There he stood on the floor of the National Assembly on Thursday — a quasi-stranger in the house that he himself heads because of the infrequency of his visits — and delivered a long-awaited and long-winded address that took literally no one’s breath away. Strange. Here was a man who had stormed the gates of power riding on lofty and powerful rhetoric that weaved together a narrative potent enough to drown all others. Among his arsenal of weapons, communication was the most lethal.
And yet on Thursday his weapon failed him. Why? The failure lies less in terms of his choice of words or the tone of delivery and more in the lack of clarity about what needed to be communicated.
Here’s what he said: there is no confusion in our Covid-19 policy and we have plenty of data; I warned the world that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a fascist; Americans humiliated us during the war on terror and ‘martyred’ Osama bin Laden; I want accountability and merit to prevail and don’t have anything personal against the opposition; we inherited a weak economy; we must emulate Madina kee riyasat that defeated the Byzantine and Persian empires; we will make shelter homes for poor people across Pakistan; corruption in previous regimes led to outflow of money; and we are introducing a common system of education from next year.
Here’s the (possible) context of the speech: Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry’s admissions in an interview that the government is failing to perform; relentless criticism that the prime minister’s Covid-19 policy has been an unmitigated disaster; growing perception as the PTI government nears the two-year mark that it has little to show for its governance; the chorus of voices getting louder that the government singularly failed to come up to expectations; a whiff of political vulnerability with allies like Sardar Akhtar Mengal walking out of the coalition and PTI parliamentarians going public with criticism of their own government; and of course the persistent whispers and rumours of an in-house change.
With the pressure piling up, someone may have suggested that Prime Minister Imran Khan should address parliament, reverse the perceptional slide and project the image of a leader in command of everything. This sensible advice should, however, have been followed up by a session to ‘prep’ the prime minister on what to say, and more importantly, what not to say.
This requires more elaboration. Ever since he occupied the office of the prime minister, Imran Khan appears to be struggling with some aspects of his job. This in itself is not a surprise because anyone taking up this job would get overwhelmed by the scale of responsibility. This is where institutional support usually comes into play. The office of the prime minister (or president) in a mature democracy is staffed with political and bureaucratic aides whose job it is to ensure that their boss remains clued up on all aspects of his job. It is the responsibility of this staff to hammer out talking points, craft messaging themes and set a broad direction of the agenda so that the prime minister stays disciplined in what he says, how he says and when he says it. For this to happen, a few things need to happen first.
The composition of the staff should be such that it has the expertise — political and communication — to be able to coach the prime minister. For his part, the prime minister should be ready and willing to be coached. In Pakistan, we have usually faced problems on both counts. Imran Khan’s case is not a unique one though it is relatively more acute.
It is acute because: he does not have such staff at the PM Office that can conduct this level of strategic political and communications management; and second he himself is not believed to be too open for coaching. The prime minister has senior colleagues like Planning Minister Asad Umar and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, but they have their ministries to run. What he is missing is someone senior and experienced and politically savvy and loyal to head his personal staff and be dedicated only to managing Imran Khan. Had such a person been leading the prime minister’s staff, and had this person staffed his staff with specialists whose sole mandate was to make the prime minister prepped in every sense, then the prime minister in his Thursday speech:
Would not have harped on about how bad the economy was in 2018; would not have talked of phantom ‘success’ on foreign policy; would not have called Bin Laden a ‘shaheed’; would not have referred to accountability and merit given the politicised nature of both; would not have spent time on micro-projects like shelter homes; and would not have gone into historical lecture mode.
He would have focused on one central theme: the specific reforms he will undertake and complete during his term; he would have detailed exact plans directed at exact outcomes that will have identifiable impact on the lives of people; he would have mapped out clear plans to fight Covid-19 for the next three to six months and supplemented these plans with a post-Covid strategic health policy that would have tangible outcomes within this term; and he would have unveiled a plan that had less complaints about the opposition and more targets for improving people’s lives.
But above all, he would have identified a key personal transformation by saying he was ready to shed the baggage of the past and was ready to pivot to the future with an inclusive, progressive, action-oriented and statesman-like leadership that Pakistan today not only needs, but deserves. That’s the speech that Imran Khan needed to make.
Change starts with self.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.