Byline by M J Akbar: A French chateau and starving Pakistan
The reservoir of hatred has to be very deep for Pakistan to reject India’s aid at a time when desperate, flood-affected, marauding men snatch precious food from wailing, helpless women; when advertisements for donations are appearing in British and American newspapers; when the United Nations has stepped in to lead a rescue effort; and when the World Bank has offered two billion dollars over the next two years to ameliorate the consequences of an unprecedented national calamity. It took an American rap across the knuckles before Pakistan accepted India’s five million dollars.
Dr Manmohan Singh’s response to this gratuitous insult was a testament to his faith: he offered more. The best answer to visceral animosity is surely a civilised handshake, even if one may have to count one’s fingers after the hand has been shaken.
A caveat is essential. We must not confuse the Pakistani people with the Pakistan government. The government was playing politics with a crisis. The starving have no time for cynicism. The true victims of any such calamity are the poor, for the rich live above water. No poll has indicated that Pakistan’s flood-displaced would rather go hungry and roofless than eat wheat or take shelter under a tent purchased with India’s dollars.
Was Asif Zardari’s fear of Indian money directly related to his fear of the Pakistan Army?
A natural disaster of these proportions can become a defining moment in history. There were many reasons why East Pakistan broke away to create Bangladesh in 1971, but the Yahya Khan regime’s hopeless, and perhaps even prejudiced, neglect of the region after the devastation caused by Cyclone Bhola in 1970 became the conclusive evidence that persuaded Bengalis that they would never get justice in Pakistan. There is already sufficient information from the ground to indicate that Pakistanis are at least as angry with Zardari as Bengalis were with Yahya Khan.
The Khyber-to-Balochistan deluge — stretching across 20% of the country, a space larger than Italy — has begun to reinforce a resurgent public view that the Pakistan Army might have become a more natural institution of governance than the Pakistan People’s Party and the democratic organisations now in power. Its chief Ashfaq Kayani mobilised his troops for relief instantly. Zardari, in a display of astonishing, callous indifference, preferred to go on what can only be described as a working holiday in France and Britain, wherein the holiday invited more publicity than the work. The Army also donated, very quickly, a day’s pay, a thought that did not immediately occur to legislators. Zardari, in sharp contrast, breezed through his expensive jaunt, spending $12,000 per night for his suite in London, and zooming off, with his children and his nominated heir to the Bhutto throne, on helicopters to his chateau in France. A Zardari spokesman explained that this chateau had been in the family possession for 18 years. That then would be around the time when the Bhuttos were in power in Islamabad. Two plus two in Islamabad equals a chateau in France and a lordly estate in England.
Pakistan’s internet is also in flood. The invective against Zardari has to be read to be believed. Alas, the most exhilarating examples cannot be reprinted in a newspaper. It is safe to assume that the credibility of the PPP has been washed away in this flood, and it remains in office from now for purely legal, rather than politically legitimate, reasons. The reputation of the principal Opposition party, led by Nawaz Sharif, which rules Punjab, has been battered by allegations of corruption and maladministration. The main parties have a vested interest in protecting one another. But the fact is that their incompetence has left a huge vacuum, and the only institution capable of filling it is the Army.
The civilian challenge to political parties comes from a far more dangerous force than the Army. To put this in a single sentence: fundamentalist organisations with a terrorist wing, like the renamed Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, reached the affected people long before the government. The only comforting news from internet chatter is the manner in which civil society in Pakistan has mobilised to fill the gap that Islamabad has left. But there is only so much that impromptu citizen action groups can do. They cannot be a substitute for a nation’s government.
Zardari’s fear is valid. Would a coup be as unpopular today as it would have been a year ago? In fact, a year ago it would have been impossible. It might not have become probable even now, but Kayani is a patient man in a country where elected officials are conducting impatient hara-kiri. Zardari has been cozying up to American VIPs like John Kerry, but Washington’s generic dislike of coups is not so strong as to sabotage its self-interest. America is involved in a borderless war in Afghanistan. America’s strategic imperative demands a strong government in Islamabad, and if that means giving recognition to a future President Kayani, so be it.
Asif Zardari’s decision to buy a chateau in France could prove to be a wise investment. It is certainly a far more comfortable address for an ex-President than a VIP jail within a fortress on the Indus.