COMMENT: Politics in the midst of natural disaster —S P Seth - Thursday, August 26, 2010

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Pakistan’s human tragedy requires international help as a human gesture, and not as part of an anti-terrorist strategy. It is the duty of the government to requisition all internal and external resources to deal with the situation, without making it another front against terrorism

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader in self-exile Altaf Hussain’s call for a military coup to depose the country’s civilian government is another nail in the country’s political culture — or what is left of it. Indeed, Pakistan’s enormous tragedy is highlighting the poor state of its institutions and leadership. Only in Pakistan can you have the spectacle of its president undertaking a foreign trip when the country was drowning. President Asif Ali Zardari’s European trip seemed to breathe new life into the old proverb of Nero fiddling while Rome was burning.

For President Asif Ali Zardari to leave the country at such a time to tread foreign pastures was not only an act of political stupidity but also showed total lack of empathy for the plight of his suffering countrymen. He was in the UK to talk about the adequacy — or otherwise — of Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism, when he was needed to set an example for his administration by being on the frontline of this natural disaster.

On the other hand, as his critics have pointed out, Zardari was in the UK to promote his son’s political prospects back home by making party-political speeches in Birmingham. If so, it simply beggars belief.

Zardari is an accidental president; he became one when his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was tragically gunned down in 2007. Having become president (following the elections) against the backdrop of such national and personal tragedy, it was hoped that he would rise to the occasion to prove all his critics wrong, especially those who called him Mr 10 percent when he was a minister in his wife’s cabinet.

After a long army rule, Pakistan is finally under a democratic dispensation with an elected president and prime minister. Since Pakistan’s civil institutions have tended to be weak, the proper functioning of its nascent democracy is very important. Without it, the army will continue to dominate national affairs. Some politicians, like Altaf Hussain, will always seek political advantage in courting the generals. Judging by reports, the army still continues to maintain a controlling role. For instance, it has been reported that the government ministers often make house calls on the army chief when so summoned.

There was widespread scepticism when the tenure of the army chief was extended for three years, supposedly by the country’s civilian government. Apparently, they were told what was required of them.

With such deep-rooted popular cynicism in the country’s institutions, restoring faith in the supremacy of the civilian political order is a tall task. But it gets even harder when President Zardari decides to go on a foreign trip in the midst of the country’s worst floods. It is important to stress that the president of a country symbolises the nation. And if he tends to function by betraying a lack of empathy for his people, it brings into question the entire edifice of a nation.

In its present predicament, it is quite natural that Pakistan should seek international help. And the aid is now starting to flow, though it will have to be on a larger scale. And it is quite natural that Pakistan’s leaders should be canvassing the global community for more generous aid.

But it is jarring to see President Zardari overplaying the terrorist card and reportedly saying that if aid is not forthcoming, militants will exploit the situation to further destabilise the country, even to the point of taking away orphaned babies and putting them in terrorist camps. This is the kind of rhetoric that makes Pakistan look like a failed state. Pakistan’s human tragedy requires international help as a human gesture, and not as part of an anti-terrorist strategy. It is the duty of the government in Pakistan to requisition all internal and external resources to deal with the situation, without making it another front against terrorism.

Human disasters of the kind Pakistan is facing are also an opportunity to do some soul searching. If Pakistan were to have an effective government committed to providing economic and physical security to its people, the terrorists would not find fertile ground for creating mayhem. In other words, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban is, to a large degree, an indictment of the Pakistani establishment’s (both military and civilian) failure to govern in the interests of its people.

The military establishment, for instance, has taken a disproportionate share of the country’s financial resources, which might otherwise have gone into developing the country’s woefully neglected education and health sectors, and other nation-building activities. In addition, it has devoured a large share of the foreign aid Pakistan has been receiving for the last 30 years, first to beef up the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets and, secondly, to help the US fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s border areas.

This never-ending Pakistani involvement with the US’ strategic objectives has not only eaten into the foreign aid Pakistan has received over many years (much of it pocketed by corrupt military and political elements), but has also brought its governing establishment into disrepute with its own people by making the country look like a US puppet.

In an article titled ‘Pakistan on the Brink’, Ahmed Rashid wrote in the New York Review of Books last year: “Under (President) Bush, the US poured $ 11.9 billion into Pakistan, 80 percent of which went to the army.” And where did all that money go? According to Rashid, “Instead of revamping Pakistan’s capacity for counterinsurgency, the army bought $ 8 billion worth of weapons for use against India — funds that are still unaccounted for.”

No wonder many people in Pakistan do not trust their government with the aid now filtering into Pakistan for relief and recovery programmes. As one victim of the floods reportedly said, “They (the government) are taking all the aid for themselves. They are pocketing it. There is nothing coming to the people.” Even if this is an exaggeration, Pakistan’s suffering people cannot be blamed for dumping on their government when they hardly see any real improvement in their lives. And no wonder either that sometimes the Taliban look like a better alternative than their corruption-ridden government. When people are suffering, even the bad alternative seems appealing.

Therefore, the Pakistani government has a lot of work to do to establish its credibility and legitimacy with the people. And the country’s present calamity is the time to prove that the Pakistani state is up to the task of helping its people cope with the country’s flood-ravaged disaster.

The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia

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