by Ayaz Amir
The Pakistani nation has been guilty of many follies. We’ve made wrong decisions and have had to live with the consequences. But Asif Ali Zardari was not a choice the Pakistani nation made or that, in its right senses, it could ever make. But through a train of circumstances no fortune-teller could have foretold we first saw Zardari becoming leader of the PPP and then, to the no small horror of many Pakistanis, president of the Islamic Republic. Zardari of legendary fame, who could never live down the deadly sobriquet ‘Ten Per cent’; Zardari who on meeting George Bush for the first time flabbergasted him with his syntax – flabbergasting Bush in the matter of syntax not being an easy task; who with his effusive and ill-judged gallantry threw Governor Sarah Palin into a state of confusion, again no mean feat given that Ms Palin is not the kind of lady who is easily ruffled. This then is the person whose portrait adorns government offices as the president of Pakistan. And then sceptics (rationalists?) say there is no such thing as fate. If events in Pakistan over the last one year show not the Moving Finger in action, writing and moved on, no other explanation accounts for the phenomenon of Zardari as president. There was a certain Mr Pinyar, a Sindhi, made DIG police by Mr Bhutto. Legend has it that on his elevation Mr Pinyar, pointing to the names of previous DIGs inscribed on the board behind his chair, told his visitors that it was not he who had risen to the dignity of his office. The office had fallen and fallen and reached his level. Honest man who for this candid admission should have had the gates of paradise opened for him. The late Justice Munir (he of the Doctrine of Necessity fame who, as chief justice of Pakistan, validated Ayub Khan’s martial law in the celebrated Dossa case) wrote a book in his later years entitled ‘From Jinnah to Zia’ – by which title he probably meant to show the decline of Pakistan’s fortunes. But what if someone were to write another book, ‘From Jinnah to Zardari’? The title would say it all. As Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari took full advantage of his position and during her two stints as prime minister proved himself a skilful mover and shaker from the sidelines. He also proved himself a remarkably successful entrepreneur, trading political influence for deals and arrangements which, allegedly, brought him an immense fortune. Only a clever and intelligent person could have done this. But even when his behind-the-scenes influence was at its height no one in his wildest dreams could have imagined him leading the PPP and one day becoming President of Pakistan. Although he cultivated a macho image of himself, he always walked in his wife’s shadow and made it to the National Assembly and later the Senate only because he was Benazir Bhutto’s husband. Two years before his marriage when he contested the 1985 elections from Nawabshah as an independent candidate he lost ignominiously, managing only a few thousand votes. So here we have a clever and intelligent person with an abiding interest in politics (his father, Hakim Ali Zardari, got elected to the National Assembly in 1970 on a PPP ticket), but whose political clout, which grew as the years passed, depended solely on the provenance of his marriage. Beware the complexes and insecurities of a man – especially one cultivating a macho image and fantasizing about his Baloch bloodline – living under the shadow of a wife far superior to him in every respect. Would not such a man be out to prove himself all the time, be at pains to emphasise that he is greater and more gifted than what is commonly supposed about him? When his wife was tragically killed and he was catapulted into the position of party leader, Zardari didn’t have to prove his financial acumen. That was well known. But he had to dispel the misgivings about him and prove that fate apart he was a political figure, if not a titan, in his own right. So while others may take the breaking of public pledges as an affront to one’s dignity, he has considered it a higher form of politics, even going to the extent of saying that he would teach the Sharifs a thing or two about politics. In his climb up the greasy pole, and it has been quite a climb, he twice committed himself in writing to the restoration of the judges ousted by Musharraf. On both occasions, with a smoothness that left observers speechless, Zardari went back on those promises, probably meant not to be kept from day one. In the matter of General Pervez Musharraf’s supposed impeachment – a drama Zardari played to perfection – he got the Sharifs on board (without whose help the drama could not have been staged) only to ditch them when Musharraf, unable to withstand the huge pressure mounted on him from all sides, agreed to leave office voluntarily. This cleared Zardari’s path to the presidency. With hindsight we can say that this was the prize his heart was set on all along. But he kept his emotions in check and until the moment he filed his papers there were not many people ready to bet on his candidacy. But with the Sharifs’ disqualification by a bench of the Supreme Court – headed by a chief justice whose close links to Zardari are well known – followed by the ouster of the PML-N government in Punjab and the imposition of governor’s rule, Zardari has let slip the mask from his face by revealing his naked ambition: this time to extend his power and wrest control of Pakistan’s largest province. This is a dangerous gambit with unpredictable consequences because it remains to be seen whether he is able to master the crisis he has sparked or whether it becomes too big for him. In which case he would have over-reached himself. It’s not safe to make predictions but one thing about a crisis we should know: you either master it or it devours you, as Pervez Musharraf discovered to his cost when his action against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry triggered the lawyers’ movement, leading to a series of events over which he had less and less control. Even so, Zardari’s audacity – or is it heedlessness? – has to be admired. At a time when Pakistan is still trying to figure out how to deal with the insurgency in FATA and Swat, he has thought fit to open another front in Punjab. Will the army thank him for this or are eyebrows already raised in GHQ? The strategic purpose of the Mumbai attacks was to divert the attention of the Pakistan Army from the war in FATA to the Indian border. They failed in their purpose because the United States helped calm tensions between India and Pakistan. But Zardari may yet succeed where the Mumbai gunmen failed. With Punjab on the boil, and the political temperature set to rise, and the lawyers’ long march just ahead, FATA, Swat and the war in Afghanistan take a back seat in Pakistani minds as attention turns to the home front and the witches’ brew concocted in the Presidency. Baitullah Mehsud, Maulana Fazlullah et al recede into the background. Forgive the Taliban a half-repressed smile of glee. For much of Pakistan’s history its judiciary has been more a political instrument than a fount of justice. Most Pakistanis see Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death sentence as judicial murder. It would be most surprising if they don’t see the verdict in the Sharif case a political coup dressed up in the colours of a judicial verdict. Whatever the technicalities on which the Sharifs have been disqualified most Pakistanis are aware of the politics behind this move. But we are dealing with the dark recesses of the human mind. Insecure people who also happen to be intelligent are the biggest disasters of all if power comes into their hands and goes to their heads. In its all too turbulent history time and again Pakistan has paid the price for the folly of its rulers. From Governor General Ghulam Muhammad onwards put them together and they seem like portraits in a rogue’s gallery. Now we confront unchecked folly made complicated by gnawing insecurity. What price will the nation have to pay for this?