‘Democratic’ political leaders

Discussions of political leadership in Pakistan are exercises in finger-pointing.


Dr S Zulfiqar Gilani May 27, 2017
The writer is a clinical psychologist. He was vice-chancellor of Peshawar University and Rector Foundation University, Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]

There is no one more sinister or dangerous than an ambitious yet characterless politician

— Robert Anthony Kerr

If one were to apply the above statement to evaluate the political leaders of Pakistan, it would be safe to conclude that most fit the description. They are ambitious to gain power through which they can amass wealth, authority and other entitlements. They are characterless in the sense that their decisions and actions seem to be motivated by personal gain and perpetuation of power, and not principles or values. Of course, many ‘leaders’ in other walks of life, including those in sacred cow professions, also have similar destructive flaws.

Most discussions of political leadership in Pakistan are exercises in finger-pointing, which is highly partisan and personalised, with ‘my’ leader never having done anything wrong or made any mistake, and the ‘other’ never having done anything right. Then there are those who feel that probing the deficiencies of political leaders is akin to indirectly inviting the military to take over, which is a flawed argument. Notwithstanding our history of military coups, such an argument indicates stuck-in-the-past paranoia and is distracting. Amongst the chattering classes, especially in the electronic media, one also discerns personal biases, as well as grossly misleading over-simplification. For example, labelling a leader as a ‘democrat’ or a ‘dictator’ by the clothes they wear or have worn, civilian dress or military uniform, or by the fact that they came into power through elections or not.

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Going by the ‘label’ of the person is completely missing the point. It is the actions, decision-making methods and governance style of a political leader that should be scrutinised to assess democratic credentials. From a non-partisan perspective, in terms of democratic norms, overall our top political leaders have been at best uninspiring and in reality, strengthening and perpetuating anti-democratic attitudes, narrowness and intolerance.

To contextualise the almost fatal weaknesses of our political leaders, a few general points need to be made. In uncertain situations the psychological need to identify with a political leader, or some other figure like a ‘Pir’, or a person claiming divine entitlement, is greatly increased. As uncertainty has been quite high throughout Pakistan’s history, the need for such allegiance in the population is also high. We always seem to be looking for a redeemer, a father-figure in psychological parlance, someone who will solve all our problems or at least promise to do so. The emotional need for such a redeemer gets higher at times when uncertainty is higher, which is also discernible in the current political scenario.

When the allegiance is based on a primitive emotional need for a father-figure, then it is quite uncritical and blind. The followers idealise their leader and as a corollary demonise the others. Such blind followership has significant costs: there is a destructive suspension of the followers’ rational faculties, the common good gets sacrificed for personal gain, rituals of adulation overtake task-related activities and form dominates substance. And our ‘good’ political leaders seem to recognise this, capitalise on it, and try to ensure that the blind followership continue, and where possible, leaven that with patronage benefits.

Perhaps the best illustration of uncertainty triggering the need for a redeemer is the great surge in the emotional allegiance to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after the East Pakistan debacle. That event unleashed high levels of anxiety about our identity as a nation and our view of ourselves was severely mauled. We badly needed a redeemer and Bhutto was the personification. Consequently, his followers developed a blind emotional allegiance to him, which is exemplified by the fact that his actual policies, decisions and actions were not of much concern for the ‘jiyala’. His judicial murder added manifold to the emotionality of the allegiance and likely factors into the abiding appeal of his name. So, today the party is known by Bhutto’s name and the original party programme has become a non-issue. Before this, Bhutto was one of the contenders for power and his primary attraction was the socialist programme of the party manifesto. But afterwards, his followers seemed incapable of examining his policies and actions.

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While the followers’ needs contribute to the nature of the leader-follower relationship, to understand the basis of the decisions and actions of our political leaders, one also needs to explore their psyche. A psyche of any individual is highly complex and impossible to explore it in its entirety unless one does a detailed case analysis. However, for exploring the inner world of political leaders, the psychological concept of narcissism has been found to be a very useful key. It has been identified as an important characteristic of all humans. It is the need in all of us to be liked or loved and its genesis is during early life. It is deeply emotional and most of us remain consciously unaware of its dynamics and how it impacts our behaviour. By and large, political leaders have been found to have a higher level of narcissism than the average individual. But higher levels of narcissistic needs are not in of themselves negative. In the real world, there are some political leaders who overall have positive impacts and then there are others, like most in Pakistan, who primarily have negative impacts. The difference is due to the ‘nature’ of a political leader’s narcissistic needs.

The decisions and actions of a typical Pakistani political leader reveal that the nature of their narcissism is reactive and/or self-deceptive. The personality of a reactive narcissist is likely to have characteristics of exhibitionism, grandiosity, ruthlessness, coldness, a sense of entitlement and an overall need to dominate. As leaders they tolerate only sycophants, are cruel task masters, ignore their followers and subordinates’ needs and are enraged by criticism. In terms of decision-making, they undertake major, risk-laden and spectacular projects, consult no one, crush opponents, use scapegoats and never admit defeat or mistakes.

The self-deceptive narcissist will demonstrate Machiavellianism, fear of failure, lack of empathy, a hunger to be idealised, a preoccupation with one’s own needs and an overall need to be loved. Their leadership style is transactional, they prefer non-critical followers, are diplomatic, consider subordinates’ needs only when they feel it would benefit them and are hurt by criticism. They are over-cautious in making decisions, risk-averse, consult too many, and lack resolve and decisiveness.

Of our current political leaders, some may neatly fit into one description and some may embody a mixture of traits.

Ideally, each one of us will dispassionately examine the decision-making, actions and leadership styles of those vying for power, as well as their party programmes to determine democratic credentials and then choose to support one or the other.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 27th, 2017.

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