A Pakistani Abroad: Zardari’s ill-fated trip to England

August 9, 2010

pakchopperPresident Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to Britain was particularly ill-fated. When he first planned a visit which should have culminated in him bringing his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, out into the political arena, no one could have predicted such a bewildering series of crises. A row with Britain over remarks made in India by  British Prime Minister David Cameron that Pakistan must not “look both ways” in its approach to Islamist militants. Pakistan’s worst floods in 80 yearsA  plane crash, and then riots in Karachi.

So it was perhaps par for the course that his final event in Britain, a political rally in the city of Birmingham for British Pakistani supporters of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), should be dogged by controversy.  Zardari faced a firestorm of criticism for going ahead with the visit while his country faced so many problems, and the combination of protesters outside the rally and a shoe-thrower inside appeared to mark the culmination of a disastrously ill-judged overseas tour.

Having been to the Birmingham event, I have to say it was not quite as chaotic and ill-tempered as some media coverage suggested.  The protesters outside were a microcosm of Pakistan’s disunited politics, each separate group of demonstators  operating independently and shouting for their own competing agendas – from the restoration of the Caliphate to independence for Kashmir. They were vastly outnumbered by the PPP supporters who packed Birmingham’s International Convention Centre - many of them staid, respectable middle-aged Pakistani men and women who had emigrated to Britain decades ago, worked hard and kept close family links back home. 

And Zardari certainly was not “pelted with shoes”. The man who said he tried to throw his shoes in protest over Zardari’s response to the floods was standing well back in what was a very large conference hall and had little chance of getting anywhere near the president before he was hustled away by security guards.  Zardari did not interrupt his speech, most of the audience continued to listen to him politely, and it is conceivable that those sitting at the front did not even notice at the time what had  happened.  That in any case is how it looked from where I was sitting – it would be easier to judge the event if the video replay had not been edited out – but my impression was that it was not such a big incident to justify the reaction, or counter-reaction in Pakistan. 

That said, the event did not achieve its purpose. Bilawal Bhutto, son of the late Benazir Bhutto, on Thursday cancelled plans to attend the rally and said he would stay in London instead to collect donations for Pakistan’s flood victims.  That he had been expected was clear from the big photo of him given equal prominence to Zardari’s own photo on a poster at the back of the stage.  The event relied heavily on imagery of the Bhutto dynasty – videos of Benazir and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were played before the event; Zardari made frequent references to them in his speech, and wore a rosette with his late wife’s photo pinned to his chest.  (For an interesting take on dynastic politics, do read this column in the Daily Times by Shahzad Chaudhry, who argues that Zardari is primarily interested in shoring up the family’s control of the PPP.)  For all the appeal to the popularity of the two slain former prime ministers, the mood in the conference hall — at least from where I was sitting – seemed subdued, polite rather than enthusiastic; although again it would have looked different at the front where groups of youths had been organised as cheerleaders.

With the visit over, a few are beginning to ask questions about whether quite so much energy and attention should have been focused on attacking Zardari’s trip to Britain, when so many flood victims were in need of attention at home.

“Our electronic media’s reaction – really obsession – with this trip has itself been embarrassing, as indeed has been the reactions of too many of us,” writes Adil Najam on the blog All Things Pakistan.  “But even more than an embarrassment, Mr Zardari’s trip and our obsessive reactions to it has proved to be an all-too-costly distraction from the far more real disaster at home.” (To be fair, the British media got pretty caught up in the visit as well.)

Nadeem Paracha at Dawn makes a similar point, quoting a friend of his as telling a group of youth people: “Zardari was wrong to go. But what have YOU done to help the victims? Do you think all this obsessive whining about Zardari would help you help the hungry, broken and shelterless victims?”

“He was right,”  Paracha says. “Because whereas one saw a number of young Pakistanis gathering to actually do something practical and tangible to help the earthquake victims (in 2005), this time around however, the same young guns and, of course, the electronic media were spending more time spouting accusations and curses at Zardari and navel-gazing about morality in this context than actually doing something a lot more noble.

“There is no nobility I’m afraid in attacking an incompetent (democratically elected) government when every Junaid, Seema and John in the media is doing so – especially a wobbly government of a country ravaged by the demonic specter of religious extremism and violence, a dwindling economy, unchecked corruption and sudden natural calamities . Turning such loud whining into an obsession is even worse.”

Maybe people needed the simpler outlet of attacking the president. Tackling the floods and dealing with the threat to Pakistan posed by al Qaeda and its allies is going to be much, much harder.  (You can find more details on the floods, and aid agency responses, at ReutersAlertnet.)

(Reuters photo: Flood victims try to grab onto a helicopter/Adrees Latif)

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