Figure of speech —Ejaz Haider

As it happened, Mr Gilani did nothing of use. He fired off the lifesaving bullet available to a leader blindly without engaging a target. If this is any indication of how his government might be taking other decisions, I would like to get off the bus before it crashes

Prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s maiden outing was poor, and this is an understatement. Given how he and his government are placed, he can’t afford to be less than brilliant. And a teleprompter being the least of problems that stare him in the face, his inability to tackle even that and his consternation at not being able to do so, is hardly reassuring.

Prime ministers are not supposed to be news anchors or actors. But they must be confident in the face of difficulties. Mr Gilani was ill at ease, lost and unable to recover. He had to be shifted to hard copy and while he was off air, some genius at PTV decided to show footage of mountains in the north that beckon the spirit of none less than the best and the bravest.

There was just too much sub-text in the decision to show them while someone was trying to soothe the prime minister’s nerves.

To content analysis in a while, but here’s the question: who decided to put Mr Gilani live before the camera? If it was Mr Gilani himself, I am afraid it shows him to be a man who doesn’t know his own strengths and weaknesses; if he took someone else’s advice, he still comes out as a man who is prone to taking bad advice. Either way, he loses.

Why do leaders decide to address the nation? Let it be said that the decision to do so cannot, and must not, be made lightly. Such addresses are supposed to be few and far between. Apart from those addresses to legislatures and peoples that in some countries might be mandated by law or constitution, an address to the nation must be reserved for special occasions: updating the nation on something important; appealing to the people, cutting across partisan divides, disclosing crucial policy decisions which may be falling prey to partisan sentiments in the legislatures; announcing a state of emergency, declaring war et cetera.

The point is that addressing the nation can neither be a whimsical decision nor a cavalier exercise. Too often, or wrong timing, can render it ineffective. It must remain the most potent arrow in a leader’s quiver.

Plus, and this should be obvious given the importance of this exercise, a leader at any level, to be effective, must present himself as someone in control of himself and the situation. At the minimum he should know the content of his own speech and must not come across as someone who has been handed a sheaf of papers at the eleventh hour.

On all these counts, Mr Gilani became a casualty either of his own or someone else’s decision.

Let’s now consider the content. Did what he say justify addressing the nation?

A sympathetic answer would be in the affirmative. His government had put a lot of emphasis on the first 100 days; there has been much criticism of his government’s performance; there’s great uncertainty about the survival of the coalition and the current set-up; the economic downturn has not been arrested; the internal security threat is increasing and brings with it the threat of external aggression and so on. Hence the need to address the nation and reassure it.

On none of these counts was Mr Gilani convincing, and only because opposition political parties, now in government and including Mr Gilani’s own party, have themselves created the hype and the expectations that they possibly cannot meet now.

Not everything the previous government did was right; but, and this is more important, neither did they do everything wrong. In fact, so far, it doesn’t appear that the current government has reversed previous policies on major issues. The political effort to calibrate the internal security policy or even parts of foreign policy has in fact redounded to the current government’s disadvantage.

Not reversing previous policies means two things: one, those policies were not regime-specific (most aren’t in fact); two, there is no policy without a mix of pluses and minuses. Our manner of criticism of policies seems to imply that there is a set of all-good policies versus a set of all-bad policies and while every government is prone to picking up from the all-bad set, the opposition has knowledge of and access to the all-good policies shelf.

And then the penny drops; as it has now. But while the erstwhile opposition, now the government, may understand the constraints, the common man, raised on a steady diet of government-bashing by the erstwhile opposition, refuses to accept the reality.

Ditto for attacks on the previous government’s economic policies: presenting the economic downturn, food crisis and rising oil prices as purely the consequence of bad economic policies of the previous government means the common man now wants this bunch to correct the situation by adopting the right policies. No one is prepared to buy the truth: that much of what is happening is the impact of exogenous global factors that lie outside the reach of national governments and are forcing them to rationalise prices, address structural problems and withdraw subsidies.

These are issues that are only partially in control of this government — or would be of any government. On top of these are other issues — the lawyers’ movement and Mr Nawaz Sharif’s intransigence on almost all major issues — that have hamstrung Mr Gilani’s government. His ill-structured speech failed to identify the problems and their causes sequentially, and with any degree of clarity. It relied, as is the wont, on platitudes and shibboleths.

On the benchmark(s) I noted earlier and which might make an address to the nation necessary, Mr Gilani could in fact tell the nation what a drag on governance and policymaking Mr Sharif’s position on various issues might have become. He could list the issues and identify Mr Sharif’s positions and how realistic or otherwise they might be in view of internal and external pressures to take measures to ensure the country doesn’t run aground.

This of course would have been an extreme measure but precisely for that reason would such an address be necessary.

As it happened, Mr Gilani did nothing of use. He fired off the lifesaving bullet available to a leader blindly without engaging a target. If this is any indication of how his government might be taking other decisions, I would like to get off the bus before it crashes.

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at sapper@dailytimes.com.pk

Source: daily times, 21/7/2008

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