is bigger than institutions. This is one of the most long-held positions of Pakistan’s highly dispensable politicians. It is now so ingrained in our political psyche that Pakistan is left with no real (political) institutions today. The Election Commission, the Ehtesab Bureau, or the Supreme Court of Pakistan — we’ve seen it all and they’ve done it to all.

2. The leader tells you — -and probably believes it too — that only he or she can save the country. This is one of the most favourite positions of Pakistan’s politicians. Somehow the country is full of many saviours and yet the situation has, over the years, only managed to deteriorate. It is true that sometimes — only sometimes — individuals may end up being sole saviours of nations. But when that “sweet moment” happens for an individual, the fact is self-evident and the individual in question hardly has to say it in public. I doubt if Jinnah ever said that. So, when your politician tells you that only he or she can save the country, you can be sure that he is as dispensable as a cup of styro-foam.

3. The leader tells you that only he or she knows what is right for you and your country. Arrogance is perhaps the most common habit found in politicians gone bad — not only in Pakistan but also elsewhere (remember Bush’s “you’re with us or against us?”) The beauty of a true and functioning democracy is that the politician governs by the consent of the governed.

It is indeed a heartening and intensely humbling moment in a democratic system when a politician stands corrected and reminded — sometimes in quite a brutal manner — of that fact. When your politician tells you that only he or she knows what is right for you and your country, it is time to start thinking of ejecting him/her.

4. The leader is chosen for his or her loyalty rather than independence, integrity, or competence. More often than not, during Pakistan’s 60-year-old history, leaders have chosen their successors for their loyalty rather than their independence and competence. Khawaja Nazimuddin was chosen because he was deemed harmless by Ghulam Mohammed. General Musa was chosen, not for competence but for his loyalty to Ayub. Zia bypassed half a dozen generals to become COAS because he was deemed to be loyal and obliging by Bhutto. Many of these decisions have seriously backfired and have caused grave repercussions.5. The leader makes a “temporary” compromise on a fundamental principle that defines him or her. This is another favourite one of mine. Pakistani leaders are often associated with certain “principles” that define them. The Pakistan People’s Party stands for democracy and struggle against military rule in Pakistan. Tehrik-i-Insaaf stands for justice and constitutionalism.

General Musharraf, when he came to power, promised broad-based political reforms. When these principles are compromised the leader doesn’t remain the same leader any more.

The leader in question may couch this compromise in the loftiest of terms, i.e., “I am making a deal with a dictator to strengthen democracy in Pakistan” or justify it on the basis of extraordinary circumstances.

I knew it the day I saw General Musharraf adorning an ajrak and holding hands with those very politicians that he had come to eliminate. When a leader compromises on a fundamental principle, it is the surest sign that he or she deserves to be shown the door.

6. The leader owes his or her legitimacy to anything but your vote. This is a tricky one because it is often hard to tell. As far as this one is concerned our political leaders quite often say the right things. Nobody — not even a military dictator — claims to be beyond accountability and nobody dares question national sovereignty. Everyone acknowledges the power of the vote, for if they didn’t they would not be politicians.

However, the voters need to ask themselves a question: does this person need the goodwill of anyone but the electorate to stay in power? Whether it is the army or America, when the answer to the above question is in the affirmative one can rest assured that Pakistan’s interests — and those of its people — will take a backseat. So should they, in our hearts and minds.

7. The leader thrives by creating a vacuum of leadership around him. This is a deep one and has many manifestations. Many a time, the leader actively creates a political vacuum around him to make himself indispensable.

In other situations, you would find him surrounding himself or herself with utterly incapable people (Law Minister Wasi Zafar, for instance) who not only give bad advice but also insulate him from reality. He or she becomes inaccessible to the masses. What is the surest sign that your favourite leader has this habit? He or she starts saying things that have no correspondence with reality on the ground. He is so far removed from those whom he claims to govern that he loses the pulse of the masses, thus making himself totally dispensable.

It is often said that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. It applies equally to corruption of the upper chamber as well. Most Pakistani politicians — and I challenge you on that one —have shown one or more of these traits just prior to their downfall and some even throughout their political careers.

When you see a large number or all of these traits working at the same time, you know that a perfect political storm is round the corner and that the days of that individual are numbered. The “political bug” has not spared even a single soul in public office.

In a sense, the above list forms a series of tests — a checklist, so to speak — that one can tick off for every politician to see how close he or she is to his ultimate political demise and/or how badly infected he or she is with the political bug. It is also a tool to use while reading the political statements of our worthy politicians. How would Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf fare on each of these seven habits of highly dispensable political leaders?

I leave that judgment to the readers.

The writer is a public policy analyst and the founder of


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