Rip van Shah


Rip van Winkle, the central character of American author Washington Irving’s short story published in 1819, went to sleep sometime before the American Revolutionary War started in 1775. He woke up 20 years later, to find a very different reality. Qaim Ali Shah assumed power in 2008. It seems he has been sleeping for three years. Because the picture he painted at the Sindh Assembly session on Thursday is in stark contrast to the realities of the province.
Old man Shah has been a valiant servant of Sindhi politics and of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). His dyed hair and impeccable dress sense belie the fact that he is 83-years-old. But he clearly isn’t the man actually running the government – many have hinted that President Asif Ali Zardari’s sister, Faryal Talpur, wields the real power in Sindh. It seems that Shah, like Rip van Winkle, is just there to tell stories. Had he been the one actually running the affairs of the Sindh government, the story of the three years in office would have been different.
The chief minister’s account started from August 2010 – the time when Sindh was crippled by the floods. What was the government’s performance in 2008 and 2009? No clue, Rip van Shah was sleeping. By the chief minister’s admission, President Zardari recognised some two years ago that development was hindered by unemployment and poverty, poor water management, energy shortages, poor communications and poor human resources. Did the Sindh government chalk out a definite strategy against these challenges? No clue, Rip van Shah was sleeping.
The Health Department’s achievements were held up proudly, but that is a department not controlled by the PPP. Rip van Shah, though, referred to the government as the PPP’s government, and not a PPP-led coalition government – a difference that means more than just semantics.
Everything in Shah’s speech revolved around the measures taken, and those still being taken to tackle the post-floods situation. Any schemes of note are only being finalised now – three years into Shah’s tenure – and their results will only be visible in at least five years from now. The narrative was a tale of woe left by the floods – losses of Rs 464 billion had been incurred. The tale should actually have been of how Sindh had been restricted because of this loss, and how development projects have stalled as the government scrambled to ensure it does not run into bankruptcy. Only once this premise is set can there be hope, or desire that the resilience of Sindhis will prevail.
Basically, if the floods hadn’t happened, or chief minister would be telling Ayaz Soomro-esque jokes to the house. Thank god for the floods, the government actually did some work because of them.
I am exaggerating, of course; the Sindh government has not been entirely useless in its three years. Food security has been addressed to a great extent – something that should have stressed more than it was. The plan of converting Nawabshah into the mega-city of Shaheed Benazirabad is also a smart move; in theory, once it is complete, the city will release some of the demographic pressures on Karachi and Hyderabad. Rip van Shah, though, seemed to have forgotten that Nawabshah was renamed. Sindh Bank can be the engine of micro-financing in Sindh, but barring the hope promised by “Inshallah,” the chief minister had nothing much to say.
Democracy as a process entails that some things would go right for the government, mistakes would be committed in other things, while even the government would learn from its shortcomings. The problem is that the PPP’s numbers in the Sindh Assembly have given it a false sense of security and achievement. While the chief minister is not obligated to attend the proceedings of the Sindh Assembly, his absence has meant that he has been fed (mis)information by advisors and toadies.
Rip van Shah, the people of our beloved Sindh would have appreciated a brutal assessment of the government’s challenges. They would have respected it, since they have suffered more than you have. Pretenders to the PPP’s power would also have realised that running the government is not as easy a job. The sab sutho ahay narrative presents the PPP as a party mired in a three-year-long slumber. Time to wake up, or make way for Nisar Khuhro.