The profoundly central question is indeed just one. Is this crisis going to fundamentally alter the way Pakistan is run and lead to a characteristically new dispensation overseeing the country’s governing structure?
The widespread damage caused by the floods in Pakistan has quickly assumed a significant political dimension, unprecedented in the country’s history. With large-scale human displacement comes fears of unrest in the near future, especially if Pakistan’s federal and provincial authorities fail to satisfy the needs of the affected population.
The profoundly central question is indeed just one. Is this crisis going to fundamentally alter the way Pakistan is run and lead to a characteristically new dispensation overseeing the country’s governing structure? As of now, it is difficult to come up with a convincing answer to this complex question.
As the damage spreads across Pakistan, mind-boggling figures on the estimated cost of resettling up to 14 million people make the rounds. Crops likely to be harvested soon have been inundated, healthy livestock washed away and roads, homes and public services have been partially or fully destroyed.
The estimates of bringing things back to normal could easily run into several billion dollars. The cost of repairing the damage may indeed multiply amid warnings of more heavy rain.
But there is more to the floods than simply material loss or casualties of more than 1,500. At the centre of the debate following this catastrophe is indeed the relationship between those who dominate the state of Pakistan and its citizens, notably the most vulnerable sections.
Even before the floods, the fate of more than one-third of Pakistan’s population of more than 170 million was already in doubt, given that they were thought to be locked in the segment of the country’s most impoverished population.
Now, the flood-related destruction is bound to increase the number of impoverished citizens.
At the same time, the floods have rapidly widened the existing gap between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.
President Asif Ali Zardari has been the target of widespread criticism for choosing to travel outside Pakistan to visit France and the UK in recent weeks, while the flood-related destruction gathered momentum back home. While the government has defended Zardari on the grounds that he is not necessarily bound by Pakistan’s constitution to undertake daily executive functions at home, the president continues to be the target of criticism for being insensitive to the fate of those caught in the turmoil which is now engulfing the country.
While the arguments against Zardari may indeed be valid, the significant question concerning Pakistan’s future is a wider one.
It is a question which centrally relates to the long-term relationship of Pakistan’s well-endowed elite with the country’s mainstream population. For too long, Pakistan’s ruling structure has refused to undertake far-reaching reforms for the benefit of its people.
Left in the lurch
Consequently, Pakistan’s poor have found themselves not only further impoverished but also detached from the country’s mainstream policy framework, while the rich have not only become richer but in fact further detached from the challenges faced by the mainstream population.
Going forward, the mayhem across Pakistan amply witnessed in the wake of the recent destruction is bound to grow, following what is clearly a uniquely extraordinary situation. Much of the future course depends on the ability of the global community to support Pakistan in its difficult hour, which is essentially the matter of providing billions of dollars in emergency assistance.
Yet, the future also depends on the extent to which Pakistan’s ruling elite will finally recognise the long overdue need to reform the country.
This turnaround will essentially have to be built upon a reformist set of policies that aggressively begin to actively tackle the root cause of widespread impoverishment.
The floods will inevitably be followed by a renewed effort from Pakistan’s ruling politicians to oversee a new effort for rebuilding parts of the country. But such physical reconstruction of broken down infrastructure will only serve to fulfil a portion of the reform challenge that is waiting to be tackled.
More significant, however, is meeting the challenge of building up the capacity to bridge the divide between the rich and the poor. This is also a vital pre-requisite for strengthening Pakistan’s outlook at yet another difficult moment in the country’s history, which has also exposed many of its profoundest weaknesses.
– Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.