A journey of U-turn

  • The policy has little historical credibility

In the Naya Pakistan, the most prominent tabdeeli has been the advent of the ‘U-turn’ policy. It has also remained the most criticised of all. Interestingly, there has not been a U-turn as far as the strategy is concerned, rather the policy is strongly upheld, with not much historical context in its defence.

The term ‘U-turn’, often associated with “the turning of a vehicle in a U-shaped course so as to face in the opposite directions”, is used in political circles for a change of plan or reversal in policy. So far, this has been the hallmark of the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf government, led by Imran Khan.

In my article titled “The U-turns and No turn” written for this publication after a month’s performance by the incumbent government, I had listed some of the U turns made in that short period, along with some faux pas. A day after taking oath it had been announced that the Prime Minister Imran Khan would not travel abroad during the first three months in power. The PM, in fact, traveled to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. After those visits in the first month, he has already visited China and as I write, his video with a bashful smile holding Malaysia’s first lady’s hand on her request, in her homeland is making rounds on social media.

That he will not use special plane for the foreign visits was a decision taken in the cabinet meeting and instead, will travel through commercial airline. But Imran flew on Air Force One, a special plane for the PM.

The second cabinet meeting had also slapped ban on the foreign visits of the ministers, however, four ministers accompanied Imran to Saudi Arabia: Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Asad Umar, Fawad Chaudhry and Abdul Razzaq Dawood.

Other early ideas — to cut some 500 staff from Prime Minister House and establish a six-day work week for civil servants, were shelved as unworkable.

Prior to his trip to the Middle East, Khan announced that he would start work immediately to provide passports to the children of Afghan and Bengali refugees born in the country. However, after a strong backlash from various quarters including many politicians, it has been said that no decision had been made.

Perhaps the most disappointing u-turn was on the composition of Economic Advisory Council. Atif Mian, a distinguished economist of global recognition, first named as one of the members and defended despite mounting resistance on Atif’s religious beliefs, was later asked to step down.

Perhaps, it would be most pertinent for any Pakistani – be it a common man or a country head, to look up to the founder of the nation Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for wisdoms on leadership

Not surprisingly, the U-turns have met with severe criticism and ridicule from both opposition and supportive quarters. But, instead of making a U-turn on his U-turn policy, the prime minister has defended it with one of the most unexpected and surprising of statements, by saying that a leader who doesn’t take U-turns according to the situation is not a true leader at all!

In all courses of leadership and in all experiences of famous leaders around the leader, this strategy sure seems like an innovation. Especially, when we take a look at the lives of only some of the famous leaders, the U-turn policy is seldom found around the bend.

Although a reversal in strategy would have been desirable in the cases of some, like those pointed by PM Khan; Hitler, for instance, in others the determination in conviction and beliefs have been known to define their struggles.

If Abraham Lincoln had taken a U-turn on his stance for abolition of slavery, which led to a civil war in the country and even resulted in the loss of his life, the atrocious practice would have continued much longer.

If Nelson Mandela had adopted a reversal strategy, similar rights would not have been won in South Africa. If Mahatma Gandhi would have given up on his non-violent approach, he would probably have been lesser remembered today.

If Alexander of Macedonia would have retracted his steps from the East much earlier, he would not have been able to earn the titles of ‘Great’ and ‘The Man who conquered the world’.

Famous for his fierce nationalism and secularism, Mustufa Kamal Ataturk steered his nation from the doom of Ottoman decline to a major player in the world, with none of the leaders after him reversing his policy.

If Zahiruddin Babar, who despite all the wealth and riches of India was fond of neither the natives nor the heritage of the country, would have preferred to engage in regional conflicts in his homeland, there would have been no Mughal empire in India today and its cultural map may have been altogether a different story.

In fact, a reversal in policy favoured by Babar himself and strongly propagated by his grandson Akbar; of allowing more freedom, less interference and assimilation of other majority religions practiced in India, was one of the major reasons in the decline of the Mughals.

Although it may be pertinent to mention that the U-turn taken by Asoka the Great in giving up on the practice of bloody warfare, is a rare example of having a positive outcome, or that such an approach would have been desirable when Napoleon Bonaparte insisted in marching in the ruthlessly cold landscape of Russia, only to bring him back sullen faced and defeated, these are more of cases where a leader either wisely adopted a better approach or foolishly refused to give up on an unwise tactic.

Whereas, going back on statements, retracting on words, dropping decisions and swift reversal of policies, may be considered the need of the day or a political tactic, but hardly a sign of leadership. The U-turn, in fact, has today become the butt of jokes and a readily-available-easy-to-chant argument by the opposition, with the latest being jibes taken by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto as he quipped that “if you want to take a U-turn, do it for rising inflation and unemployment”, or “The umpire which brought you to power may take a U-turn”.

Perhaps, it would be most pertinent for any Pakistani – be it a common man or a country head, to look up to the founder of the nation Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for wisdoms on leadership.

Disillusioned by the promotion of selective values and policies by the Congress – the party of which he was earlier a dedicated member, Jinnah was convinced that a separate solution for the Muslims of the subcontinent was the only way out. This was not a U-turn – it was more of the gravity of situation dawning on him which prompted him to take this major decision, one which despite all odds he did not give up until it became a reality.

He once famously said:

Think 100 times before you take a decision, but once that decision is taken, stand by it as one man.

The statement can easily be considered the ABC of leadership, with no XYZ or U in mention.