By Ayaz Amir
President Zardari was not a secret sprung upon an unsuspecting nation. We knew all about him: that he was no graduate of any academy of higher management sciences; that his talents lay in the murkier aspects of high finance; that the only thing on his calling card which compelled attention was his marital connection to Benazir Bhutto.
So it was wholly predictable that when, out of the blue, he aspired to become the president of this ailing republic, we (its hapless citizens) were taken by surprise. We were glad to be rid of Musharraf. No doubts on that score. Our cup of patience was full and we could take no more of him or his shenanigans. But Mr Zardari taking over from where Musharraf had left off? This went beyond our worst nightmares.
But inured to the malevolence of fate, we gave Zardari the benefit of the doubt. We thought that his very ascension to the highest office in the land would have a chastening effect upon him. The awe of his position, and the fact that the people of Pakistan through their chosen representatives in parliament and the provincial assemblies were electing him, would transform him and make him if not someone worthy of our trust at least someone who would not go out of his way to abuse that trust.
But over the year or so that he has been president, Zardari has made the nation undergo a very unsentimental education, stripping the nation of any illusions it may have nursed on his account. For he has surpassed the misgivings of his worst critics and turned out to be more inept than any of them could have predicted.
Zardari could have kept his promises to Nawaz Sharif and earned himself some badly-needed credibility. But he made fun of his own pledges and said they were not decrees from heaven. He could have restored the judges and earned credit for himself. But such a step, to all appearances, lay beyond the confines of his narrow vision. Where he should have cast a critical eye over the Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB), he became its loud champion, calling it a historic achievement. Any fool could have told him, and many did, that placing the NRO before the parliament would tempt the fury of the heavens. But disregarding all the omens -- or in his ignorance being simply unaware of them -- he stepped in where angels would have feared to tread.
This parliament could have swallowed anything. After all, it had swallowed the Swat Nizam-e-Adl Regulation of unhappy memory. But even for its tough stomach, the NRO was a bit too much to take. So it revolted against the latter.
Zardari was already a vulnerable figure before this debacle. Now it seems he is well and truly on the skids. For the first time in a year-and-a-half, the PPP benches in the National Assembly give a glum look, as they have every reason to do knowing that the knives are out for their Godfather -- who remains a godfather in more senses than one --and vultures are circling the skies. Even Fauzia Wahab looks depressed, and that's saying something.
But has Zardari learnt anything? The Sage of North Edgeware (London), Altaf bhai, was the first person to publicly endorse his name for president. He is the first person to ask him to step down. But Zardari is still hoping to keep the MQM on his side, for which purpose -- in keeping with our penchant for having our problems solved abroad -- talks are to be held in Dubai.
The MQM fields some of the world's toughest negotiators who could give Shylock lessons in extracting their pound of flesh, modern science yet to discover a formula to satisfy the MQM's demands -- which, much like the universe, are forever expanding -- and keep it happy. In trying once again to placate the MQM, Zardari is reaching out for the unreachable.
A simple truth eludes Zardari. The Sage of North Edgeware can subject him to a further round of Chinese torture (supping with the MQM being akin to that) but he can't rescue him. Nor can that ace of political gymnasts, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, another firm believer in the theory of extracted pounds of flesh, although on a lower scale than the maestros of the MQM. The only person standing between Zardari and imminent destruction is someone he has a disliking for the most, Nawaz Sharif.
But for Nawaz Sharif and his adamant refusal, often in the face of much opposition from within his own party, to pay heed to the siren calls of a minus-one formula, the game would be up for Zardari. In Nawaz Sharif's breast, the memory of Zardari's broken promises rankle, but in today's charged political atmosphere, he remains the one person who is alive to the ramifications of Aabpara-driven political manoeuvres.
On a flight to Karachi where he had to make a court appearance, Nawaz Sharif was handcuffed to his seat. The iron may have been on his wrist but it may have entered his soul. Who is the mortal without weaknesses? Nawaz Sharif has his share of them. But, to give credit where it is due, adversity has tempered him. Of all the lessons he may have taken to heart, none seems more abiding than the belief, born of his own experiences, that military intervention in politics is the road to hell paved with good intentions. Small wonder, all talk of minus this or that leaves him utterly cold.
There are hawks in the PML-N's inner circle who chafe at the label of a 'friendly opposition', the gibe directed most frequently at the party nowadays. They would love nothing better than a call to arms. But Nawaz Sharif remains unmoved. Who would have thought ten years ago that he had an eye for the larger canvas? But that's what he is displaying now.
Zardari may fall upon his sword himself, or circumstances otherwise may crush him, in the form of corruption cases being revived against his closest companions. That would be another matter. But being a party to any move emanating from the hidden corners of Pakistan's political tapestry is certainly not something Nawaz Sharif appears to be for.
At the time of his election as president, Zardari, in an expansive moment, boasted that he would continue to teach politics to Nawaz Sharif. Is he still riding that high horse? What options does he have now? He can fall upon his sword and quit of his own accord. This, given his tough streak -- and there is no denying he has one -- is unlikely. So the danger is that if the pressure is piled on him he may choose to dig in his heels and, like Samson, wish to bring the temple down with him.
But there is a way out of the hole he is in. He wins himself a reprieve if he takes two steps: accelerates the process of undoing the 17th Amendment, transferring his substantive powers to the prime minister; and gets rid of that deadly circle of cronies whose presence near the helm of power is an affront to the nation. The nation may have its faults but it surely deserves better than these faces out of a rogue's gallery. The anger of the gods will be appeased with nothing less than this double sacrifice.
But acceleration is the key word here. There is only a very tiny window of opportunity to exploit. Zardari takes these steps and he perhaps saves himself and Pakistan's fledgling democracy. But if he remains true to himself, a prisoner of his limitations, the doors begin to shut and the sky becomes more overcast than it already is.