Losing the masses in post-Flood Pakistan

Posted in Other , Pakistan | 15-Nov-10 | Author: Malte Gaier

Much has been written about the dysfunction of Pakistan's political culture. The discussion on the inevitable collapse of the Pakistani state is as old as the country itself and dates back to the violent banishment of millions of Muslim and Hindu citizens of former colonial British India in 1947. This 'mega event' of the 20th century was followed by many other crises that all per se provoked a great deal of concern within the international community. Now, after its 63rd day of independence Pakistan and its people are still suffering of a flood whose long-term impact on the humanitarian economic and political stability is likely to be more shocking than any other catastrophe Pakistan was faced with before. This time, not only peripheral regions are affected by this tragic event as 2005 in Kashmir. This time, Sindh and Punjab – not to mention the devastation in NWFP – represent the very heartlands of Pakistan. Socioeconomically, not only the common man on the street is existentially struck by the outcome of the flood that manifests in a dramatic bulge in prices for food and a breakdown of electricity and irrigation systems. The government recently estimated the total loss to be around $43 billion. In the end, it displaced almost 20 million people, inundated almost one-fifth of the agricultural land and destroyed schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

Hearts and Minds

One could argue that president Asif Ali Zardari and his preceding regimes long ago have lost the hearts and minds of the masses. Time and again disappointed by the consistency of a sociopolitical system that relies on misuse and corruption, the country's majority is alienated and excluded from the political process. Subsequent national pathways designed and experimented with by Pakistan's rulers - be it Islamic Socialism, Islamization or Enlightened Moderation - were unable to meet the basic needs of the country and its people and hence finally failed. This collective experience goes hand in hand with a well-articulated desire for the charisma of new national leaders that are both pragmatic and visionary. That the country lacks reliable leadership became a standard argument when debating the feeling of crisis and a commonsense among an influential majority stemming from the religious and political sectors and civil society.

It seems that the flood crisis sharpened old political and social cleavages and gave rise to new dynamics in the political arena. Rumors of imminent politic

al change getting louder and griping the power circles in Islamabad have led to much speculation among political analysts. The grapevine was fueled by talk of return of ousted General Pervez Musharraf. It would not be the first time that former Pakistan rulers returned from exile and were enthusiastically welcomed by the masses. Meanwhile, Altaf Hussain, exiled leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the party that promoted the rights of the Indian Muslim immigrants to Pakistan (muhajirun) after partition in 1947, announces that 'a revolution similar to the French Revolution is knocking at the door of Pakistan and the MQM will lead that change. All airports will be closed and these corrupt elements will be hanged publicly, so that no one would make an attempt to promote corruption in the country again.'

A Jacobinian declaration of war from the London exile against Islamabad?

Awakening of the Masses

Ethno-nationalist movements such as MQM gained substantial power over the past three decades. In recent years MQM's symbolism shifted and the narrow muhajir marker was dropped in favor of a more inclusive ideological basis emphasizing the party's national competitiveness, its openness for a wider political and religious identity model and its potential of transforming into a populist force. Although in the past MQM distanced itself from Islamic phrases, the party now increasingly refers to Islamic values and traditions. In addition, the religious parties that are traditional players in the welfare and humanitarian sector contribute to the discourse with an irritating balancing act when helping the people affected by the flood and simultaneously challenging the government at every opportunity. In essence, this is nothing new but following the call of Jama'at-i Islami's (JI) amir Munawar Hassan not to receive Indian and American relief supplies which he condemned as a 'dangerous poison for the country and the nation', the immediate consequences for the living conditions at the refugee camps should not be underestimated. Certainly, the goal of both successful humanitarian first-hand aid and a sustainable reconstruction and recovery strategy is not only harmed by this position but also by the corruption and mismanagement of governmental programs. To make the point clear, groups like JI indeed contribute to crisis management in their own way through their grass-root organizations, charities and foundations such as Al-Khidmat. More precisely, the traumatic post-partition experience of the state immediately after its proclamation to supply aid and absorb refugees together with the experiences from past floods and earthquakes as in 1950 and 2005 underscores the on-the-spot efficiency of aid efforts by the non-governmental and informal sector that has often performed much better and more effective than governmental programs. Nevertheless, their undermining semi-political campaigning - during the flood JI leaders urged the 'awakening of the masses' that should be followed by a jihad against the establishment - thwarts a tenable concept for aid that could substantially contribute to a betterment of the current situation.

Political maneuvering and government-bashing as usual or how can these statements by Pakistan's top-leaders be interpreted according to their religious-doctrinaire drive?

Call for Change

Primarily constitutional and ideological insistence on religion, predominantly Sunni Islam, resulted in the institutionalization of religion as the basic determinant of national culture and ideology that not only gave rise to a process of 'Sunnaization' but contributed significantly to the marginalization of minorities. Throughout the history of Pakistan political parties, non-governmental stakeholders and partisan groups from different ethnic and sectarian camps transformed into important societal movements that justify and legitimize themselves on various additional determinants. Highlighting primordialism and demographics in combination with religion enables a movement to construct and refer to a glorified, romanticized past and therefore to create historic continuity for their very own existence. Demography empowers a group to speak and act on behalf of the majority, following their respective agenda means implementing the will of the majority. Naturally, these groups provoked the resistance of groups that do not apply to the interpretation of majority. Some of these stakeholders have dismantled their militias and violent groups. Many of those moderated groups participate in the political process through their institutions according to the rules of the game which they basically accept. This 'statist' orientation is committed to the current framework of the state. What it wants to change is not the external constitutional framework itself but the consciousness of the state and its society. In contradiction to these statist forces, other groups promote programs that are dedicated to the current state with a more explicitly religious-political framework. The goal remains changing the state's legitimation and its constitutional framework. Changing the external political framework crystallizes in both non-violent political action and calls for disobedience and violent resistance against government policies that contravene the group’s respective agenda. Their ultimate aim of changing the political and socioeconomic reality therefore comes close to the implementation of revolutionary goal. On the basis of the various cultural, political and religious themes they touch, political philosophies or ideologies are constructed and reactivated. They embark on a political dynamic which in many ways is reminiscent of systems of political legitimation and in some cases of modern revolutionary movements. Clear is the general aim of promoting economic, political, religious, spiritual and other goals. This spread of promises and beliefs is a major instrument in forging the opposition and in winning the support of particular social strata, for instance the middle class that is nationalist, patriotic and highly ethnicized and sectarianized.

Ruling the Country

The question arises whether theoretically these voices can offer a realistic and sustainable agenda that can formulate an adequate response to the most pressing needs of the country. Only theoretically, because until today army and intelligence constitute a strong epicenter of political and economic power. Since Pakistan's independence, the army has been the main political profiteer of several national and regional crises and therefore of an immanent culture of instability and insecurity. It is predominantly the ruling troika of generals, members of higher civil-bureaucracy and zamindaris or waderas, rich political and feudal landlord families, that aim at keeping and defending the continuance of the sociopolitical status quo. From the point of view of the country's elite in general and its nationalist and anti-Indian sub-segment in particular, the mission of Pakistan as outlined by the so-called Two-Nations-Theory - the powerful narrative for the subcontinent's territorial, political and confessional division between Muslims and Hindus - of the Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Pakistan Movement and Father of the Nation, remains unfulfilled. The raison d'être is, among other factors, challenged by the unsettled Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India or the fact that more Indian Muslims live outside the national territory than inside. And still, 63 years after the establishment of state, it is this doctrine of the Indian threat that primarily defines Islamabad's regional security and foreign policy agenda for the Kashmir territories and Afghanistan, not to mention its impact on the regional economic scenario touching Iranian, Chinese, Saudi and Caucasian interests. Furthermore, domestic power relations underlie this Pakistani imperative that crystallized frequently in history when for the sake of 'the national interest' civilian governments were ousted with the consequence that until today an independent party system and democratic political institutions are bound and limited within the borders that are defined by the military. These political outcomes reflect both path dependency and historical institutionalism rooting in originally chosen policies and arranged power structures that remained unchanged. Therefore, any endeavor of sustainable step-by-step reform and democratization will have to contend with these power relations.

Ideology also played a central role when Jinnah's independence movement was formed during the pre-state period. The movement was substantially represented and backed by the Muslim salariat class, including Muslim industrialists and army officers. This group that became the country's ruling elite used an Islamic ideology - forcefully expressed by Asghar Sodai's slogan Pakistan ka matlab kiya? - La Ilaha Illallah! - as a mobilizing force for the creation of Pakistan.

What Ayesha Siddiqa called the 'pragmatic-national' character of the military privileges this particular institution with the ability to swiftly shift between different ideological outfits. This crystallized under the rule of General Zia ul-Haq ('I have a mission, given by God, to bring Islamic order to Pakistan', 1978) during the Afghan War when regime and army successfully involved religious groups and parties in what was later called a jihad against the Soviet Union. Today it is widely accepted that this religious setup had been weeded out by Pervez Musharraf's ('God has chosen me to lead the nation and he will protect me', 2000) halfhearted Enlightened Moderation reforms. This is true to some extent, since generals that were known for their pro-Islamist and anti-American stances were immediately removed from leading posts in the military echelon when Musharraf decided to join the Anglo-American War on Terror. This was a painful step that followed the simple but far-reaching threat of 'either being with us or against us' on 12 September 2001. This message included a list of unconditional terms for Pakistan: Among others the definite break with Mullah Umar and the Taliban, cracking down on jihadi and Al-Qaida infrastructure and assisting in capturing, handing-over or killing Saudi sheikh Usama bin Ladin. However fundamental and difficult these cosmetic changes have been, beyond them elements in the middle and lower army and ISI ranks are still sympathizing with the religiously determined ideologies that gave birth to the Pakistani Taliban. It is unlikely that jihadi culture and its militant outfits whose offices and cells in cities all over the country are still active, in the near future will roll back their uncompromising and radical Kashmir agenda. Several attempts by the jihadist alliance Brigade 313 to kill Musharraf have proven, that the former jihadist allies that had been pampered under national and international patronage for so many years, finally turned against the state.

International Dimensions

It has often been said that within nation-building, Pakistan has to identify itself from within. The construction of the inside-outside is essential in the Pakistani context since the country is not only suffering of physical, ideological or economic external threats. Rather leaders of civil society have often criticized what is called a 'conspiracy mindset' that manifests itself in statements, writings and discourses in the domestic public arena and has a paralyzing effect on progress in the country. Expressed via many societal channels, for instance in the Urdu media, this feeling is often utilized by religious and political agents that know how to create anti-Western sentiment successfully and how to blame America, India, Israel and their intelligence services as well as the country's minorities for intervening in Pakistani interests. It is true that Pakistan continues to be a playground for foreign and enemy interests but dealing with the region's complex reality takes more than that. Or in the words of a Pakistani columnist who concluded in DAWN: 'It is one of the major problems facing this country’s intellectual life. Despite the disproportionate wealth of fresh intellectual talent Pakistan possesses, few innovative ideas mature to sanitize the septic wound of suspicion. […] Ultimately, it is the conspiracy theory itself, not these countries, that truly prevents Pakistan from presuming its preferred position in the world.'

Over the last weeks when observing the broad coverage on the flood crisis in international media it became apparent that Pakistan still finds itself in a sort of international offside. This negative tide of public opinion - the 'image problem' that is perpetuated by its 'most dangerous country in the world' branding - and at times the noticeable malaise of some predominantly Western observers when reporting on Pakistan, gives insight into the arena known as public diplomacy. Compared to several international crises such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the willingness to donate in Western public was alarmingly low. Turning this negative image should therefore be imperative.

But public diplomacy will not succeed until Pakistan can proactively, unabashedly and self-critically tell of its achievements and declare the story of what it is, what it stands for in the region and under which pressing circumstances it came into existence in 1947. Pakistan came into the position of having to serve as a homeland for all Indian Muslims in the most plural and populous region in the world. As a post-colonial state in the making, Pakistan had to create an identity, impose a national language, contend with artificial boundaries and absorb an unprecedented wave of refugees accompanied by terrific acts of violence. Reestablishing and advocating Pakistan's essential narrative means going back to its original narrative whose pillars were religious and cultural tolerance, coexistence and freedom of individual expression and thought, equal and democratic rights to all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, gender and class. Remembering and promoting this 'soft' image would give Pakistan the potential to reflect and symbolize the plural realities of its society and to offer itself as a role model to similar societies in the region.