Marooned Pakistan should blame its generals and politicians as India is looking the other way
Unless the Pakistani people realise that it is their own Army which has always been the main stumbling block to their welfare and that their politicians act as the Army’s B team, they will continue to suffer
The current floods in Pakistan are causing catastrophic destruction. More than 1,200 people have perished and one-third of the country is inundated with water. Immense damage has been caused to agricultural lands and standing crops. Infrastructure amounting to $10 billion has been destroyed. This natural disaster comes amid a complete disarray in the country’s politics over the past six months and a dire economic situation. The latter has led to skyrocketing inflation in fuel, power and food. The Pakistani rupee has fallen to all-time lows. And, in the wake of the floods the prices of vegetables such as onions and tomatoes have become unaffordable for the common man.
In such a situation it is the duty of the Pakistan government and also the institution which holds ultimate power in that country — the Army — to explore every opportunity to ameliorate the suffering of the masses. The obvious country to turn to for supplies of items of daily use is India. Indeed, while doing so Pakistan can also make it clear that it is doing so only for humanitarian reasons. That will be tantamount to implicitly claiming that its positions on the issues which divide the two countries remain the same. However, such is the depth of animus, enormous egos and feudal mindsets of its ruling civil and military elites that they would let their people suffer and live in deprivation than ask India for supplies.
The only rational voice heard on this issue over the past few days was that of Pakistan’s finance minister Miftah Ismail. He told the media on 29 August that Pakistan would consider importing vegetables and critically short food items from India because of the impact of the floods. Naturally, as Pakistan had closed the doors on imports from India, except for a few select items such as some pharmaceuticals, as part of the protest steps it took in the wake of the 5 August 2019 constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, it is for its government to approach India on this matter. Some Pakistani media reports indicated that international aid agencies have also urged the country’s authorities to take a logical view in this matter.
The problem is that the Pakistani ruling elites have always abandoned logic and reason in their dealing with India. The only path that they have pursued is that of confrontation. They have also imbued the psyche of the Pakistani people with the narrative of India being an eternal enemy which has to be kept at bay through armed strength. This narrative is buttressed by the Islamic parties of the country which have a deep bias against India. Thus, even when popular welfare demands that Pakistan should turn to India to improve the condition of its people, its elites — civil, military and religious — ask their people for sacrifices.
At the same time the elites seldom suffer from deprivation themselves. They live off the land and most of their children live and work abroad. Today, Imran Khan berates other political leaders for their foreign connections but he overlooks his own deep foreign connections. Indeed, do his sons live and work in Pakistan? They are both in their twenties and live abroad. Their mother was Khan’s first wife Jemima Goldsmith. The couple got divorced in 2004. It is also notable that even amidst these floods the vicious current political scene in Pakistan continues with Imran Khan seeking to score points over the Election Commission.
The mindset of the Pakistani elites towards their people, at this time of national crisis, is best illustrated by the answer on 30 August of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to a question on trade with India for essential commodities needed by the country at this time. He said, “There won’t have been problems about trading with India but genocide is going on there and Kashmiris have been denied their rights. Kashmir has been forcibly annexed through the abolition of Article 370.”
Now, Shahbaz Sharif is otherwise a sober politician and is pragmatic but even he has had to follow the official toxic and inaccurate narrative against India. In this context though it has to be noted that when it comes to Kashmir the Sharifs, who trace their origin to it, have always maintained a very strong position. In fact, on occasion they have been more vehement in their comments on Kashmir than the Pakistan army. The difference between the Army and them on India has been this: The Army has wished to pursue an out and out negative approach towards India, but the Sharifs have generally wanted to pursue practical approaches on trade even while maintaining Pakistan’s traditional approaches on Kashmir.
Thus, on the trade front India has been adopting a correct approach at this time of floods in Pakistan; that it is for Pakistan to make the first move and ask for doors to open. The issue of an offer of humanitarian assistance to Pakistan in the shape of medicines, tents, clothes and food packets is more complex. On 29 August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Saddened to see the devastation caused by the floods in Pakistan. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims, the injured and all those affected by this natural calamity and hope for an early restoration of normalcy”.
What was clearly missing was any offer of help in mitigating the impact of the floods. Responding to Modi’s message of sympathy, Shahbaz Sharif thanked Modi for his message and noted in a tweet: “With their characteristic resilience the people of Pakistan shall, InshaAllah, overcome the adverse effects of this natural calamity and rebuild their lives and communities.”
There was some speculation that India may offer assistance to Pakistan. Some sections of the Indian media also suggested that India should do so especially as India prides itself as being the first responder at times of natural calamities in the region. There was also a media report indicating that a debate was taking place within the government if it should offer help to Pakistan. A Ministry of External Affairs media briefing on 1 September stated that India was not contemplating such offers though sources claimed that India would not hesitate to allow international agencies to use Indian territory as transit to send aid to Pakistan.
In the past India and Pakistan have offered each other help at times of natural calamities. That Modi has not done so now is not surprising. The bilateral relationship is at a very ebb even if the ceasefire on the Line of Control and the International Border in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir has been holding. At the same time recent attempts at terrorist incidents across the IB have taken place. Thus, Modi simply cannot afford a situation where he sends humanitarian assistance and a Pakistan based terrorist group either by itself or organised by the Pakistani intelligence agencies undertakes a terrorist attack. The memory of the Pathankot terrorist attack which occurred within ten days of Modi’s 2015 Christmas day visit to Raiwind would be at the back of the mind of Indian decision makers.
The unfortunate fact is that the Pakistan Army has never allowed the normalisation of relations. It finished off prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s grand attempt in 1999 through its Kargil misadventure and it stymied Modi’s attempts through the Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terrorist attacks. Unless the Pakistani people realise that it is their own Army which has always been the main stumbling block to their welfare and that their politicians act as the Army’s B team, they will continue to suffer.
The writer is a former Indian diplomat who served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar, and as secretary, the Ministry of External Affairs. Views expressed are personal.
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