In a recent blog, Omar Derawal described the growing ‘cult of personality‘ surrounding Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif. He is worried that such flattery could undermine the Gen Raheel’s credibility if people begin to see him as a self-promoter. I found this argument interesting, but ultimately I felt like it was not quite on the mark. That doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed the phenomenon. Whether I’m wasting time on social media or driving down the street, it seems increasingly impossible to not to find the Army chief staring back at me. I’m not sure whether it makes me think he is a self promoter, but it certainly makes me take notice. Then I was talking to some friends and someone mentioned that he will surely receive an extension next year after all the progress that has been made. That is when I realised what seemed so strange about the entire situation. What if Gen Raheel did not receive an extension?
The odds of Gen Raheel not receiving an extension on his appointment have to be very close to and rapidly approaching the zero marker. I can’t even imagine what would have to happen in order for that to happen. So let us just assume that he is given his extension. Then what? After three more years, do we expect things to get better or worse? If they get better, will he receive another extension? Here’s another question: During the next three years, will the publicity campaign described by Omar as ‘cult of personality’ continue? Will Gen Raheel become an even larger than life figure than he has already become in our national mythology? Then what?
This is where things get very tricky. Whether Gen Raheel’s service as COAS ends in 2016 or in 2019 or beyond, it will have to end eventually. That means someone will have to follow him. In typical circumstances, this is not only expected but it is not even noteworthy. However our current circumstances are anything but typical. Gen Raheel is being mythologised as a national saviour. Whoever follows him will face the unpleasant reality of being ‘Not Gen Raheel’. Yes, another General could be the next saviour, etc (it is unlikely all of our problems can possibly be sorted out even in one man’s lifetime), but not the next one. He would obviously be compared against an unrealistic measure, and any attempt at building him larger would be seen as a farce.
This is what worries me more than Gen Raheel losing his credibility with the masses or with the rank and file. It’s that he will actually become super-human in our estimation and it will be impossible for anyone to fill the role. For an office like Army chief, it is important to have the best man to do the job, but it is also important to remember that the job is always bigger than the man. The way we have started to build up Gen Raheel as a national saviour could undo that careful balance. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate what he has accomplished, but we should also remember that Gen Raheel is not the final Army chief. Otherwise it will not be Gen Raheel the man who is undermined, but the office of Chief of Army Staff. And that is something we cannot afford.