Pakistan: Anatomy of hero-worship

Our heroes are the men who do things which we recognize with regret and sometimes with a secret shame that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes.

— Mark Twain

Word Web dictionary defines hero-worship as, ‘to love unquestioningly and uncritically or to excess; venerate as an idol’. According to the definition’ we seem to be well disposed towards hero-worship. We always have been looking for some messiah, saviour, or a strong leader, who is capable to drive us to glory. Does it explain our failure in building viable democratic institutions?

Waiting for heroes who can rise to the occasion has unfortunately become a part and parcel of our collective psyche. Undoubtedly, the public leaders have an important role to play in channelling the human resources in a positive and productive manner. Nevertheless, the leaders alone can hardly work wonders. Particularly, nation-building is too a serious business to be left to the leaders (individuals) alone. In the modern times, the task of nation building remains inconceivable without developing public institutions. So, the role of the leaders should be seen in the framework of institutions. But due to our propensity for heroes, we have too much emphasis on the persona of leader–”divorced from institutional context. No surprise, if our goal of building democratic institutions remains elusive.

In our conception a leader has to be so charismatic, and so powerful that he/she might deliver us whatever we need or want. To be more precise, the leader of our imagination is just like the hero of Punjabi films. Sultan Rahi is the embodiment of our concept of a hero–”loud, brave, boastful, and too courageous to depend on any intelligent/logical way of doing things. The same kind of person catches our imagination in social and political arena, as a leader or hero. Having said this, we, the people, constitute the proverbial gallery to which our leaders play.

Let us just look at the jargons of politics. Our latest self-declared ‘saviour’–”Asif Ali Zardari–”says: “I have come to save, democracy, federation, and Pakistan.” Besides posturing as a saviour, he strikingly uses the singular nouns like my or I, to refer to the party. In his live interview on PTV (Hot Seat), he repeatedly alluded to the party workers as ‘my workers’. Of course, he is not alone to personify party or the country. Most of our leaders talk in the same terms.

This phenomenon is rooted in our history and the sense of history, as well. Reinforcements to people’s tendency for hero-worship has been forthcoming from the very agents of changes: leaders, media, and education.

In the political arena, instead of organizing parties and institutions, we have been too much dependent on strong personalities. Therefore, the founding party the Muslim League could never become an organized mass party. During the days of Pakistan movement, it depended heavily on the ‘sole spokesman’–”Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The moment, he left the scene; the party lost her spirit and public appeal. No doubt, Jinnah was a great leader. But no person regardless of his position in history and stature can compensate for the lack of institutions, for the long term. And when he departs, he leaves a vacuum that can not be filled by a lesser light. Again the quest for some new great leader intensifies. This seems very true in our case.

We have never taken the institution-building that seriously. Unlike Nehru of India, Jinnah could not survive to lay the foundation of state institutions. But, the top political leadership after Jinnah, never liked to conduct them within an institutional framework. Instead of strengthening the political organisations like parties, and parliament, they preferred to rely on the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The so called democratic leaders, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, never allowed their own parties to become robust democratic organisations. They demanded unquestioned and uncritical obedience of the party cadre. ZAB crushed the dissenting voices within the party. Benazir managed to get rid of any one who could potentially pose a challenge to her personal authority. Nawaz Sharif, got the 14th amendment, passed to foreclose any difference of opinion. So, they made it sure to establish their personal cult above the party structure.

Our current political discourse is very much personality oriented. If the ruling parties are depending on General Musharraf, the case of the opposition is no way different. They want us to believe that Benazir and Nawaz Sharif are the embodiments of untailored democracy. The most sensible argument that no individual can ensure the stability is apparently targeted at General Musharraf. However, paradoxically, it hits opposition as well. After all, BB and Sharifs are in no way examples of institutional leadership. The parties they lead are not democratic organisations but their personal fiefdoms. So, the political contest continues to be between personalities.

Needless to say, that media is a double-edged weapon; it can idolize or demonize. However, in either case, the focus remains on public personalities/heroes, so, the issues and institutions are left out of focus. Generally, our media tends to paint personalized political images with sharp colours, leaving little grey areas. Due to such augmentations of personalities, people’s quest for the ‘strong-man’ has increased manifold. To assess the impact, one only needs to talk to a man in street. He/she would be wishing for a great leader–”as a panacea. Understandably, the media is reflection of the society. When the society dominantly believes in hero-driven movement of history, why should media be an exception?

Thomas Carlyle’s view that ‘heroes have been the real driving force of history’, is the most influential academic tradition in Pakistan. We write and teach history according to this perspective. Particularly, the kind of history we teach to our school going students is replete with oversimplifications and factual distortions. In our zeal to idolize the great men, we have not given the due attention to the socio and historical context in which the ‘hero’ operates. So, our heroes do not need to care about cause and effect relationship and the spirit of their times. As the saying goes about heroes and heroines of showbiz, ‘he/she came, he/she saw, and he/she conquered.’

In the nutshell, we have an appetite for the great men called heroes to fill the vacuum created by the non-existent institutions and processes. But the lesson of history is that no hero, no matter how charismatic he/she seems at a point of time, can fill in the need for sustainable institutions. Unfortunately, we learn nothing from history, not because of faulty intentions but for the wrong sense of history. As long as we continue to long for ‘great men’, we will not be able to develop institutions, structures and processes–”necessary to run a modern democratic state.