Pakistan celebrates its 63rd year of existence today with large swathes of itself under floodwaters and some 15 million of its people affected by what may well be the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. What is striking, however, is the ramshackle character of the government’s response to the floods. It was always an exaggeration to say Pakistan was a failed State. However, it is no exaggeration to say it has a degraded polity. This has been evident on several levels.
One has been the remarkable insouciance of President Asif Ali Zardari who declined to cut short a European tour when the crisis broke out. His focus was an enthronement
ceremony for his son — which would be held in Britain. After six decades of independence, the truth is that Pakistan is yet to develop a leadership with genuine political instincts. If anything, there is a remarkable divorce between them and their constituents. Second has been the chaos that affected the working among various levels of government. The battle between the provincial Sindh government and a central ministry in Islamabad over saving the Sukkur barrage was a case in point. The decision was simple and obvious, but the bureaucracy
and the political system became deadlocked even during a national calamity. This leads to the third point. The Sukkur incident was solved by the Pakistan military effectively staging a localised coup de barrage. Unfortunately, this is a mirror of what has taken place in that country ever since its inception. The civilian government’s inability to cope with Partition refugees led to the first instance of military usurpation of the civil administration. The practice continues to this day. The military is Pakistan’s default government.
Finally, the floods have seen how poorly secular civil society has evolved in Pakistan. As happened in the earlier Pakistan-occupied Kashmir earthquakes, it has been the charity arms of the militant Islamicist groups which have proved the most able when it comes to providing succour to the flood refugees. This is another part of the Pakistan story and arguably the most troubling one. The Pakistani state has done such a poor job in shoring up its own standing, either through democratic moorings or the provision of public goods, that more than six decades after independence it is seen as perfectly
normal that terrorist groups should be the ones to appropriate the state’s legitimacy.