There’s something surreal about party politics appearing as business as usual while large swathes of Pakistan remain submerged in floodwater. The spectacle of jalsas, party representatives bickering at press conferences, and social media swipes over pictures taken or not taken at a multilateral diplomatic event seems to have no relationship to any actual country.
It is almost entirely consumed by its own benchmark of one-upping political opponents — politicians, party activists, or a cousin who supports a different party. And it is enough to flip even the most hardened optimists about the evolution of Pakistan’s political system.
To be clear, 14 years of continuity in the political process have produced some reasonable dividends. There’s greater political competition and at least an effort of sorts to compete on some notions of service delivery. But if there’s one area where progress seems stalled — if not degenerating altogether— it is the desocialised nature of decision-making among political leaders and their parties. By de-socialised I mean that political decisions and their related outcomes have little to do with the electorate, or the wider polity.
The starkest example of this is the discourse around a new army chief’s appointment. The very fact that an otherwise procedural act is presented as the be-all and end-all of the country’s immediate future shows how insulated politics is from the rest of the country.
Politicians from all mainstream parties firmly believe, with good reason given historical precedence, that their future chances of running a government hinge on this one appointment. Their performance, or lack thereof in office, or their actual connection with the electorate, has little to do with their political fate. This is an outcome conditioned by the country’s history of military interference.
Thankfully, now that a particularly vocal section of the electorate has experienced the military’s rebuke, it’s much harder to deny it outright. Politicians, for their part, do themselves no favours by playing along with this charade; bending over backwards in obsequious deference, in the hope that the next intervention works in their favour.
Another very stark example of the same insularity is found in economic decision-making. Securing the IMF bailout was perhaps the only choice Pakistan had, given rapidly worsening global conditions. The finance minister delivered on the biggest task he was given, despite facing an array of internal and external pressures. Beyond the confines of the finance ministry, there is no effort to actually think about the economy as a real thing that influences real people.
Are people supposed to celebrate an IMF bailout, which, while essential for macroeconomic stabilisation, also brings about a world of inflationary pain? Are people supposed to internalise the pain for the sake of the fact that bond yields are now under control? Selling economic pain requires politicians to make an offer that provides some vision of betterment in the future. Selling pain on the simple notion that there’s nothing else that we can do is a really poor offer. Finally, the floods and their ongoing aftermath reveal an immediate and very hazardous indifference The attention given to this widespread catastrophe was belated.
Many parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan had experienced considerable damage in late June, early July. Concerted action was only launched once the flood entered the Indus plain and images slowly made their way into the national media discourse around late July, early August.
For about a month, the attention was relatively strong. Civil society was able to garner significant international coverage for the disaster as well. But increasingly, the imagery is receding from the scene, while the water refuses to do so.
Politics and politicking were never really put on pause, but the upcoming by-elections will ensure that national discourse moves past the submerged villages and destroyed lives and livelihoods relatively quickly. This is particularly perilous because even when the flood recedes, the challenge of rehabilitation will remain immense.
The survival of millions of affected individuals rests only on concerted action by the state and maintained vigilance and mobilisation by civil society. And yet, early signs show that there is a high likelihood of media and political discourse shifting elsewhere. Part of the problem is that the places bearing the brunt of this disaster are unviable media markets. No TV channel cares about villagers in Dadu because they’re not their primary audience, nor are they the consumers for advertisers who pour money into their broadcasts.
A related problem is that these afflicted households have voters whose attentions and votes no one is really competing for. The incumbent PPP faces little challenge in rural Sindh and no other mainstream party seems interested in presenting itself as an alternative choice. While some local politicians are genuinely involved in relief efforts, the vast majority of Pakistan’s political apparatus is occupied with other matters.
The ignominy of being ignored by both mainstream politics and media is a truly grim one; and it is one that many of those safely ensconced in large urban centres will have little experience of. The tenuous link between politics and the people it claims to exist for is a dangerous proposition for any country. One possible outcome that some observers suggest could happen is a massive upsurge in public anger, something akin to a pressure cooker suddenly exploding.
This remains in the remit of possibility; but till it happens, the interim is likely to be characterised by further mistrust of public authority, a refusal to engage with mainstream politics, and a growth in non-state solutions to everyday problems. Alienation among citizens goes hand in hand with the slow but complete breakdown of a society’s social fabric. And this is an outcome that increasingly does not seem implausible in Pakistan’s case.