Resign, Qaim

Published in The Express Tribune

A tall order, really. Qaim doesn’t do resignations. The Party doesn’t do dismissals.

There’s a core truth about the People’s Party, and it keeps on repeating itself. It’s called indifference: an epic, unflinching, Nero-playing-the-lyre sort of apathy. And it was long evident before the famine. Just as the reality of rural Sindh — crushing poverty — was a fact of life before it hit the headlines.

Take the past five years.

Forget using the crisis fund to throw farewell parties. Forget comparing a country in a state of war with Star Wars. Forget saying, even, that raging girlfriends were behind Karachi’s target killings.

Rehman Malik was interior minister while the world burned. Violence bled into the headlines week after week, but that was war. Mr. Malik stayed put. The Party carried on. And let’s face it, we got used to him too. Neon ties were always easier to talk about than national security.

And when Zulfiqar Mirza flooded Karachi with weapons’ licences — and Lyari, for reasons obvious, went wild at the same time — nothing happened. When the same Mirza slurred an ethnic group, went home, and watched Karachi explode, nothing happened again. That’s Karachi for you, they said.

But wait, there was Aslam Raisani. Bloodshot, blathering Aslam Raisani, with his blue jokes and prayer beads. The Party did sack him. Sort of.

Raisani refused to resign — not as CM, not as CM-in-Exile, not as CM-while-hiding-in-the-Emirates. It took all of emergency rule to unseat the Nawab, after bombs martyred hundreds of Hazaras. ‘I could send them a truckload of tissues,’ he shrugged, ‘to wipe away their tears.’ Raisani was sacked in January…and reinstated in March.

By then, we were indifferent to the indifference.

The men and women the Party actually did sideline (or throw under a bus) — there’s a pattern there too. Foreign ministers, for taking the wrong side. Naheed Khan, for taking the wrong side. Faisal Raza Abidi, for talking too much. Babar Awan, for talking too little.

Job security didn’t mean performing for the party; it meant pandering to it. It’s called fealty — the oath that tenants swear to their feudal lords. Liberals get queasy over the f-word but let’s face it: the PPP is drenched in feudalism. It sweats bloodlines and boy kings and a degraded, degraded humanity that it rides in on each election. Pakistan’s only national party is also its only major cult.

But isn’t ‘feudal’ thrown around by Punjabi elites and shadowy brigadiers who care nothing for the Sindhi people? Yes it is.

That doesn’t make it wrong. This is not a normal party: it doesn’t understand competence, because it was never voted in on competence. Not in ’70, not in ’88, not in ’93, and certainly not in 2008. It was never about service delivery, because it was always about blood and guts, about the Bhuttos, about the other, smaller royal families — the intermarried enterprises that run rural Sindh.

But this time, it’s different. For the foreign press, Pakistan was one big bazaar of Asian intrigue: there was terrorism and sectarianism, guns and drugs, floods and earthquakes, India and Afghanistan. But famine?

In a country that knocks people numb each week, the news coming in from Thar has been unreal. Children dying of acute malnourishment, of malnutrition, of pneumonia. The toll is already at over a hundred children, and threatens to be hundreds more.

And what is painfully obvious now is that all of it was, and is, avoidable. Famine and drought weren’t the killers in themselves. Misgovernance was. Criminal negligence was. Gross indifference was. In short, Brand Qaim Ali Shah was.

A brand that’s infected everyone, it would seem. It’s infected the ministers for food and health, it’s infected the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and it’s certainly infected our very-well-known MNAs hailing from Thar and Badin. And they’re mounting a defence too.

The usual uncles are sighing that Thar is a ‘structural problem’, and that the point-scoring is petty. But running things since 1970 imposes an obligation to dent said Structural Problems, at least by 2014. People aren’t upset with Arbab Ghulam Rahim because he tried and failed in Tharparkar. They’re in tears over the PPP, because it never tried at all.

The counter-critique is as easy. To bash the Party for spending millions on song-and-dance bonanzas makes sense; it is the perfect Marie Antoinette moment. But they miss the real tragedy. The whole point of Sindh Fest was for the Party to reassert itself, and bring colour and culture back to the country.

But the list of candidates that actually made it to Thar were exactly the same people the Party was defining itself against. Democratic credentials against the army, liberal credentials against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Sindhi credentials against the Punjabi Muslim Leagues. Once again, the PPP loses the spin war, for no other reason but wretched, wretched governance.

The faujis and fundamentalists did the right thing, and showed up without asking. The Punjab government was politer, and merely offered aid. It was rejected. Qaim and Co. didn’t need it.

Because the Sindh government was too busy telling anyone who would listen that it had accepted responsibility. But suspending the Deputy Director Livestock isn’t an acceptance of anything. And offering two lacs per bereaved family, after splurging millions on donkey derbies, is cruel even for Qaim.

As Arif Hasan’s take on the topic makes well clear, it took a string of missteps for Thar to get here, including ‘deforestation, over-grazing, pressure on land, (and) breakdown of the old social order.’ Writing in September 1988, Mr. Hasan recommended setting up ‘new and viable social institutions’ for long-term development. That didn’t happen, but Qaim Ali Shah did — taking office as chief minister weeks later.

But 26 years after the rise of Qaim, Sindh isn’t a day healthier. The province is the single-most food deprived in the country. Learning indicators of students, a recent report shows, ‘are lower than their counterparts in Fata.’ Briefly put, Sindh is in horrific shape.

And that must change. The NDMA needs to get its act together. As with 2005’s shattering earthquake, the nation must pitch in to save any lives it can in the immediate days ahead. And Mr. Hasan’s suggestions require revisiting for the longer term.

As for the government, like a nightmare made fresh, we now know Mr Shah and his team enjoyed a massive dinner yesterday. The menu included ‘fried fish, tikkasbiryanimalai botikoftas and roti.’ They were visiting Tharparkar at the time. To condole families that had buried their babies.

Resign, Qaim Ali Shah. You’re the number one elected officeholder, and you’ve disgraced the office you hold. ‘Taking responsibility’ means knowing that the death of children carries consequences; at least your replacement will keep that in mind. And when it comes to the Party, that may be the best we can hope for.

It’s said that the opposite of love isn’t hate — it’s indifference. If only we had less stunning examples.