Oct 2022

Floods and photo ops

Pakistan will forever have rapacious leaders, warns Pervez Hoodbhoy, unless its people absorb universal human values and learn to think for themselves

With monster floods and a third of Pakistan submerged, world figures have expressed sorrow and promised some aid. While actual needs are huge, this at least shows empathy with those affected.

But within Pakistan, public efforts are nowhere close to the massive, countrywide, readily organised ones that followed the 2005 earthquake. This underscores a sharp decrease of public trust in the state and its political leaders.

Squarely at fault are politicians who, instead of being fully engaged with emergency relief, have opted for cheap showbiz gestures while continuing to bash one other.

Before taking a U-turn in the face of mounting public disgust, Imran Khan thundered that heat waves, floods and wars cannot stop him from holding anti-government mass rallies. These would continue, he said, until the ‘thieves’ in the current ‘imported government’ were sent packing and Pakistan attained ‘haqeeqi azadi’– a euphemism for his power grab. Nor would he gather funds for KP flood victims, he declared, because of his multiple philanthropic ventures, such as Shaukat Khanum Hospital.

When pressured, Khan changed his mind on this point too.

By now Khan’s uncountable U-turns are too commonplace to merit comment. Still, to single him out as a heartless self-seeker is a travesty. A recent Dawn op-ed underscored the damning lack of empathy all around.

Instead of meaningful acts of leadership, there were only camp visits and helicopter food-drops. The relief circus’s star performers included Shahbaz Sharif on the high trapeze, with Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Murad Ali Shah swinging just below. This black comedy was not quite hilarious.

PPP leader Manzoor Wassan touring flood-affected areas in Khairpur1
INSENSITIVE: PPP leader Manzoor Wassan compared flood-affected areas in Khairpur with Venice

Do these politicians assume our people to be so stupid that a photo op with village survivors will make them look good? Or expect that the three-lakh-rupee per hour helicopter joyrides make for good PR?

Past floods and disasters were no different. During the 2010 floods that left a quarter of Pakistan submerged, then president Asif Ali Zardari had his PR crew photograph him embracing a crying woman at a relief camp in Sukkur. The next pit stop was Nowshera for another photo op, before he accompanied UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon on another helicopter ride to survey submerged farmland in south Punjab.

Zardari’s damage control was occasioned by public outrage that forced him to cut short his vacation in Europe. Even as floodwaters were peaking, he and his entourage were enjoying his 16thcentury chateau in Normandy, France. Built for the widow of King Philippe VI, it was his favourite spot for entertaining royalty. On the way back, he had a quick photo op with French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron.

One cannot conceive of Pakistan producing a statesman like Mikhail Gorbachev

DESTRUCTIVE: The 1970 Bhola cyclone killed half a million East Pakistanis

On August 31 this year, emulating the former party leader, current PPP head Manzoor Wassan toured the floods in Khairpur and fondly reminisced of his vacation time paddling the idyllic canals of Venice, Italy. He had not, of course, seen dead bodies floating around there.

Today’s tragedies are dwarfed by the still greater tragedy of 1947, when millions of refugees were pouring into Punjab. To resettle traumatised people who had lost family members and possessions was the crying need of the hour. But Muslim League politicians, who were mostly large landlords, were too busy seizing the lands of fleeing Hindus and Sikhs. Bitter power struggles erupted everywhere.

No infighting was fiercer than that between two landed aristocrats, Punjab’s chief minister Nawab Mamdot and finance minister Mumtaz Daultana. This threatened to split the Muslim League. Alarmed, terminally ill Jinnah ordered both ML stalwarts to Karachi where he sternly ordered them to desist. It worked for three weeks only.

Thereafter, Jinnah asked Sir Francis Mudie, then Punjab governor, to mediate. Mudie tried but failed. After Jinnah’s death Liaquat Ali Khan sided with Daultana. A disgusted Mudie resigned and left for England in 1949. The ML crashed barely two years later.


Leaders reflect the values and quality of their followers

But it is the Bhola cyclone of 1970 which, more than anything else, exposed the rapaciousness and incompetence of West Pakistan’s elite and set the stage for the 1971 breakup. The deadliest cyclone of recorded history, it killed half a million East Pakistanis. In terms of lost lives, this makes it 300-500 times more destructive than today’s floods.

Reporting in West Pakistan, however, was sparse. Anger soon grew at Gen Yahya Khan’s insensitive and inept martial law administration that watched and did little except call for international aid. That aid, said Yahya, the army would alone disburse. Every Bengali knew what this meant.

Pakistan has been cursed with leaders, civil and military, who have run it down to successive lows. One cannot conceive it producing a statesman like Mikhail Gorbachev. When he died recently at the age of 91, even ideological foes did not accuse him of power or money hunger. None deny that he brought the Cold War to a relatively peaceful end instead of a wild shootout with a flailing Soviet Union unleashing its nuclear weapons.

Still harder to imagine is a Pakistani version of Jacinda Ardern who, in 2019, rushed to the scene of mass shootings at a mosque and declared in words that still ring loud: ‘They are us.’ Had the likes of Ardern been Pakistan’s prime minister today, the government response to the floods would surely have been entirely different.

In the ultimate analysis, leaders reflect the values and quality of their followers. The famous Milgram experiments of 1961, confirmed thereafter by Asch and other psychologists, help us understand how leaders are chosen. Briefly: a subject (read ‘party supporter’) often has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions. Especially in a crisis, he leaves this to his group and its leader. Obedience relieves him of taking personal responsibility. One part of human nature is to be sheep.

In a nutshell: the psychology of the follower matters more than the psychology of the leader. Those who lack critical thinking skills are easily led and manipulated. They can be made to think or do virtually anything or tolerate any kind of ruler.

Pakistan’s only defence against venal, rapacious or ideologically charged leaders is for its population to absorb universal human values and accept the rule of law. Once our people take these as seriously as they take religious rituals, the tide of battle will turn.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and author