Ali Abbas, PTH’s new author has contributed this thoughtful piece with a sanguine conclusion – “This burden of existence lies on the state’s shoulders, whether we like it or not”
For all its shortcomings and its stunted political development, the Pakistani state has been faced with multiple challenges over the last ten years. Each of these challenges have highlighted its weaknesses, wrenched out a response and provided a vital prod in the ‘right’ direction.
After the takeover of government, Musharraf’s media reforms not only brought national focus on the lack of an independent media in the country, but triggered a decade of development for the media industry which has been unprecedented in the history of the country. A maturing of this phenomenon is the criticism that this free media is now receiving on issues ranging from reporting ethos to nonpartisanship, vital input in the feedback loop which is a pre-requisite for improvement. In 2007, the Lawyers Movement in turn focused our attention on the previous impotence of the judiciary, its previous acquiescence of the orders of military dictators, and its own weaknesses in the light of its role in maintaining the authoritarian status quo and its frail support of democracy. In Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the nation hailed the torch-bearer of a powerful and independent judiciary which could play a more effective role in maintaining democratic checks and balances on the legislative and the executive. Even though we were placing our absolute trust again in persons instead of offices, in personalities instead of institutions, the nation finally appeared to have crossed a significant obstacle to stability. It is now that the nation looks towards the mounds of pending cases, and the provision – or the lack of – speedy justice to the masses that a dialectic has been initiated which we can only hope will lead to the development and maturing of the judiciary as an institution.
The water debate has brought inter-provincial harmony and dialogue into debate, the 2005 and the 2008 earthquakes state capacity, Wikileaks, the government’s credibility, the Mumbai attacks Pakistan’s foreign policy. This decade and especially the latter half of it has provided generously to the recorders of Pakistan’s history. However, with the devastating floods of the past few weeks and the ensuing scramble for rescue and relief efforts, all of Pakistan’s historical frailties and the negatives of its neurotic identity have been brought into sharp relief. The uniquely broad geographical coverage of this disaster has brought the problem to the doorstep of every Pakistani – man, woman and child. In the current unstable socio-political scenario where political, sectarian and ethnic murder has become a norm and economic and political stability appear to be far-fetched objectives, this calamity has the left Pakistan teetering on the edge; Pakistan has to come good on the questions historically asked of it, one and all if there is any semblance of prosperity and unity to be dreamt of in the aftermath of this disaster. Five aspects of state failure require immediate addressing if the repercussions of this disaster are to be contained.
Firstly, having stumbled initially in the art of foreign policy with the President making a remarkably apathetic international tour as the floodwaters set in, Pakistan has done well to bring the United Nations and other key players including the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia on board. In recent days, with the United Nations playing the vanguard role in rallying for international donations and funds for alleviating the conditions of the affectees of the flood in Pakistan, we have seen a rapid gain of momentum, with international donations having reached US $ 490 million, with an additional US $325 million being pledged for the cause. Secondly, contracted state capacity has further suffered, given the fact that floods of this magnitude would have been problematic for even the most powerful states to absorb. Without a non-existent civil defence mechanism in place, the government has once again had to rely on the military apparatus and civil society to come forward and provide in physical and human resources for rescue and relief efforts. However, the current democracy in its infancy must be given the benefit of the doubt, together with constructive criticism. Yet, the government must now take every possible action to do, and also appear to do its hundred percent. Lest the despairing population lose further hope and habitually look elsewhere for respite, in paternalistic structures such as the military for example. Thirdly, the setting up of the National Oversight Disaster Management Council is a unique and positive step in the direction of augmenting the tattered credibility of the Pakistani state, touted as one of the most corrupt in the world. However, it is essential that the Council be given the adequate mandate, powers and authority to place the requisite checks and balances on both national and international aid disbursement.
Fourthly, Pakistan’s weakened federation where regionalism has begun to play an increasingly significant role must look to protect both national and provincial interests, a balancing role which provides equitable relief to all provinces and shares the burden of sacrifice equally amongst them. This however, will not be possible without active debate, something which had recently come under the attention of the government in the backdrop of the dams issue and the incapacity of the Council of Common Interests. In such a dire situation, provincial relationships will dictate the future of all state endeavors and antagonism will trigger a further recourse to regionalism, and an eventual, tacit as well as overty, separation from the whole. Fifthly, once the floodwaters recede and the efforts move into rehabilitation and reconstruction, time must not be squandered. Together with providing social and physical infrastructure for the affectees, the state through the judiciary must ensure that space is not provided to corruption and crime. If the Lawyers Movement held any value, it must reveal itself now, before the people of the land begin to take the delivery of justice into their own hands, as they wrongly did in Sialkot.
The current government must pull up its socks, tighten its own belt, reach past its leisurely stroll and get ready for its longest hike. This burden of existence lies on the state’s shoulders, whether we like it or not.