Where are you, our leaders?
By Cyril Almeida
Friday, 23 Oct, 2009
As the country burns, parents agonise over whether to send their children to school or not, offices of businesses local and foreign ramp up their security measures, the average citizen thinks twice before venturing into crowded locales or government buildings, a simple question for our leaders: where are you? Where are you, President Zardari? Where are you, Prime Minister Gilani? Where are you, Nawaz Sharif?
I’ve tried looking for the president, scanning the papers and the news channels to find out what he may be up to. He’s there alright, hidden away in his fortress on the hill in Islamabad, meeting US senators and congressmen and officials, plotting to get his NRO through parliament, railing privately against the army and the opposition, wondering about his next dash, nay journey, out of the country.
But have you seen Zardari visiting the injured, condoling with the families of the dead, drumming up the morale of ordinary government officials, supporting the troops out in the field? Sure, he’s a target and his security phobias are already the stuff of legend. But even by the wretched standards of recent times, these are extraordinary days and the public needs reassurance more urgently than ever.
The pall of gloom that has engulfed the nation is almost as dangerous as a suicide vest strapped to a teenaged boy. We’ve heard a thousand times how a successful counter-insurgency needs the support of the people. But right now it feels like it’s us, the people, against the ubiquitous suicide bombers and fidayeen attackers, with our leaders hiding inside their bombproof houses and cars and behind walls of impenetrable security.
Come out and be counted, President Zardari; your country needs you. If you don’t stand with the people in their hour of need, why should they believe that it is their war you are trying to fight?
The same goes for Prime Minister Gilani. Where is he, leader of the house of the elected representatives of the people? Yes, the business of government must go on, cabinet meetings must be held, parliament must continue to legislate, but what about reassuring a frightened population as the country sinks into a terrifying cycle of violence to which there is no end in sight?
Have you seen the prime minister with his arm around an elderly woman who has lost her home and is living the humiliating life of an IDP? Have you seen the prime minister kneeling at the side of a father whose child has been riddled with pellets from a suicide bomber’s vest? Have you seen the prime minister striding into a crowd of grieving families and listening to their woes? Have you seen the prime minister sitting down with army jawans and sharing a meal?
Here’s an idea for the government: go back in history and see what governments have done to keep up the spirits of the people in times of war. Read up on what presidents and prime ministers and royalty did in Western Europe during World War I and II. Ring up historians and ask them how legendary officials conducted themselves in the midst of counter-insurgencies. Flip on the History Channel and watch the grainy footage of leaders among their people amidst the ruins of war.
And adapt. Put that army of PR officials and the government’s propaganda machine in overdrive. Beyond filling the airwaves with nationalist anthems and publishing facile ads in newspapers, think of things that can be done at the ground level.
The country is obsessed with cricket. Buy up a few hundred thousand bats and balls, clean up every vacant space in the country and organise cricket matches. Let the kids who can’t go to school because they are shut play a game or two in the meantime.
Won’t such events become a magnet for suicide bombers? I don’t know. What the suicide bombers, those already churned out by the jihad pipeline, will do is beyond our control. If they want to kill and maim wantonly, there isn’t a shortage of targets: bus stops, markets, food outlets, people lining up for atta or sugar or cooking oil. Since life cannot stop and the people must go on, why not give them something to take their minds off the spiralling violence in the country, even briefly?
And what about that great populist, Nawaz Sharif. Where is he? Rumours abound that he is sulking because the Americans have stopped playing footsie with him, that the health of some family members has taken a turn for the worse, that he isn’t willing to contest a piffling by-election because his stature demands participation in a national election. But politics existed yesterday and it will exist tomorrow. Right now the people are scared and they need their leaders to show some leadership.
Yes, Rehman Malik may have shared intelligence on some specific threats to Sharif’s safety and the billionaire former prime minister is worried enough to have hired dozens of highly paid guards to protect him. But Sharif is doing something worse than just avoiding the public; he is undermining the political consensus to fight the militants with his equivocation.
All Sharif appears to want to do is remonstrate with the government over the Kerry-Lugar bill, the NRO, the 17th Amendment, the non-implementation of the Charter of Democracy. All well and good, and all serious issues. But how about a pounding-fists-on-the-lectern statement against the militants? How about a vow that his government in Punjab will crush militancy in the province now and not wait for the next Swat or South Waziristan to emerge?
Instead, all we get from the PML-N are routine condemnations of bombings, denials of a militancy problem in south Punjab, worries about the consequences of military operations elsewhere.
The limitations of our political class are well known. Our politicians are venal, corrupt and weak. We have to muddle through with them because they are all we have. Expecting statesmanship is futile. But as the country burns and the people cower in fear, we must ask: for the love of God and all things that can be good, can they not for once, if only for a little while, stand up and be counted?