Home Lightbox What’s the Big Deal about ‘Big Leaders’?

What’s the Big Deal about ‘Big Leaders’?

by Khaled Ahmed
Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

The moaning about lack of leadership in Pakistan may be a deathwish.

Imran Khan, chief of the country’s second largest political party by popular vote, says Pakistan needs “big leaders” capable of taking “big decisions.” The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman referred explicitly to Jinnah and Mandela as leaders who brought about great changes in their polities, and implicitly to vision, which is considered the prescription for change in the Third World facing an international order where the rules are firmly set against radical change.

As a cricketer, philanthropist—his hospitals and university are solid achievements—and politician, Khan has done well. But what is his yardstick for judging leaders, and what does he mean by “big decisions”? Is the case for “big leaders” beyond dispute or do we simply need to revisit a 20th-century view of governance? After stubbing their toes in a vast number of cases, do developing states need “big leaders” with hard-hitting, defiant programs or “average leaders” obedient to laws laid down in the constitution and dictated by the global economic order?

Big leaders have done big things in the last century. They called for self-determination for enslaved nations and got people out on the streets using violence and nonviolent civil disobedience to bring down colonial structures set up to exploit communities not yet evolved enough socially and politically. They led them on long marches and made them die in their millions to actualize the utopias they wished to replace colonialism with. The same century ended with a firmly established global order under the U.N. and more or less uniform economic principles, deviation from which was less plausible than in the beginning of the century.

Is the state in the 21st century ready for “big change” with revolutionary overtones? Does the state really want fundamental change or simply a higher degree of observance of the laws it has laid down, remaining a little this side of utopia that requires punishment beyond the endurance of the people? Most great leaders committed themselves to big change for the sake of “the common man” and ended up being excessively confiscatory toward the rich—whose wealth had a way of dissipating into the interconnected global economy—while imposing “equality” on their nations.

Changing the Subjective

Certain subjective yardsticks tend to become dangerous when used unconsciously by people to assess the “big leader.” Above all, it is the narrative of nationalism—always unrealistic and flecked with intent of war—which confers on politicians the big-leader halo. More often, this concentrates the leader’s mind on weapons and less on the economy. People hail the making of a nuclear bomb, but treat shabbily the big leader once the economy starts reacting badly to the bomb. People promise stoicism in the face of global hostility in a moment of nationalist spasm, but no one sticks to belt-tightening for long.

Khan mentioned Jinnah and Mandela as big leaders. He is right because neither wanted war. Jinnah didn’t want to fight India and wanted the kind of normalization we want today after fighting useless and self-damaging wars. Mandela didn’t want revenge for apartheid, and he was proved right while still alive; but we had to “reinterpret” Jinnah to justify going to war with India time and again.

Nationalism is the resort of the nonintellectual. One recent example is the “popular” decision taken by the Pakistan Cricket Board to defy Australia, India, and England’s (the so-called Big Three) attempt to control international cricket. Then-chairman Zaka Ashraf, leaning on the big-leader myth, thought international isolation wouldn’t hurt if he grabbed the emotional appeal of opposing India, a country that singlehandedly supports cricket with big money. The media worked itself up in an anti-India frenzy and supported Ashraf’s decision to virtually sideline honor-driven Pakistan in international competitions with nothing in PCB’s kitty. Funnily, when the PCB ate its words and rejoined the Big Three together with the entire cricketing world, the media reached down into the dark recesses of nationalism to make sarcastic comment on this “nikah” (wedlock) of regret.

In our day, the weakened state gave birth to “big institutional leaders” not conforming to the yardstick of popular election. A judge with the bob-nailed bludgeon of public-interest litigation in his hand can make the imperfect executive of a Third World state crawl. The suo-moto judge can actually become a national leader without being elected by the people. He can appear to the public as the righteous man questioning high prices and dragging the bureaucracy into the court to answer questions only a professional economist should frame.

Poison of Economic Populism

The same week as Khan, the Supreme Court weighed in too. One judge, enveloped in the murky wake of the retired judicial-aggressor chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, let loose a broadside on the economy: “The dogs of rulers eat marmalade … if you can’t give inexpensive flour to the poor, give them rat-killing pills.” He made familiar reference to the “Islamic welfare state” that is supposed to succor the poor. Instant populism, just heat a little and serve.

He forgot that thousands of special shops called Utility Stores selling flour at controlled rates to citizens have made a shipwreck. Price-control mechanisms have failed all over the world. State subsidies are a last resort whose negative fallout redoubles the suffering of the masses supposed to benefit from the “welfare” state. The judge was reminded that Pakistan already spends Rs. 40 billion a year on subsidizing flour prices which sadly benefits not so much Pakistan as the regional food market extending to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The state frontier is not guarded enough, by reason of proxy-war exigencies, to contain the effect of subsidies within Pakistan.

The vision of “big change” must be pronounced as being for the benefit of the masses. In other words, it must be pledged that goods of daily use will become cheap, wages will go up, and the “exploitative classes” will be squeezed and forced to disgorge their “illegal riches” through confiscatory reforms to enable the poor to become better off. President François Hollande of France did the bidding of the French voter unwilling to take the rough ride of a slipping economy and is today hiding from his angry supporters, consoling himself with love affairs. The big leader falls with the fall of the big decisions taken by him.

Alan Greenspan, a former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, put it thus: “The practitioners of economic populism are clear about the specific grievances to be addressed; but their prescriptions are vague. Unlike capitalism or socialism, economic populism does not bring with it a formalized analysis of the conditions necessary for the creation of wealth and rising standards of living. It is far from cerebral. It is more a shout of pain. Populist leaders offer unequivocal promises to remedy perceived injustices.”

If pleasing the people is the only criterion, then going to war or pretending to go to war or simulating outrage and bad-mouthing states you can do nothing about is the playbook for you. An unsmiling, “shouting” leader dying for a dose of isolationism teaches the masses to be morally outraged about causes of anguish lying outside the state. He attains size by taking on outsize enemies. If he does a good job of it, he can become a prophet. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela led into bankruptcy a country that earned $20 billion a year from its oil when he could have dealt with “rascally” America profitably with the lesser charms of a small leader.

Imam Khomeini read the mind of his people—those who thought differently had fled Iran—and challenged the neighborhood. He also challenged America and besieged the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for over a year for the emotional satisfaction of the Iranian masses. What he earned for his oil-rich state was global isolation, another name for defeat. After him, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thought he could retain the popular adulation showered on Khomeini but ended up hurting the national economy: during his tenure, oil exports went down by 60 percent and the currency down by 90 percent in value. Even the authoritarian fiat of the Supreme Leader could not prevent the rise to power of a moderate president whose ticket is “normal” rather than “big” leadership.

The big dilemma of the modern Third World state is the economy, which functions only when unsullied by populism. You can get away with some populism if you are a global hegemon, but as a growth-challenged state you have to live with incremental adjustments within the global template. If you grow rapidly, be prepared to face the rich-poor gap and not succumb to the economics of subsidies, like India.

Pakistan has had its big leaders. And we have had their big decisions, too. Looking back, it appears we are hurt more grievously by the big leaders and their big decisions. Small or normal leaders have hurt us less because they lived within the system, tinkered with it realistically without upsetting it, and were appreciated in hindsight. This applies to most countries, especially in the West where the systems are settled and will be endangered by “big leaders” if people elected them.

Big Order

The international order today preordains far more internal change in the state than in the past. If you impose too much religion leading to violation of human rights you can be isolated like Iran, which is another way of saying you are punished for doing something your people want. If you impose too many nontariff barriers to “protect” the masses, you are shunned globally and made to suffer economically for lack of foreign investment. Once you become economically wobbly, you are placed under International Monetary Fund conditions which you have already dubbed “begging-bowl diplomacy” to capture the popular vote. You can become a big leader by defying the IMF but the masses will suffer the consequences of this defiance.

The hate-India Pakistani leader went down just as the hate-America leader will go down. Saber-rattling was tried by civilian leaders and they were knocked over by military dictators who took seriously the popular textbook battle cry but came to grief and, at times, faced treason trials for their pains. Living within the global template of the status quo is the only way to live and flourish in our times.

This applies to India too. In his book India at Risk, ex-foreign minister Jaswant Singh laments that “ersatz pacifist” Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t fight China properly in 1962 “and security got relegated to a much lower priority.” In consequence, independent India simply abandoned the “centrality of strategic culture as the first ingredient of vigorous and bold national policies.” Nehru didn’t fight properly, but has that hurt India? Pakistan fought India “properly” and has got badly hurt. Pakistan had big leaders who fought India and gave the people “strategic culture” that Singh wants for India. Thanks to these big leaders, Pakistanis are still not able to start trading with India to improve their lives. Singh should recall his Bharatiya Janata Party colleague Yashwant Sinha who actually told Pakistan in 2003 that by not being “revisionist” toward China, India had benefited economically through trade: “I hope our western neighbor [Pakistan] will not keep its eyes forever shut to this truth.”

Nehru was probably right not taking on China. And the smaller leaders that followed him were right not letting India become “revisionist,” forever locked in conflict like Pakistan while the economy went belly-up. But Nehru is not big anymore in the eyes of those who want India to come out of its Nehruvian model of growth. They say when India kicked it in the early 1990s it began alleviating poverty, raising 300 million people above the poverty line.

The big-leader label doesn’t stick either. President George W. Bush thought he could become big like Ronald Reagan, who destroyed the Soviet Union, by spreading democracy through regime-change using overwhelming high-tech military force. He had at his back the Chicago philosophers of neoconservatism, Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter, and their pupils in Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Richard Perle. The intellectual ballast behind the neocons was substantial. Today Bush is not hailed by the world as a “big leader.”

The Vision Thing

Small leaders don’t need any “vision,” since everything is spelled out in the constitution and in international law. The global community secures the international order by punishing Pakistan for fighting proxy wars, no matter how popular they are with the people of Pakistan. Judging from past reversals, Pakistani leaders should be “small” rather than “big” and they should be prevented from having “visions.” Above all, “hate America” or “hate any state” should be outlawed as slogans as they corrupt the mind of the expat Pakistani who runs the risk of becoming a deportable pariah.

When we moan about lack of great or big leadership we are actually complaining of a lack of a deathwish vision. We want our leaders to have a “vision”—there is something about the word that is charismatic. Is it kosher to talk about vision without understanding what we mean by it? Especially, what do we demand of our political leader when we insist that he have a vision? Is it just another name for a “program” or “party manifesto”? We know what these two documents stand for in popular speech when they are likened to excrement.

One thing is certain. Vision relates to the future. It is embedded in human memory. It recalls the prophets and seers of ancient history. At some level in our subconscious, we attach the Divine with the great leader. Do we want a Gilgamesh? But the desire for a greatly manipulative leader representing the power of good is there. Before the world became interdependent and free trade made it subservient to the same laws handed down by the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization and other lending institutions, vision was essentially a map of conquest and domination. Vision is also the undying longing for utopia. Most constitutions pledge all sorts of welfare-state conditions like “roti, kapra aur makan”; but when we go to the Supreme Court demanding that the government in power make them happen, we get the answer: these pledges are things to aspire to, not a precondition of governance.

Europe got tired of big leaders after suffering a number of punitive wars in the 20th century and thought up a clever device to cut them down to size by adopting proportional representation, which today means “less government” but what it really aims at is the near impossibility of a majoritarian government almost always led by a great “visionary” leader. India didn’t think of it but has been visited a variable device, the coalition government, since 1989. No matter what the “big leader” does, he can’t impose his “big vision” on the country. The downside, of course, is the possibility of the demise of the global economic template that could lift India from the subsidy-led cycle of low growth.

A great leader has to promise utopia to persuade the masses to submit to his leadership. In India, Nehru’s vision was a leftwing-controlled economy making things easy for the poor masses. It didn’t work. What worked was the nonutopian, nonvision of Manmohan Singh who came from an international organization actually set up to kill visions. The truth is that all laws are in place for the internal and external management of the state. The economist is now found everywhere trundling out his macroeconomic prescriptions that no one can question: collect income tax, provide law and order, don’t fall to the lure of high tariffs or nontariff barriers, avoid international isolation no matter how “heroic” it is, and don’t go to war, no matter what.

Vision is dead. So if the Pakistan Peoples Party says it will give food, clothing and housing, no one takes it seriously. But when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave us this vision we swallowed it. His follow-up was nationalization, which went badly wrong. Muslims have to be utopian because of the vision of the city-state which is a part of the Shariah. The irreducible program that emerges from it is the welfare state that Imran Khan too is presenting as his vision. On ground, it means a lot of subsidizing that the IMF will not allow or your trading partners will not accept.

Vision is either followed by regimentation and tyranny or economic disaster. The big leader is more likely to unleash tyranny—which could be actually consensual because of his charisma—while the ordinary, forgettable leader will accept safe prescriptions and leave behind a viable state. After the emergence of an interdependent world with an agreed body of laws about economic behavior, the West is not supposed to have great “visionary” leaders. The nation-state with its warrior leaders is no longer required. Populism based on vision is dead, too. Paunchy central bankers growling over public spending are more acceptable.

So let’s not demand vision. Let’s demand that prosaic recipes like law and order and writ of the state be applied, that taxation be taken seriously, and impunity either on the basis of religion or sheer extra-legal power is removed. Follow Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, the nonvisionary model ruler of today. For Pakistan, no vision is required. In fact some of the vision that we embraced at Independence about what kind of state we would build should be modified. Let’s not demand vision from our leaders, and let’s not have “big leaders” with “big decisions” that take their toll on the lives of the people. Pakistan will fare better without these big delusions.

From our May 10-24, 2014, issue.

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Sartaj Hussain May 11, 2014 - 10:29 am

the International players in Pakistan are behind the family political grip on power to stop Redical change in the country and without fecilitating the masses these parties enjoying power Imran Khan proved himself a failure politician and only issue statements in near future no change in the country and the live of the people status quo will be the order of the country and world community supporting these politicians for their interests no benefit to common man the biggest political party PPP lost it image because the leadership made it a party of noviceand non Ideological people enjoying high positions in the party and govenment and real ideological workers (Jiyalas) are being ignored like the Ideology of Founder Chairman Z A Bhutto -now a Bhutto can lead the party,people,country and and change the politics in the country but Where is that BHUTTO?Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is the title only ,through statements only he is losing his image if he has some real programming he should come in front and lead the common people otherwise the present drwaing room politics is evident and PPP like a faction of Mulim league representing drawing room politics ,Mr.Bilwal follow the way of Z A Bhutto and his Ideals otherwise you will lose in sindh also if any fair elections in the country.

Hammad May 12, 2014 - 3:57 pm

The cure for Pakistan’s ailments does not lie in big leadership and far-reaching vision, it lies in following the law of the land and being normal. If we had let the people sort the politicians out through regular terms and elections, we wouldn’t be living in a state where the state’s rogue proxies assassinate all voices of moderation and keep trying to push the country back into stone-age, while two-bit leaders descend regularly on the capital with their rent-a-crowds.

Moby May 17, 2014 - 11:41 pm

Thanks for an excellent article Khaled Ahmed.

Totally agree with you that currently the country does not need “revolutionary mavericks” as leaders right now, but sensible, down to earth, straight, hard working, focused individuals who can guide us to sustained improvement in our economical & social lives.

However do not agree with your concept that vision is totally useless. Perhaps you and I see vision, differently. For me vision is like a realistic road map on which the whole team / country has agreed. Something which guides the journey but can be redrawn as we move ahead. Something which defines “what is expected from me” to the team.

Lastly, the “great” leadership that IK talks about, is an outcome not a starting pre-requisite. This depends on numerous variables. This can be an aspiration or desire but cannot be guaranteed.
There are millions of people who did everything right as leaders. For most the outcome was not successful. Many were very successful but never acclaimed as “Great Leaders”

As Mohammad Buksh said: Maali da kum paani dena, bhar bhar mashkaan paaway – Malik da kum phal phul lana, laway ya na laway

Waqar Qureshi May 27, 2014 - 3:27 pm

Skimmed through this lengthy article.
Author’s theory stands valid for developed societies. They need SMALL leaders to keep running the existing systems and constitution.
Author’s assumption that a big leader only means doing BIG things is not correct.
A big leader may take small yet visionary steps which will benefit many generations to come or vice versa.
Author’s assumption that today revolution means isolation like Khomeni’s or Ahmedinajad’s Iran is also incorrect.

Conclusion: For societies like Europe, US, UK … we do not need so called BIG leaders. We just need to gradually improve systems. For societies like Pakistan, we need transformational leaders (leaders who can INSPIRE) to bring drastic and fast changes in the system for betterment.


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