Daily Times Thursday, August 26, 2010
COMMENT: Pakistan’s prize bluffer —Dr Mohammad Taqi
“Mussolini is the biggest bluffer in Europe. If Mussolini had me taken out and shot tomorrow morning, I would still regard him as a bluff. Get a hold of a good photo of Signor Mussolini sometime and study it. You will see the weakness in his mouth that forces him to scowl the famous Mussolini scowl that is imitated by every 19-year old Fascisto in Italy. Study his past record” — ‘Mussolini, Europe’s prize bluffer’, Earnest Hemingway, The Toronto Daily Star, 1923.
While the discussion about who breached which river embankment and why goes on, Pakistan’s prize bluffer has attempted to breach the bulwark of democracy itself.
The undisputed leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Mr Altaf Hussain, has called for patriotic generals to take action similar to a martial law against corrupt politicians. Is this a cry for help from a bleeding heart or a vicious threat? The past record says it all. All the scowling, verbosity and thunder — part theatrics and part cheap imitation of the late Allama Rasheed Turabi — cannot hide an inherent insecurity that a chauvinist enterprise feels in a functional democracy.
Packaged to look like a statement made at the behest of the military brass, the sinister pot shot at democracy is a bluff by an arch-Bonapartist looking for a strongman to protect his fiefdom in southern Sindh. Add to it the August 20, 2010 meeting — a diplomatic routine — between Mr Hussain and the US State Department functionary, Bryan Hunt, and one has all sides thinking that the other wants a change of guard. But the timing could not be worse: Mr Hussain has added insult to the massive injury caused by the floods. On one occasion where the MQM had an opportunity to jettison its neo-fascist baggage and help the nation recover and rebuild, its leader has stuck to his myopic agenda pursued through intrigue.
The levels at which this call to topple democracy is heinous are too numerous to count. But consider Mr Hussain’s words: “If we have to choose between two evils, we will go for the lesser evil. If our generals are ready to take any initiatives against these criminals (politicians) who have looted and plundered this country, then we will welcome them.” Who is he appealing to, two generals, a few, or all the corps commanders? Is the recently reappointed chief of army staff (COAS) included or even the intended audience? If not, is he calling for a mutiny within the armed forces as well? And who is to certify the ‘patriotism’ of the potentially revolting officers? The demagogy a la Il Duce and the ‘captive’ audience of both glued to faceless speakers notwithstanding, Mr Hussain would have been well advised to think his too-clever-by-half instigation through. While Article 6 of the Pakistani constitution may not be of much consequence to such instigators, the top brass is not likely to look kindly at any turmoil within its own ranks.
While the disaster management efforts of the present government in the wake of the massive floods are shoddy at best, to call for a quasi-military rule in a country that has suffered four martial laws is to submerge it in a bigger deluge. Some have drawn comparisons between the current crisis and Cyclone Bhola in 1970 that devastated the then East Pakistan, the inept management that followed and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh. But the last straw that broke the camel’s back was not Bhola, it was the ruthless martial law imposed in East Pakistan. With bombs going off in South Waziristan and Kurram agencies, Balochistan completely alienated and more than five million Pakistanis without a roof, it is ruthless to inundate the nation with the threat of martial law.
Mr Hussain is not alone in pretending to be the bellwether for things to come. In the not so distant past his bitter rival, Mr Imran Khan, had claimed that he could ‘fix’ the terrorism issue, if given 90 days to lead the country. But 90 days by whom and under what mechanism, he did not elaborate. It may have been political bravado but his past credentials as the cheerleader of General Musharraf’s referendum certainly raised a red flag.
Tune in to a certain media outlet that has taken upon itself to undo the verdict of the 2008 elections, and one could hear the armoured cars roaring. After a relentless onslaught to discredit the elected government, this media group has organised a supposedly apolitical flood relief fundraiser in collaboration with Mr Imran Khan without any disclaimer about the latter’s highly divisive politics. Now, the flagship English daily of the group, in its editorial about Mr Altaf Hussain’s rant, has failed to categorically denounce the call to subvert the constitution.
Hemingway recorded in vivid detail the meeting he, along with other reporters, had with Mussolini, who was hoping to make headlines in thousands of newspapers the next day with his angry dictator looks. He reported for the Star: “Mussolini sat at his desk reading a book. His face was contorted into the famous frown. He was registering Dictator. I tiptoed over behind him to see what the book was he was reading with such avid interest. It was a French-English dictionary — held upside down.”
The changing dynamics of southern Sindh, especially Karachi, have got the MQM boss worried. The party that was about to ban the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from war-ravaged Malakand division from moving into Karachi and Hyderabad, has now been making muffled noises about the Sindhis taking refuge there. The MQM governor, who served under General Musharraf for five years, recently presided over a meeting to curb the influx of refugees, on security grounds. He would be hard-pressed to do so in a democratic set-up. The MQM is scowling to hide its weakness.
While the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has rolled over and is playing dead, Mian Nawaz Sharif has minced no words in condemning what is tantamount to high treason. Attempts to dislodge the elected civilian set-up in Pakistan will be met with stiff resistance and scorn at home and the world will not condone military adventurism. Holding the book of geopolitical strategy upside down, Mr Altaf Hussain has overplayed his hand; it is time for all democratic forces to call his bluff.
Postscript: Not surprisingly, Mr Imran Khan has now officially joined the seditious chorus to dislodge the elected government via unconstitutional means.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Political leaders must take charge of shaping the narrative of this disaster and the recovery from it. They must articulate clearly and consistently that the gods are not in the business of unleashing havoc on innocent people and whole societies are not punished for the misdeeds of a few
It may sound like a cliché but the late Munir Niazi’s words ring truer today than ever before:
“Ik aur darya ka samna tha Munir mujh ko,
Mein aik darya kay paar utra to mein ne dekha.”
The translation of the above verse cannot fully capture all its connotations but the gist obviously remains that a bigger river is looking us in the eye when we land across the flooded rivers. The magnitude of the present disaster is such that all statements about the river beyond will remain understatements and every estimate an underestimate. What might not be an understatement though is that, without a cogent political leadership, a major slide backwards is inevitable for Pakistan.
After playing hooky for days, President Asif Zardari is back and, from the initial barbed exchanges, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have moved on to talking to each other, which certainly is a good omen. However, the political leadership must realise that the tone, metrics and stage for recovery is set within the first few days of a disaster and they are already a fortnight too late.
The nations that have recovered successfully from massive disasters were able to do so through a resolute, optimistic and highly visible leadership, in addition to the resilience of their people. In most developed countries, the social psychology generally is that every disaster can be managed and at least the status quo ante restored, without reordering society in a fundamental manner. Contrarily, where cultural norms contribute significantly to a sense of resigning to fate, a cloud of pessimism can take hold quickly, with the expectations of recovery scaled down to a new lower normal. The 24-hour news coverage is a double-edged sword, which can literally make or break the will of a society in situations like these.
So, first things first: political leaders must take charge of shaping the narrative of this disaster and the recovery from it. They must articulate clearly and consistently that the gods are not in the business of unleashing havoc on innocent people and whole societies are not punished for the misdeeds of a few. No scripture prescribes repentance and supplication as the alternatives to human effort. In my conversations with a Chishti Sufi master from Peshawar, he would always drive home the point that ‘himmat-e-mardaan, madad-e-Khuda’ (God helps those who help themselves). Let us not allow the media rookies to tell the people that they brought this upon themselves.
But to be able to shape the disaster management discourse, the political leadership must put its money where its mouth is — literally. Addressing a joint press conference, Prime Minister Gilani and the PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif have said that they would appeal to the rich to come forward to help the millions in distress. Apparently, Mian sahib also suggested names like the former Justices Rana Bhagwandas and Fakhruddin G Ebrahim and others to be part of the proposed fund-raising and relief panel, to make it credible. The two leaders also nominated Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Sheikh of the PPP and Senator Ishaq Dar of the PML-N to hammer out the details of the proposed federal body overseeing the relief and reconstruction effort.
There are two issues with this proposal. The problem is not the credibility of the fine men Mian sahib has named; it is that of the many among the parties ruling at the Centre and in the provinces. Landing on the top tiers of the world’s most corrupt states list, year after year, has not helped the country’s image. States and the organised and individual donors are shying away from contributing. Even expatriate Pakistanis want to know how their contributions will be spent and would much rather donate to a private charity than the government of Pakistan.
Instead of proposing that Rs 250 billion from the national exchequer be transferred to the new body, the political leadership would have been well advised to personally donate generously into this fund as the seed money. Dr Hafeez Sheikh — a US-educated economist — could have informed the leadership that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an annual budget bigger than UNESCO and the bulk of its funding comes from an endowment by the Gates family. Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros and many before them have devoted hundreds of billion of dollars towards philanthropic causes. The rupee-billionaires are well represented in the ruling parties. Leading by example and not cashing in on others’ good name is what they could do to boost the credibility of the relief commission. Also, instead of setting up separate bank accounts for flood relief, a contribution to the federal government fund by the military leadership would further bolster the effort.
Another issue that links directly with the credibility at home was the exclusion of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan from the initial decision-making. While the Council of Common Interests (CCI) is about to meet and the provinces obviously have representation there, respected leaders like Senators Hasil Bizenjo and Haji Muhammad Adeel from Balochistan and KP respectively could have been included in the announced team. Inter-province relations must not be bungled at the very outset of the disaster management.
A functional relationship between the vertical and horizontal layers of the government is a must for a harmonious relief effort and to present a unified front. Around the world, the armed forces are called upon to assist civilian governments in peacetime calamities. For example, the US National Guard has been under the state governors’ command since 1878 to help during catastrophes. The Pakistani armed forces have always served the nation well in a similar capacity and continue to do so with honour. There should be no reason to portray them as an outfit alien to the federal government.
All disasters have political implications and mismanaging one comes at a very high price for an elected government. While some in the west are even predicting the crumbling of the democratic set-up in Pakistan, a more likely outcome could be the de-politicisation of the people and disillusionment with the political forces. With their eyes on the river beyond, the leadership must get its act together; they have to catch up, and fast.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org