Dissecting Nawaz Sharif’s national address

Watching Nawaz Sharif’s national address on August 19, I was reminded of the great American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR, as he was known, who led America through the Great Depression and a great war. He managed to cut through intense political opposition and push through reforms, known as the ‘New Deal’, that would bring relief to the poor, allow the economy to recover and restore the financial system. Having revived the US economy and won the Second World War, it was only death that kept FDR from a fifth consecutive term.

An integral part of FDR’s success was his understanding of the need to stay in contact with his people. Taking advantage of a new communications medium, he gave a series of 30 “fireside chats”, or radio addresses that were broadcast directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans, in which he explained, in plain English, the drastic measures he was taking to restore public confidence in banks, build jobs, and later, defeat the Axis powers.

As it stands, Mian Sahab is no FDR. But he leads a country that faces, as he recognised this week, an “existential” threat from terrorism, corruption and mismanagement — all of which have sucked the state’s coffers dry. Pakistan’s economy is in a shambles and there is a great war being fought on its streets, schools, bazaars and mosques that are targeted each day, by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and their allies.

Unfortunately, it took Nawaz 75 days to make his first formal address to the nation. The prime minister is correct when he says that he was occupied with work and action is better than speech. But action and speech, in the right proportions, can go together. There can be a compound effect, especially in times of crisis, which gives a leader the space and capital to take bold measures. National addresses allow a country’s leader to set forth a political agenda, maintain bonds with the people and serve as an anchor during times of tribulation.

Though it took place two months too late, the address was a decent start, with mixed results. Nawaz’s team obviously decided to make things simple and focus on two core challenges: power outages and terrorism. On the energy crisis, Nawaz offered an honest diagnosis of the challenge and the timeframe — up to five years — in which it would be resolved. At times, Nawaz departed from the script and spoke from the heart.

Unfortunately, the portions of the speech on national security lacked coherence. Nawaz called for talks with the same terrorists he described as an existential threat. He hinted at his belief that in order to resolve Pakistan’s domestic security challenges, the country needs to radically revise its foreign policy, stop “fighting with the world”, and become a force for regional peace. But unlike the energy crisis, which is being dealt with in a structured, methodical fashion with a clear chain of command, the government currently lacks the machinery to devise and implement a full-fledged national security strategy. That will not be possible until Nawaz Sharif convenes the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) on a regular basis and builds an infrastructure — a secretariat for the DCC — that can make a policy, based on inputs from the military as well as economic, energy and diplomatic advisers.

Nawaz gave no false promises in his address. And he asked for time to deal with challenges that are grave, but not insurmountable. But public patience is wearing thin. Though Nawaz’s government began two months ago, terrorism, power outages and high inflation precede the previous government and might last deep into the current government’s tenure. To effectively lead Pakistan, Nawaz needs to maintain a continuous conversation with his people. He ought to consider holding his own ‘fireside chats’ — short, weekly television, or radio, addresses lasting five to 10 minutes that, on a given week, might explain and rally support for a reform measure or inspire the public with the story of a fallen soldier or policeman, in the war on terrorism, such as that of Safwat Ghayur.

Nawaz needs the public’s support to move forward. To succeed, he cannot be a missing person. He must be seen. And he must be heard.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 22nd, 2013.

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