OFTEN a crisis or tragedy encapsulates all that is wrong with the way the country is governed. The Murree tragedy laid bare multiple fault lines — negligence and mismanagement by the authorities, lack of urgent response, failure of the National Disaster Management Authority, denial of administrative culpability, evasion of responsibility, absence of official contrition, ministerial arrogance in the face of public criticism and a characteristic blame-the-victim stance of the country’s chief executive.
When a tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, government leaders swiftly emerge to assume responsibility and to show seriousness over what has happened. That usually helps to allay public anger and show empathy, commitment to prevent such incidents and — above all — willingness to accept responsibility. That is what is expected of leadership. But in this case a tweet is all that emanated from the prime minister. No public appearance to express sorrow, no statement in parliament or visibility elsewhere and no effort to personally reach out to those who lost their loved ones in this avoidable tragedy. Only an inquiry was announced in a perfunctory manner.
As for the tweet, it attracted justified flak for blaming the victim, stating as it did that people should have checked the weather before embarking upon the fateful journey. As if no responsibility rested with the local or provincial authorities to “check the weather”, take action to regulate traffic and deploy snow clearing machinery in view of a snowstorm forecast days earlier by the Met department. The authorities had a week to take preventive measures. But no weather warning was issued by them for a town just over an hour away from the capital. Nor was action taken by the local administration to halt traffic whose volume was easily determined at the toll barrier. When disaster struck, no help was available for over 24 hours. Officials failed to respond to people’s calls for help. This was all confirmed by survivors.
Compounding this tragedy was the conduct of Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar who remained distracted by a party reorganisation meeting while stranded people froze to death or were asphyxiated in snow-buried cars. The stance of the federal ministers also brought no credit to the government. Several made statements focusing on the opposition’s criticism rather than on the tragedy itself. Hours before the incident, a minister bragged that 100,000 cars going to Murree was indication of growing public prosperity. The same minister bettered his own record of making disingenuous statements when he later told parliament that the tragedy was the result of corruption by opposition leaders who did nothing for the development of Murree when in power. He didn’t, of course, say what his own government had done for over three years. In any case the catastrophe was principally the result of the failure by authorities to issue a timely warning about an impending snowstorm and stopping cars from going to the hill station. After all the Lahore-Islamabad highway is routinely closed due to the winter fog so why couldn’t cars similarly have been prevented from going up the winding road to Murree?
If all negative developments are someone else’s fault, what is government there for?
It took a tragedy to again demonstrate how the government constantly passes the buck to others for its responsibility. Notwithstanding the ruling party’s claims to be the only one that serves the people, it never manages to show empathy for victims — whether of a natural disaster, a man-made one or a situation of economic hardship — with senior leaders barely surfacing beyond posting token tweets. This lack of a common touch is paradoxical for a party that used populism to ride to power.
The habit of blaming others for any problem, tragedy or setback has now become ingrained in the PTI government. It has been evidenced on a number of fronts but perhaps the most consequential is that of the economy. Although the evasion of responsibility on this count obviously raises completely different issues than those raised by the Murree incident, it reflects a similar attitude.
A government in its fourth year in power still rails and rants that the deteriorating state of the economy is the fault of predecessor governments. This is not to say that the underlying or structural sources of the country’s chronic budget and balance of payments deficits emerged recently. In fact, just about every government since the mid-1980’s inherited an economic legacy of growing financial imbalances and mounting debt. But it is the responsibility of those in power to address and rectify this, and not reinforce or compound these weaknesses. That is the test of government and why voters elect it in the first place — to solve problems, not moan about what it inherited.
PTI promised a decisive break from the past, epitomised by its ‘tabdeeli’ slogan. Thus, its government was supposed to live up to expectations it had itself raised. Nowhere was this more important than in the area of economic management. But did it depart from the past? Not so, as it continued to meet financing gaps by borrowing and driving up debt rather than mobilising adequate domestic resources. It failed to significantly tackle, much less reverse, fundamental macroeconomic weaknesses — high fiscal deficit, low foreign exchange reserves (owing to debt service requirements), rising current account deficit, and low savings and private investment levels. That is what has now compelled the government to seek an IMF bailout, which means following a well-worn path.
Nor has the government been able to create a business-friendly environment given its ‘accountability’ mantra, its constant diatribes against business ‘mafias’ as well as encouraging NAB to go into overdrive. But rather than own up to its responsibility, its narrative assigned blame for the deteriorating economic situation to previous governments. The high inflation — the most pernicious tax on the poor — to which its policies contributed was also laid at the door of others. Such explanations and references to inflation levels in other countries are little comfort to anxious citizens. Denying responsibility does little to reassure the public that the government is up to tackling the problem.
If all negative developments are the fault of others — whether it is a tragedy attributed to people who travelled “without checking the weather” or a deteriorating economic situation that is owed to others — then what is the government for?
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2022