Maritime tradition dictates that the captain of a sinking ship be the very last man to leave the vessel. In many cases, the captain drowns with the stricken ship. One hundred years ago, Captain Edward John Smith of RMS Titanic went down with the doomed luxury liner in the North Atlantic Ocean when it sank on April 14-15, 1912. I would have used the example of HMS Birkenhead here, but then I could be accused of hinting at “the military.”
A century after Titanic, a ship of state is in grave trouble, but there’s no one there to man the bridge. Pakistan is once again being tossed about in choppy seas. It is fast taking in water but, with no one at the helm, it cannot be steered clear of the dangers. Its captains usually abandon ship to make sure they don’t sink with it. These days every time a grim development takes place in Pakistan, such as the unprecedented floods of summer 2010, our leadership jumps into a lifeboat of excuses-for example, an “important” trip to some foreign land, or lands (i.e., personal junket, with family and close friends in tow), or “ill health” – the ship be damned.
President Zardari jumped into the “ill-health” lifeboat during the “memo exposure” storm, and then, only last week, the-wedding-of-a-friend’s-son was his lifeboat. during the possible-coup crisis. He decided to leave the country in mid-crisis to attend a wedding during what is seen as the worst display of tension between the civilian government and the military since Oct 12, 1999.
However, foreign visits, personal and “official,” are not reserved for the president and prime minister of Pakistan. Even opposition leaders, namely, the Sharif brothers, have been known to leave the country at the most critical of times. And this despite the fact that Nawaz Sharif, the one who was overthrown on that fateful date, is a potential captain. It is in times of trouble that a country really needs its leaders-both actual and potential. Unlike our own “leaders,” however, true leaders not only lead from the front, they’re first of all there to see the storm through.
Other leaders cancel or cut short foreign visits crisis in times of crisis and vacations. We read of Western leaders immediately cancelling vacations, even official visits abroad, to deal with something important suddenly coming up. In fact, one of the examples of this was this right next door: President Karzai of Afghanistan cut short his visit to the UK in December after twin attacks killed at least 58 people in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. He could have continued with his trip: after all, his country is no stranger to this kind of violence. But those are leaders who, really concerned about their countries, want to be at the helm to steer the ship.
No wonder there is little waiting viewership when our own prime minister announces that he will address the nation (and doesn’t). This is probably because the intended audience are aware that since he will have nothing of substance to say in his address, he will just keep repeating himself. As for the president, he has played it safe on that front and has yet to face the nation in a presidential address. According to media reports last week, a senior member of the PPP explained that the president is “stubborn and headstrong with a strong sense of street politics, and wants to go down in history as the man who worked harder than any other to promote civilian rule in Pakistan and loosen the military’s hold on power.”
So does Pakistan need the Birkenhead drill?