As Fatima Bhutto or @fbhutto said on Twitter on August 2: “And the president... off to Europe on a five-star jaunt. Typical. Violence hits Karachi this evening too.”
I would not put it in exactly the same words, and I am not a great fan of the author/aspiring Daughter of the East, but it must be said that she has a point. President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to Europe is exactly the sort of thing that makes Pakistanis wary of their political leaders. That, and a massive unrelenting propaganda campaign vilifying politicians while glorifying the military, which can be traced to the establishment as far back as the seventies. But really, Mr President, was this trip necessary at this time?
To put things in perspective, Mr Zardari is not the only Pakistani head of state to have been bitten by the travel bug. His predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, spent around Rs1.5 billion on foreign trips between January 2003 and February 2008 alone, with trips to 40 countries on 37 state visits. The reason we know this is because the information was made public by the present foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Hmm. Pot, kettle, black?
It does not help that when in France Mr Zardari will make a private visit to Normandy, and spend some time in his “family home”, the sixteenth-century Chateau de la Reine Blanche in the hamlet of Le Mesnil-Lieubray.
This could all be less of a faux pas were it not for the timing of this visit. One could argue that there could be no good time given Pakistan’s current condition but a series of unprecedented disasters has worsened the situation. Many are still traumatised after last week saw the unfortunate death of 152 people in one of the worst plane crashes in the history of this country. Pakistanis had scarcely recovered from the incident when the worst floods in memory have taken the death toll to over 1,500, the homeless to 500,000 and the affected to a mammoth three million people according to Unicef. These numbers are only expected to rise. In the midst of these troubles, violence has hit Karachi, and the only major city that had remained safe is burning.
Following the assassination of the MQM MPA, Raza Haider, at least 37 people were killed in riots in Karachi. The financial capital of Pakistan is made a ghost town with deserted streets, business at a standstill, and petrol pumps, offices and shops closed. It is not as though we could not have predicted the flare up of tension. After all, the target killings of MQM and ANP activists has been going on for quite some time in the city — and so has armed conflict between Muhajirs and Pathans, especially during the 1990s when such violence would frequently bring the city to a standstill. It was only a matter of time that the violence would engulf those in the parties, and that is what seems to have happened now (the MQM has blamed the ANP publicly — the latter has condoled Mr Haider’s death and denied that it is involved in it).
Granted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is more active in daily affairs than Mr Zardari, but where most Pakistanis have been complaining about the long wait for governance, here is yet another opportunity missed. An increasing number of Pakistanis are questioning the sincerity of an already unpopular leader. Why would the president cancel his visit to Europe? Why would he stay with his people in their hour of need and weather the storm with them? The answer that seems to come most readily is that he does not care.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2010.
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