As Pakistan Drowns, the Establishment’s Business as Usual

From reading the Pakistani press, or watching its rambunctious cable television networks, one would never guess that the country has absorbed the worst natural disaster in its recorded history. One-fifth of the country was submerged; 1,800 people were killed; over twenty million people have lost everything they own and are struggling to survive in mud and ruins — with little water, food, proper sanitation, shelter or medicine. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said it was a greater tragedy than the 2004 earthquakes, the 2005 Tsunami and the 2009 Haitian earthquake combined, calling the Pakistani floods “a global disaster, a global challenge, one of the greatest tests of global solidarity in our times.” Yet the entrenched political Establishment of Pakistan — an odd potpourri of the rich military supported Lahore business class, elements of intelligence agencies, a self-promoting politicized Supreme Court and ultra-conservative religious political parties — have a very different list of priorities on their political agenda than mere flood refugee relief.

Watching Pakistani television is like watching fifty Fox News television stations, but much less restrained, more like staged professional wrestling than objective journalism. In the “anything goes”, government-trashing, US-baiting, conspiracy-obsessed barrage of ignorant talking heads that dominate the Pakistani media, one senses that the Establishment, through its new rabid cable mouthpieces, is once again determined to undermine the still fragile democratic infrastructure of the country, destroy the domestic and international credibility of the elected government, and all but forfeit Pakistani’s place in the community of nations to a pariah state.

When you turn on Pakistani television, or hear the edicts of the politicized Supreme Court, or the anti-government, anti-American rantings of the right-wing political opposition, one hears nothing of relevance to the lives of average Pakistanis, and certainly nothing that will address the crisis in the lives of the flood refugees. There is no talk of economic development or international investment. There is never a mention of opening up world markets to Pakistani imports. One never hears a word about increasing Pakistani agricultural and dairy production and getting protein into the stomachs of our children in public schools.

No, to the pro-military rule Establishment and to those they fund on national television, it would seem that the main problem facing Pakistan is not rebuilding its destroyed infrastructure and finding housing and employment for eight million homeless people, but rather reopening stale twenty-year-old charges of corruption against people now in government who have been elected with the fresh mandate of a newly democratized electorate. These old charges were brought by forces that used this issue for decades to thwart the democratic process.

The fact is that there have not been any new corruption charges brought against this government in its two-and-half years in power, none directed against the Prime Minister or the President. Yet personal hatred of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and its chairman, President Asif Ali Zardari, removes from the public discourse any sense of cooperation and unity. The Establishment is too busy trying to destroy the government than to help it build a new Pakistan. As the rest of the world acknowledges that the reason that only 1,800 Pakistanis were killed in the greatest natural calamity in its history was the quick attention and mobilization of the Pakistani government to evacuate huge masses of people before the flood waters descended (a sharp contrast to the refusal of New Orleans officials to evacuate the city and thus cost thousands of unnecessary American casualties five years ago), the Establishment assumes as its highest priority is ridiculing Zardari for traveling internationally to mobilize world government action and public opinion to assist Pakistan in its moment of crisis.

Maybe Zardari’s trip to beseech French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron was not great politics, but in terms of its results it certainly was good policy. But the Pakistani Establishment will not give the devil his due, and continues its rampage, in the midst of this horrific human tragedy, to undermine and sabotage the government.

It is a sad spectacle, but predictable in terms of Pakistan’s sixty year history. One need not wonder why Pakistan today is increasingly thought of as anarchistic. One need only watch the self-destruction and national abuse blasting 24 hours a day from the Court House to the cable station, to understand that patriotism seems to be a word that the Pakistani Establishment just can’t spell.

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