Floods and the Existential Threat

By Adnan Syed

 The existential threat comes from disowning the democratic structure, giving up on it and looking yet again for another instant messiah in face of tremendous adversity and hopelessness.

 We were wrong in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s when the elected governments were overthrown. And if we continue with our mindless obsession with artificial stability, we would be wrong in 2010 yet again.

 (AZW)

 

 THE FLOODS AND THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO PAKISTAN

 The floods have wreaked havoc across Pakistan, reminding us the frailty of the infrastructure that connects and sustains our country. The worse of floods may be behind us, but disease outbreak threatens the lives of thousands more. Those lucky to escape the wrath of nature will find themselves affected as food and produce prices will start rising. The food basket of Pakistan is severely damaged, and famines are a real possibility. For a country reeling with a reasonably popular insurgency in Balochistan, a vicious terrorism by an extreme right wing religious faction in rest of the three provinces, many people including myself are wondering what will take to tip the country into the abyss.

Widespread disasters often radicalize the population already reeling under grinding poverty and desperation. The cyclone Bhola that wrecked East Pakistan in November 1970 was one of the worst human disasters to visit Pakistan, leaving half a million people dead in its wake. The popular movement in East Pakistan got a tremendous boost due to the mismanaged and apathetic attitude of the West Pakistani government, and helped shaped the public opinion decisively turn in favour of the Awami League.

As even higher inflation is around the corner, 1/5th of the land area submerged and 12 million people displaced, Pakistan faces an existential threat to its existence. However, this threat comes not directly from the floods that happen to simply catalyze and magnify the decay the country was passing through. The threat is not even from the right wing that has been trying to throw the society into anarchy by indiscriminately killing civilians on the streets of major cities.

 

THE EXISTENTIAL THREAT COMES FROM YET ANOTHER EPISODE OF GIVING UP ON THE DEMOCRATIC STRUCTURE

The existential threat comes from disowning the democratic structure, giving up on it and looking yet again for another instant messiah in face of tremendous adversity and hopelessness.

We have been on this road before. Pick up the newspapers from the 1950s and 1990s and you will find the grand intelligentsia lamenting the ineffectual and self serving democratic rulers, incapable of governing the nation. Enter the likes of self appointed Field Marshals and Generals who would take over the country and saving a “fine country from the political vultures”. An artificial stability is imposed under the military boots. The black and white world of a military dictator would sow the seeds of disaster down the road for a fractious and diverse country like Pakistan. They would try to implement their versions of one-units, Islamic solidarity or enlightened moderation to further their rule, only to see the writing on the wall in a few years time. The repercussions of their rules will sadly reverberate decades after they are gone. One of them nurtured the massive discontent in the Eastern Pakistan; the other fanned the religious fanaticism that has almost destroyed the country from within.

We move back to democracy with fanfare and celebration. We find the same elected leaders that majority of us had elected wanting in governance. We look for instant messiah once again. We yearn for another khalifah or a benign autocrat to get us out of the mess that has grown so much bigger in size now.

 

ARMY RULES HAVE WITHOUT FAIL WREAKED DISASTER ON PAKISTAN IN THE LONG RUN

First things first; no one can say that the present government is doing a good job in governance. The President of Pakistan’s decision to be abroad while the country was facing devastating floods was an exceptionally bad decision. I detest the President of Pakistan continuing to occupy the chairmanship of a major political party. Law and order situation has not improved, and economy continues to struggle mightily.

But there is no major panacea that will overnight cure the rampant corruption or law and order situation in the society. Pakistan has failed to develop and strengthen its primary institutions that help stabilize the society; the judicial system, the police and civil administration, its robust parliament with a strong two to three party system with effective opposition.

We cannot diminish the importance of military for the state of Pakistan. Given the geographical significance of this nation, military will remain one of the most important institutions for Pakistan. The jawans of the army have laid their lives while fighting the brutish Taliban, and they are the ones who are saving the lives of the massive floods across Pakistan.

Yet, the high command of the army keeps coming around to the idea that Pakistan cannot be trusted to the politicians. However in their urge to stabilize the nation, senior high command of Pakistan Army has taken disastrous decisions. The same army was responsible for killing thousands of its own in the East Pakistan, the same army nurtured the religious monsters who destroyed first Afghanistan and are now targeting Pakistan. The same army is fighting the Balochistan insurgency by painting its enemy with the same brush that it painted the 1970 separatists with. The same army boasts of the disreputable General Zia-ul-Haq and General Yahya Khan as its previous influential heads. The same army high command in its pursuit of Strategic Depth, abetted the medieval Taliban, imposed them on Afghanistan and keeps on pursuing its failed policies by abetting the Afghan Taliban still to this day.

Every time Pakistan Army overthrew its democratic government, no matter how imperfect the democratic government was, Pakistan took one step further towards a bottomless pit. The new Presidents, whether they were Generals or Field Marshals, suspended the constitutions, raised their own cadre of political parties, undermined the popular parties, and raised ethnic and religious proxy organizations to gain mass acceptance. In the process they damaged the existing institutions that held public acceptance, or the institutions that could check on the unlimited powers of the military dictators.

 

NOT ANOTHER GROUNDHOG DAY; WE CANNOT AFFORD TO DERAIL THE DEMOCRACY NOW

But most damaging for Pakistan now is the new found revulsion for the popular vote, yet again. Channels and newspaper opinion columns are filled with the same prognosticators who proclaim that the democratic government has lost its mandate, and is unfit to rule. And that Pakistan cannot be trusted to the politicians.

The prognosticators realize that upending a majority holding democratic government will result in the demise of the democracy. But like their predecessors in the previous decades, consequences seldom matter in the heat of the moment.

As bad as PPP and President Zardari are, they are our elected leaders. They will have to answer to the electorate in less than 3 years time. A benign dictator does not have to. We still have independent media and an independent judiciary. We cannot overlook the fact that the current government has achieved more in terms of the 18th Amendment, NFC Accord, Gilgit-Baltistan Accord, Khyber Pakhtunkhwah renaming as well as a clear stance against religious terrorism that the previous army ruler could not even dream of doing. Small achievements yes; but achievements nevertheless.

We are all free to criticize President Zardari and his colleagues. This is one of the few blessings of living in Pakistan that the head of the state is one of the most ridiculed personalities in the state as well. And people do that without having to worry about midnight knocks on the doors. Where courts are free to drag the top government minister in front of them and grill him for his transgressions. Not many countries in the world enjoy that kind of freedom.

Celebrating the humiliation of the President of Pakistan is not just disagreeing with the President. It is disagreeing with the popular vote. If elections are held tomorrow, PPP would likely form another minority government. This is what democracy is about; one man one vote. Your candidate may not win the popular vote. The president has a questionable past, but he is also answerable to other institutions. And if his shady past cannot be proven in court, then live with it. By getting a chance to vote for a candidate over and over again, only then can we start weeding out the bad apples from the democratic system. Yes it is a long haul, but the worst we can do is to do away with the periodical pruning of the weeds by stopping the process once again. We will allow these political weeds to flourish, away from public and institutional scrutiny, to see them come back in the system when our fascination with the new messiah wears off yet again.

If public vote is overruled once again by the Pakistan Army in the name of saving “a fine country”, country may collapse as disgruntled sub groups that form the nation of Pakistan will completely give up on the state of Pakistan.

As volatile as the political system is, we ought to stay with it. A natural catastrophe like the massive once in a century flood only underscores our failures to develop an institutions-based society. It will be a shame if this catastrophe makes us repeat our old mistakes, yet again.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Floods and the Existential Threat

  1. AZW: this is an excellent post. Thanks for bringing out the key critical issues. Please keep on taking this debate further for more specific solutions for the current imbroglio..

  2. Zulfiqar Haider

    These floods have also brought up the discourse of the democratic government failing to deliver; this is not true, because it certainly has delivered a number of things. Desperate times always bring out these sentiments, but it is the duty of the elected representatives to visit their constituencies and help their people.

  3. Ali Abbas

    Adnann, a very timely article that makes some compelling points. One can agree to disagree with the manner in which the media has gone after the President (who actually signed over most of his governance powers to the Prime Minister and the Chief Mininster via the 18th Amendment). Nonetheless, derailing the system will not be forgiven or forgotton by the 20 million of our fellow Pakistanis who have been devastated by these floods. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that this system holds and all of us are there to help out with the relief efforts.

  4. AZW

    Thanks Ali.

    For a third world country that we have been, the disaster was more than enough to overwhelm our resources. We have not planned for the emergencies, we do not look ahead; we simply live on an ad-hoc basis where time is linked between present and past not due to an organized system that manages the society, but just due to a chained chaos that we repeat over and over again.

    Criticizing government for falling short is perfectly fine. What is alarming is that the media and the so called experts are pining their hopes on military, denigrating the civilian government to an extent that they seem to yearn for the stability of the undemocratic system once again. What we keep on forgetting is that the natural disasters throughout the Pakistani history have been dealt with inadequately both in civilian and military eras. While the jawans are doing a tremendous job in helping out the flood stricken people, at the end of the day it is this flip flop between civilian and military governments that have destroyed the institutions in Pakistan that are meant to foster a stable, prosperous and (in this case relevant) a forward looking society.

    Major disasters in Pakistani history (cyclone Bhola, Earthquake 2005) were met with a less than desirable response. When Bhola struck, Pakistan was ruled by the military. More than 500,000 people died like cattle in the land of then East Pakistan.

    Mr. Zaradari and the government does not have a carte blanche when it comes to helping the relief efforts. They are under tremendous pressure to their electorate and irate public that holds them responsible in the press and in the parliament. There is no substitute to the civilian government. They must remain in charge, and they will have to answer for their performance. The last thing we need is to look for yet another artificial stability to get the “nation right” this time.

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