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Of born leaders and followers

It’s hard not to see eye to eye with the federal information minister when he says that his boss Bilawal Bhutto is a born leader. The point of disagreement may, however, be the sense in which the young PPP chairperson is regarded as a born leader.

Fundamentally, Bilawal, or for that matter any other person of his stature, can be considered to be a born leader in two respects: One, genetically he has been endowed with the traits that make for a leader. A widespread view, especially in our part of the world, is that leadership is inherent, not acquired. We also think that the capacity for leadership is a gift of nature, not an outcome of nurture; that leaders are born, not made; that by destiny and necessity, not by chance or contingency, they go places.

There is also the view that they have some congenital qualities of head and heart – such as courage and bravery, wisdom and vision, perseverance and endurance – which set them miles apart from the ordinary mortals. Great men, as well as women, are not creatures of a specific situation; rather they create situations that suit them. They transcend the constraints of time and space and would make their mark even if they were born in another era or place.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this view is correct, and that like the colour of one’s eyes, leadership is inbred. However, we can’t call a person a leader unless s/he has established his or hers credentials. Napoleon Bonaparte might have been a born leader but few thought he was so until he took the entire European continent by storm. Therefore, at the moment it’s rather difficult to look at Bilawal, who has only recently embarked on a political career, as a born leader in the foregoing sense. That said, he does deserve this title, albeit in a different sense: for being the heir to a powerful legacy.

As in other South Asian democracies, dynasties continue to hold sway in Pakistani politics. If India can boast of its Nehru dynasty (several leaders and three prime ministers to date), Bangladesh has its Mujib dynasty (two prime ministers) and Sri Lanka has had its Bandaranaike dynasty (one president and two prime ministers), we in Pakistan have our Bhutto dynasty. ZA Bhutto ruled the country first as president and civilian chief martial law administrator and then as premier. His daughter Benazir Bhutto was twice elected as prime minister and was all set for a third term when she was assassinated. After her death, the party leadership passed on to her husband and son.

Then we have the Sharifs of Raiwind (one two-time prime minister and two twice chief ministers), the Chaudhrys of Gujrat (one prime minister, one deputy prime minister and one chief minister), the Khars of Muzaffargarh (one foreign minister and one governor). There are also the Gilanis of Multan (one prime minister), the Maulanas of Dera Ismail Khan (one chief minister, one federal minister and one leader of the “opposition”) and the Khans of Charsadda (only one chief minister but, by all accounts the all-time leading family in KP/NWFP politics) – to mention the more prominent of a host of political families. All the members of these families are born leaders in that they inherited the reins of their parties rather than earned their positions. Of course, among the prominent families, some are more powerful than others. For example, in the PPP the Bhutto-Zardaris are more powerful than the Gilanis. But this is like a feudal hierarchy composed of greater nobles, nobles and lesser nobles, depending on how much land one holds.

In Pakistan then politics is, by and large, a family affair and leadership, like property, is bequeathed to the next of kin. No outsider can stake claim to that. It’s inconceivable, for instance, that anyone not related to the Bhutto-Zardari family will rise to the top in the PPP. Anyone can assume the highest slot in the PML-N provided he or she comes from the Sharif family.

As in an absolute monarchy or a totalitarian state – North Korea, for instance – the authority of the supreme leader in a party governed by a dynasty seldom comes under question. Normally, therefore, once a party leader, always a party leader. Benazir Bhutto was elected PPP chairperson for life – something rare in a functional democracy. Even if she weren’t formally elected, no one in the party would have questioned her right to lead the party. Yes, the late Murtaza Bhutto did so. But then he was another Bhutto.

By the same token, Asif Ali Zardari will probably remain in charge of the party as long as he wants. At some point he may abdicate in favour of his son, just as kings occasionally do. But, then, that will be transfer of power within the family. Similarly, anyone can challenge the right of the Sharifs to call the shots in the party, but only at their own peril.

Yes, on paper at least, we’re neither a totalitarian state nor a monarchy but a democracy, unstable or fragile though it may be. And therefore Bilawal, and for that matter the younger members of other leading political families, will be, and in some cases have already been, chosen by the electorate, as was the case with their elders. But one is as much certain as one can be that the day is not far when Bilawal and Hamza Shahbaz will be in charge of our destinies as only born leaders are regarded capable of piloting the ship, be it of the party or the state. But if a couple of dynasties are to be in the saddle, we have a hereditary democracy, which is self-contradictory. For in democracy the right to rule is earned and doesn’t rest on blood or marital ties.

Leadership is one side of the equation – the other side being followers. If in a society leadership is regarded as a right by birth, subservience is also considered a duty by birth. If a handful of families are destined to rule, the rest of the society is condemned to be their followers. This, again, is comparable to the feudal system, where the scions of lords are lords and the children of tenants are tenants by birth.

If dynastic politics is in vogue in Pakistan, the entire society, and not merely politicians, is responsible for this. Democracy may have its genesis in the west but its practice at a particular place is shaped by the local culture. And in our culture, like the Indian political culture, authoritarianism and the cult of personality are powerful factors. People live and die for their masters. Look how Yousuf Raza Gilani preferred to quit the high office of the prime minister rather than betray his president. It’s like the game of chess, where the pawns are sacrificed to protect the king. It is not that the major political parties are short on capable persons. But none would dare to challenge his or her master: if anyone did so, they would be consigned to the dustbin of politics.

Dynastic politics being a strong element of our culture, it can’t be terminated by an act of parliament or a judicial verdict. The end of dynastic politics necessitates social, and not mere political, change, which has its own dynamics. However, in the foreseeable future, at least, no end to dynastic politics is in sight, with the result that born leaders will continue to be our masters.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email:hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H. Zaidi, "Of born leaders and followers," The News. 2013-01-07.