The Mughal Emperor Jehangir is reported to have installed a bell outside his palace that anyone could ring when they required justice that only the sovereign could provide. Given that the Mughal empire had a system of local courts and judges that was expected to undertake such judicial duties, the symbolism behind the bell was clear: even if the Empire was plagued by nepotism and inefficiency, the Emperor himself was seen as being above such petty considerations, existing as a beacon of moral rectitude in an otherwise corrupt world. This symbolic separation of the leader from the murky milieu of politics was important because it obscured the fact that, rather than being distinct from a system that was undoubtedly oppressive, Jehangir was complicity in its perpetuation. Indeed, like other medieval agrarian bureaucracies, the strength and power of the Mughal Empire necessarily rested on the cultivation of alliances with local powerholders who provided the regime with political support in exchange for patronage. The entire institutional framework of Mughal rule was predicated on the empowerment of the very same predatory elites that people would ostensibly ring the bell of justice to escape.

Like all kings and men, Jehangir was ultimately a prisoner of his circumstances, with his ability to act being constrained by the broader societal context. Regardless of what his personal inclinations might have been, the Emperor’s alignment with, and accommodation of, potentially unsavoury local partners was borne out of necessity. This is important because Jehangir’s story and example are illustrative of a widely held belief in contemporary Pakistan, neatly encapsulated by the old MQM slogan, ‘humein manzil nahin, rahnuma chahiye’, which means, ‘we need a leader, not a destination’. While it may be articulated differently, this is a sentiment that enjoys wide support across the country, with people on the street and the commentariat in the media endorsing the view that all of Pakistan’s travails could be dealt with quickly and effectively through honest, committed, and visionary leadership.

Manifestations of this belief are not difficult to find. While the MQM is an obvious, almost autoparodic example of what happens when faith in a leader is taken to its logical extreme, Pakistan’s other mainstream parties also suffer from a cult of personality. The following enjoyed by the Bhuttos, the veneration of Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, and the adulation directed towards Imran Khan, all are examples of the same phenomenon, as is the way in which successive military dictators and generals have been welcomed as saviours possessing the personal wherewithal allegedly required to fix Pakistan’s dysfunctional politics.

There are a number of reasons why so much faith and trust is placed in individuals. Charisma has always played a key role in inspiring support, as have powerful and compelling personal stories and narratives. Sometimes loyalty to a leader is borne out of proven expertise and experience, or due to the institutional position and power that the individual in question might enjoy. However, whatever the personal attributes and qualities of a leader might be, viewing that person through a messianic lens comes at the cost of a broader appreciation for the way in which history, institutions, society more generally play a critical role in shaping interests, political strategies, and outcomes. No matter who they might be, leaders do not operate in a vacuum, and will always be constrained by the demands imposed upon them by the myriad social forces they engage with.

A case in point is the PPP, whose adherents across the country continue to operate with the idea that Bilawal Bhutto’s ascension to the leadership of the party, and his inevitable involvement with mainstream electoral politics, will necessarily lead to a revival of the party’s fortunes. This hope is rooted in the notion that, unlike the rest of the party’s leadership, Bilawal remains untainted by the corrupting influence of formal political power and, more importantly, carries within himself the perceived zeal for reform possessed by his grandfather and mother. That both of those personalities themselves had less than stellar records, partly due to their own inadequacies but also due to forces they had to contend with, is a fact that is usually ignored.

The same is true for Imran Khan, whose proclaimed affinity for leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad betrays both a disturbing indifference towards democratic niceties as well as a broader ignorance of the unique historical circumstances that allowed Singapore and Malaysia to follow their specific developmental trajectories. Amongst the rank and file of the PTI, when messianic belief in Imran Khan is confronted with evidence of malfeasance on the part of its elected representatives and functionaries, or when the often questionable decisions taken by the ‘kaptaan’ are brought up, it is usually argued that all such missteps are the result of the poor advice and machinations of his advisors. This, of course, raises a different issue. If leaders like Bilawal Bhutto and Imran Khan possess the virtually inhuman capacity to plot political paths independently of the constraints imposed by society, why are their parties and strategies so fundamentally flawed? Similarly, if the leaders themselves are basically good but easily misled by those around them, do they really possess the qualities that are attributed to them by their supporters?

Ultimately, political leaders, no matter what their name, background, or personal qualities might be, have to operate within a particular context, and will ultimately engage in the type of politics that is reflective not only of their own biases and inclinations, but also of the interests and aspirations of those who they represent and interact with. This does not mean that leaders and leadership do not matter.

Good leaders have always been able to inspire people to work towards a common agenda, for better or for worse, and can play a key role in providing their followers with direction and purpose. Nonetheless, politics is a messy business, involving compromise and negotiation that, unfortunately but inevitably, often trumps principle. Rather than imbuing individual men (and it is usually just men) with almost superhuman qualities and characteristics and then finding excuses to explain away their inability to provide effective leadership and governance, it makes sense instead to focus on the wider societal forces that are at the heart of Pakistan’s problems and politics, and then judge leaders on the extent to which they actually try to transcend, rather than succumb to, the status quo.