Pakistan’s Political Messiah Fixation


*Originally published in Pakistan Today.

A chapter of a survey released in July 2012 by PEW, spanning six predominantly Muslim countries – Pakistan, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia – shows that majorities in four of the six states believe that democracy, rather than a strong leader, can best solve their country’s problems.

The country with the most prominent opinion contrary to those of other countries is Pakistan, where preference of a leader over a democratic government is mirrored in the percentages: 61 percent of Pakistanis say their country should rely on a strong leader, while just 31 percent say democracy can better solve national problems.

The expression of favorability towards an individual over a system, be it judicial or governmental, isn’t a new phenomena but a political and cultural approach that has been ingrained in Pakistan.

The plausible notion of a strong leader being the pivot of progress has been made to inflate in importance through over-emphasis in the country, to a magnitude that all remaining requisites for the state’s prosperity are blurred into insignificance by it. That is, potential leaders or figures are deemed the panacea; virtually messiahs.

Although the roots of this precedence remain somewhat obscure, it can be assumed that they lie in the grounds of political culture and history.

A quick glimpse through Pakistan’s tumultuous history would reveal a dearth of stability and continuation of a democratic system, which all the more provides validation to the idea that Pakistan is a developing democracy, not yet a complete democracy.

In February this year, a survey conducted by the Oxford Research International says Libyans would favor a ‘strong leader’ over a democratic government. Commenting on which Oxford University’s Dr Christoph Sahm said the survey suggested Libyans lacked the knowledge of how democracy works.

This applies to Pakistan as well.

This inadequacy of acquaintance with the system of democracy is one of the reasons for the ‘Messiah Mania’ in Pakistan: lack of understanding of how democracy works and interest in it leads to supposing one man can cure the country’s ills all by his existence at the helm.

A developing democracy, as we are, Pakistanis are also terribly disenchanted with the order of democracy itself after what they have seen in this greatly disappointing democratically-elected government’s tenure.

 Sifting through the historical pages of Pakistan’s formation, most Pakistanis evince towards Jinnah single-handedly creating Pakistan in support of this preference (of choosing an individual or leader over a system), forgetting the lapses of decades that have occurred since 1947 and the vortex of change that there has been on the geographical, political, social, regional and national landscapes, which cancel much, if not the entire, basis of comparisons and references of Jinnah.

Pakistan’s political culture has also bred this disposition: with parties centered on dynasties, their histories and scions, politics and governance in Pakistan have been made a play of personalities beyond what they should probably be.

But with the rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), it has been proven that the fashioning of this leaning is not exclusive to dynastic and ‘family’ parties such as Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The Kaptaan’s larger than life persona, charisma of the cricketing days and illustrious background in a sport that is similar to religion in Pakistan’s – along with philanthropy, his shrewd stance that subliminally echoes this mentality (a single honest man can channel change even through a team of ideological turncoats, opportunists and remnants of previous regimes) – has alone bolstered and intensified the idea of a messiah.

A dictatorial history may also explain why nations like Pakistan and Libya would choose a ‘strong leader’ over a democratic government.

A past that has been a witness to and victim of four separate authoritarian military men wheels around the concept of a single omnipotent figure. This has devised the perception of ‘one-man-government’ in peoples’ mind who believe a lone man can cause massive shifts in the country’s fortunes, systems and situations depending on his nature an d intentions (good or bad).

After the death of Czech politician Vaclav Havel and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Joshua A Trucker, professor of politics at New York University, pertinently writes in his article on Al-Jazeera English ‘How much do individuals really matter in politics?’

The most pressing question for policymakers now is how likely it is that the course of Czech or North Korean politics will be altered by the death of Havel or Kim. Many important differences exist between the two, not the least of which is that Havel has been out of political power for years now, while Kim (we assume) has been running the country.

However, perhaps the most important difference is the fact that the Czech Republic is an institutionalized democracy while North Korea may be the world’s last totalitarian dictatorship. Therefore, one viable hypothesis would seem to be that there should be less disruption to the Czech Republic’s political trajectory (or any established democracy) due to the death of an important political figure than in a case like North Korea, where power is so centrally wrapped up around one person.”

Professor Trucker’s analysis is the principal point in this matter: power patterns contrast between a totalitarian and democratic governments and countries. Absolute control and authority is always vested in one figure in an autocracy but an individual is weighed by and down by the system in democracy (especially in a parliamentary democracy) with no space for any such ‘messiah’.

Another pressing question arises of this messiah culture that stresses a tremendous amount of reliance on a single figure: what will become of the country with the demise of the leader? Will the system, institutions and nation tumble into chaos? Who will take his place? After all, even messiahs are mortals.

Pakistan will have to take political leaders as they are: humans with flaws, who will have to make compromises, reconciliations and unfavorable decisions in the face of political gridlocks. A politician may possess a fine character and even a vision, but to expect him to actualize it for the country’s good all in his own entirety, unaided of followers, party members, a framework for implementation and a civilized system of governance is outright ludicrous. Which is why critical thought must be lent to all these factors and to make a cult of leadership is wholly nugatory.

Sculpting messianic idols out of political leaders, criticizing whom is to blaspheme and who are unknown to mistakes and over and above any system or principles – and the search for saviors needs to end for Pakistan, for it is an endless and futile one. To pull Pakistan from the precipice it currently staggers at will take more than a leader or a savior, and the population’s sensibilities being held hostage by this mindset that seeks a messiah will certainly not help.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

3 comments on “Pakistan’s Political Messiah Fixation

  1. Hamza says:

    I completely agree with you – the crazed fixation over a man rather than a mandate – this can only be eradicated with time nothing else. No easy way out.

    Want to say something here that you probably won’t like; it has been my feeling that you are a little biased against religious organizations and you may have justifiable reasons to do so, but if you want to see a party functioning with inclusion of something close to democracy, study political system of Jamaat-e-Islami. I really suggest you study it; nevermind the direction that has been lost, but the political system is so much better and so well thought out .. which possible gives a little peek into what the party was originally made out to be.

    The best thing I like about Jamaat is that it doesnt fixate on an individual; it actually has a functioning ideology. I hope this party gets some vibrant people in it for now, I think its in a terminal decline. But this is one party that has a democractically functional system – maybe not on modern lines but million times better than the rest.

  2. Rai M Azlan says:

    It took nearly five thousand years for democracy to come in the shape we see it today and during this course of time there has been so many experiments with that. The nation’s and countries having a compete faith in the democratic system and institutions have a years long history to count on. When it comes to Pakistan it has a history of nearly 65 years as a country and nation and following the same theories as mentioned in many books over nation’s and sociology it takes 100 years at least to build a nation. The problem with us is that in 65 years we have not gone through the political education that was required we have always been in the spell of one man’s charisma be it Gen Ayub Khan, Bhutto, BB, Nawaz or Musharraf (actual list is bit longer) we have always taken a democratic

    • Rai M Azlan says:

      We always take a development that takes place in democratic era as an outcome of ‘one man’s’ effort and the reason for this problem is, as I said earlier, no proper political training and development of faith over institutions because we have spent over thirty decades under the rule of military where one man rule applied another reason is that the economic progress during martial laws in Pakistan has always been higher then what we have seen during democratic rule.
      A faith in leader is a natural thing and this Mariaha craze will be there until this nation goes through a whole process it took ages to the nation’s to develop democratic institutions to the level of credibility they enjoy today expecting us to do the same in 65 years including 32 years of military rule where the literacy rate of the country is already shameful is a wild goose change.
      Time ks required for everything to develop bit if that time is not spent on educating the masses that time is wasted. And we have and are going through that.
      One more problem with us have been that every dictator tried his bedtime to look like a democratic one and a democratically elected individuals adopted dictatorship once get into the power.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s