It is all happening in Pakistan – unprecedented floods, an economy on the brink, enduring political turbulence, an Army trying hard to maintain its clout while locked in combat with a political leader it once nurtured and nursed to power, former Prime Minister-turned street-fighter Imran Khan.
A Pakistani editor once told this writer: “Can you tell me which other country has provided so much front-page news to the world?” And, after a pause, he said, “There is no other country.” Years later, the statement resonates.
‘A monsoon on steroids’
In the middle of flooding caused by “a monsoon on steroids”, a phrase used by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, with the death toll crossing 1,200 and affecting more than 33 million, Mr. Khan is waging what many believe is a successful struggle for survival after being ousted as Prime Minister.
Rainfall has been excessive in the country, a mild way to describe the severity of the monsoon. Pictures of people living in tents along the Islamabad-Peshawar motorway tell their own story — not one Pakistani province has remained untouched by the flooding.
Pakistan’s civil society has risen to occasion, organising relief and succour for those affected, a reflection that even as the country battles its devils within, humanitarian folks are rushing to help their fellow citizens.
Imran Khan’s gambit
The political class, however, is divided and unable to – even temporarily – put aside differences to come together to deal with the floods crisis generated by the growing impact of climate change. Cases and counter-cases continue to be registered by the federal government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and those of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the latter fun by Mr. Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
As the people of Pakistan reel under the floods, a bitter exchange of words is taking place between Mr. Khan on one side and Mr. Sharif and former President Asif Ali Zardari on the other. Mr. Khan is hitting out at the two on the issue of appointing a “favoured” Army chief in November, when the current Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s term ends. In response, Mr. Zardari went to the extent of saying that everyone knew who was spreading “chaos” in Pakistan and who was “the man and the beast”, a pointed reference to Mr. Khan.
It looks as though Mr. Khan has seized the anti-Army initiative, once associated with the thrice ousted Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. His rallies, recent by-election victories and anti-American rhetoric suggest that Mr. Khan is a serious contender for power at the next general elections. The Army and his political opponents will under-estimate him at their own peril.
Looking for a bailout
Floods have hit Pakistan just as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic has eased. There are reports of extensive damage to standing crops, with even car manufacturing plants shutting down temporarily as the country begins to come to grips with this natural catastrophe.
What has come as some relief to the country is the $1.17 billion Extended Fund Facility approved by the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) executive board. Shortly before the IMF announcement, Qatar too announced that it would invest $3 billion in Pakistan. All this will allow Pakistan to keep its head above the water, but common people want relief from a continuous increase in fuel, electricity and food prices.
Pakistan has also managed to keep distance from the other elephant in the room – the Financial Action Task Force – that had placed it on the grey list, but it is likely to get off that list following an on-site visit by FATF personnel.
Even as Pakistan tries to present a clean image on the terror financing front, the fact remains that the Army and intelligence establishment continue to maintain ties with terror groups, especially those that direct their activities at India.
Despite the logjam in relations, which started with India cutting cross-Line of Control trade on account of alleged terror links, and with Pakistan matching the move by ending all trade after India’s decision to alter the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the right thing in late August by belatedly reaching out to a flood-ravaged Pakistan.
India must extend all possible assistance to Pakistan in its hour of need. Pakistan, too, must understand that help from India is something that its people need. Re-opening of trade is in Pakistan’s hands, but India can offer must-required help. Food, medicines and relief items could be a beginning. There is no time to waste if New Delhi is actually willing to help. Indians and the world need to see relief trucks at Attari, waiting to cross over to Wagah. The Khokhrapar-Munabao link must also be used to the fullest.
New Delhi and Islamabad must get past the current bilateral impasse, and urgently open a bilateral dialogue on how to tackle the effects of climate change in the sub-continent — a one-point dialogue, to start with.