Nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown

The floods destroying Pakistan’s infrastructure are against a backdrop of corruption, impunity at th

This is the month of Pakistan's birth, the month that a generation once claimed for freedom and liberty. But on 14 August, its 63rd birthday, Pakistan was submerged. There was no fanfare as on previous anniversaries - no noisy street festivals marked by flag-waving and family outings, no young men on motorcycles paying homage to national monuments and shouting slogans into the open air, little celebratory music on state television. Instead, there were vigils, quiet remembrances and a solemn accounting of what has been one of Pakistan's most turbulent years since its proud but bloody inception.

According to the UN, the flooding has affected more than 14 million people, making it Pakistan's worst ever natural disaster. The government claims 20 million people - roughly 12 per cent of the population - have been affected. As I write, six million people are in desperate need of food aid, more than three million children are at risk of contracting fatal waterborne diseases, and millions more are displaced. Over two million acres of agricultural land have been ravaged. With the monsoon season still upon us, Pakistan's food belt, Punjab and Sindh Provinces, has been hit especially hard.

As the country suffered, the entire top echelon of the Pakistani state - led by the rapacious president, Asif Ali Zardari - embarked on a tour of Europe. First up was a visit to France: a handshake with the Sarkozys and then a jaunt to the president's private chateau. London was next, and the itinerary barely unchanged - handshake, swanning around, photo opportunities at stately houses. When asked by the BBC why he had abandoned his country as floods raged from the northernmost province to the southern tip of Pakistan, Zardari cleared his throat and replied that parliament was in session and that he, as a munificent democrat, had empowered others to deal with the dis­aster; the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was on duty.

But even the city of Birmingham was not far enough away from Pakistan to protect Zardari from outrage at his feckless rule, as an old man, a supporter of his own party, lobbed two shoes at the president while he was addressing a crowd of British Pakistanis. Zardari's machine was quick to block reports of the attack appearing on Pakistani television channels and to restrict access to websites that carried accounts of how the shoe went flying towards the ducking president.

Back home in Pakistan, a scandal grew over parliamentarians who had fudged paperwork to claim that they possessed academic degrees - once a condition of participation in provincial or national politics. So far, of the 47 MPs shown to have bogus degrees, the largest number of offenders came from the president's Pakistan Peoples Party. One of its coalition partners, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), had almost as many.

In the southern city of Karachi, meanwhile, human rights groups estimate that roughly 300 politicians and political activists have been murdered this year. In the first week of August, Raza Haider, a Sindh assembly member for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (another coalition partner), was gunned down at a mosque. Since then, more than 50 people have been killed and another hundred-plus wounded in ethnic and partisan attacks. The response of the state, through the unelected minister of the interior, Rehman Malik, was to empower Karachi's elite Rangers squad with "shoot on sight" orders. More blood to quell the bloodletting.

The disasters pile up

There is worse. This year alone, Barack Obama's White House has sanctioned 70 Predator drone attacks on the north of the country, with one suspected attack ordered while the floods raged, killing 12 people. The Pakistani state, eager to be as willing an ally as possible without adding 49 stars to the national flag, has allowed the US to kill and maim from on high, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 unnamed, unindicted and unconvicted Pakistani citizens.

In the past month, Pakistan has also suffered its deadliest civil aviation disaster. A commercial airliner crashed in the Margalla Hills north of the capital, Islamabad, killing all 152 passengers on board. Families were distraught when the interior minister appeared on television to announce the surprise discovery of five female survivors of the crash only to return and admit that he had made a mistake.

As the disasters pile up, Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, has estimated it will cost as much as £38m to fix the damage from the floods to highway infrastructure. Half that amount would be required for dam repair and maintenance. But the nation's coffers are empty. The hobgoblins at the helm of Pakistan's teetering state fail to remember the words of our founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to those who would build Pakistan from nothing, raising a new nation out of centuries of colonial rule and violence: "I may tell you that unless you get this into your blood, unless you are prepared to take off your coats and are willing to sacrifice all that you can and work selflessly, earnestly and sincerely for your people, you will never realise your aim."

These floods are the cost of Pakistan's endemic corruption and political malfeasance. The vast numbers of people affected by the disaster multiply every day. They join the millions of other forgotten Pakistanis living in fear, hunger and homelessness.

This year, we marked our birth in silence.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation