Don’t let flawed democracy drown

By Mahir Ali

The US has the same idea in mind. US assistance, Richard Holbrooke declared on American television, “will be good not only for the people whose lives we save, but for the US image … The people of Pakistan will see that when the crisis hits, it’s not the Chinese. It’s not the Iranians. It’s not other countries. It’s not the EU. It’s the US that always leads.” – File Photo.

Is there any government anywhere in the world that would not have been found wanting in the face of such a profound calamity as the unprecedented floods that have devastated every province in Pakistan?

Probably not, at least in the absence of advance warning. It was therefore inevitable to some extent that the inadequacy of the state’s response to such a monumental tragedy would invite derision and anger. But, at the same time, can anyone seriously doubt that the perennial dysfunctionality of the civilian authorities has compounded the disaster?

That the army has been at the forefront of relief efforts, inadequate as they are, is hardly surprising. Inevitably, its endeavours in this regard will, at least in the short run, affect its ability to combat militancy in the regions bordering Afghanistan — and this, it has been suggested, could allow the Pakistani Taliban to slip into that country relatively unhindered.

That’s certainly a possibility. Even more alarming than that, however, have been the subtly insidious insinuations that a return to military rule would somehow, and to some extent, alleviate Pakistan’s woes. This is arrant nonsense. Neither the present government’s deplorable incompetence nor the head of state’s bizarre decision to undertake a European jaunt just as the nation he supposedly presides over was being run over by the worst natural disaster in its history should obfuscate this issue.

Even a perfunctory glance at Pakistan’s past ought to make it reasonably clear that military rule has invariably created more problems than it has solved. More than once, the ineptitude of politicians has caused the advent of martial law to be greeted by sections of the population as a form of deliverance. In every case, this complacency has been misplaced. That realisation has eventually seeped through in every instance, but usually after an indecent interval.

Since the unremittingly dismal days of Gen Ziaul Haq — who assumed charge, incidentally, to pre-empt a compromise between rival politicians, and the actions of whose regime are blamed, with plenty of justification, for some of Pakistan’s direst woes — the army has never entirely been out of power. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate is frequently cited as a progenitor of the Afghan Taliban, but it’s worth remembering that it was also instrumental in creating the Islami Jamhoori Ittihad, the right-wing political coalition, with Mian Nawaz Sharif at its helm, intended to serve as a bulwark against Benazir Bhutto.

Behind the scenes, the army’s political clout was rarely in doubt during the years that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif alternated in power — and Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup was largely a response to Sharif’s audacious attempt to promote loyalists to the helm of military affairs. However, although Musharraf cut a decisively less offensive figure as military ruler than his obnoxious predecessor in that role, there was never much of a chance that his declared mission to introduce “true democracy” was likely to succeed, or even grounded in sincerity.

It’s all very well to deplore the nature of the government that followed, in the wake of Benazir’s traumatic assassination, not least because the widower to whom she had injudiciously bequeathed control of the party inherited from her father lost little time in changing his mind about slithering into the highest post in the land, but it would be unwise to lose sight of the fact that none of the feasible alternatives to the present dispensation comes without baggage of their own.

Short memories are, of course, a measure of the desperation that Pakistanis all too often find themselves confronted with. It’s easy to overlook the depredations of military rule when confronted with a seemingly callous civilian regime that’s clearly out of its depth on a variety of fronts. It’s equally easy to forget that throughout the alternation of power during the 1990s, the Nawaz and Benazir governments were widely perceived to be in close competition in terms of corruption, and it was by no means clear which of them was more adept at depleting the national exchequer.

For all that, if Pakistan has a future, it has got to be democratic. One must, of course, hope for a far better democracy, for governments more attuned to people’s needs and less inclined to disregard the popular will. That goal cannot be furthered through yet another military interlude. However distorted a democracy may be, there is no evidence that repeated abortions serve to improve its quality.

Notwithstanding United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s designation of the floods as the worst natural disaster in his experience, the world has been somewhat reluctant to come to Pakistan’s aid. The UN’s appeal for half a billion dollars — which would hardly suffice, given the scale of the devastation — has elicited a less than generous response. Some Pakistani diplomats have blamed this on David Cameron’s comments, during his visit to India recently, about Pakistan “looking both ways” in the context of the so-called war on terror.

That may not be entirely inaccurate, but it’s nonetheless somewhat unfair. After all, Cameron had his say before the floods struck. Besides, he was airing a view that the US, among others, has intermittently expressed over the years, not least in the wake of the Wikileaks controversy.

There can be little doubt that the international perception of Pakistan has coloured the world’s response to this humanitarian tragedy. But terrorism is only one aspect of it. It has been reported that Pakistanis themselves have been reluctant to offer flood-relief donations on the grounds of uncertainty about where exactly their money would end up. In the event, international wariness about corruption is hardly extraordinary.

Meanwhile, the Islamist organisations such as Jamaatud Dawa and Falah-i-Insaniyat — described as “the charity wing and the latest front for Lashkar-i-Taiba” — have been feeding and sheltering the newly destitute in parts the state has been unwilling or unable to reach, reportedly attaching to their benevolence the message that the government and its western allies are not to be trusted.

The US has the same idea in mind. US assistance, Richard Holbrooke declared on American television, “will be good not only for the people whose lives we save, but for the US image … The people of Pakistan will see that when the crisis hits, it’s not the Chinese. It’s not the Iranians. It’s not other countries. It’s not the EU. It’s the US that always leads.”

Perhaps to reiterate that last point, as the BBC reported on Independence Day, a missile presumably launched by an American drone killed at least a dozen suspected militants in North Waziristan. A small, but perhaps not inconsequential, addition to the overall death toll these past three weeks.


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