May 052008

By Shaheen Sehbai

KARACHI: All the guns are out and ready to fire, or already firing, at Asif Ali Zardari for betraying, delaying, dragging or denying the quick restoration of the deposed judges, violating the Murree Declaration, playing games with his coalition partners, risking even a break-up of the grand coalition and, in the eyes of some, secretly helping, abetting or collaborating with President Pervez Musharraf or even insulting the intelligence of the people. Nothing could be further from the truth, if the context is properly understood.

That context, in short is:

– Mr Zardari was almost an outcast in Pakistani politics, having been banished to babysit in Dubai and not allowed to even come and campaign in the elections.

– Before that he was confined for years when moved to New York’s posh Manhattan environment, living with lion-sized dogs, keeping six-foot African American bodyguards, with Benazir doing all the politics.

– Prior to that he was confined for years in a jail-cum-hospital, compelled to interact with his captors, who were often making outrageous demands, giving him proposals, seeking his cooperation, threatening him with consequences and using the carrot and stick that could break or soften him. In the process he must have met generals, bureaucrats, judges, secret agents, spy recruiters, torturers and executioners and made friends, enemies, compromises and commitments to them which only he knows.

– As a result of all or part of these interactions, he was finally allowed to leave the country, made to shut up in his exile, allow Benazir Bhutto to handle matters, within and outside Pakistan, and stay on the sidelines. He was, thus, not a direct part of the long and undisclosed negotiations process which Benazir started in exile and brought to an end with her return to Pakistan, giving enough comfort and confidence to the establishment, the United States and Gen Pervez Musharraf to take off his uniform and hold general elections.

– All this came to a sudden end when Benazir was shot dead, practically pulling Asif Ali Zardari from his babysitting role into the whirlpool of Pakistani politics and, in the eyes of some, hitting the jackpot of the mega political lottery.

– He was not prepared for it and the sheer enormity and monstrosity of Dec 27 put him in such shock and awe that for weeks he was not ready to go out and campaign for the elections which all his PPP leaders and colleagues wanted to contest to cash in on a sympathy wave.

– The PPP leadership had absolutely no one in its ranks who could lead the party, keep it together and take it into the elections. But Benazir had that vision and so when she survived the Karsaz bombing in October she made the transition easy and simple through her political will, nominating Zardari as the next PPP leader.

– Still he was not sure and had to bring in Bilawal, change his name into a Bhutto and put him in the centre probably as a remote-controlled queen bee.

– All his previous handlers of the jail days, the friends he made in or outside the establishment, those to whom he might have made commitments, those who extended to him small or big favours in the years of his captivity, must have jumped on him after Dec 27, on behalf of their masters, to influence his decisions and get a handle on his politics. These handlers include the lawyers and go-betweens who negotiated deals for him with the establishment, some of whom are now key middlemen negotiating the judges’ deal between Asif, Nawaz and Musharraf. For some they are the real suspects who are creating dissensions in the coalition.

– There would definitely be some he would not be in a position to say no to.

In this situation an otherwise retired politician had to take centre stage as the main power broker. He led the PPP into the elections but dispassionate analysts rate his performance as anything but extraordinary as the PPP could not cash in on the massive sympathy wave many had expected. The slogan ‘democracy is the best revenge’ apparently did not work well for the PPP. Compared to 2002, the PPP got just a few more seats in 2008. The real windfall went to Nawaz Sharif who was almost nowhere in sight even until election day.

The election results forced Zardari to follow the course Benazir Bhutto had laid in the Charter of Democracy. But reconciliation, as envisaged by Benazir, did not include those who had not signed the CoD or who were opposed to democracy, like Musharraf and his cronies.

Yet a divided political house would have meant an automatic upper hand for Musharraf who would have played everybody against everybody to perpetuate himself and his teetering regime.

This lingering threat has kept Asif and Nawaz together. The questions though are why Zardari and the PPP are behaving in a manner that is creating doubts and raising serious concerns across the political spectrum; and why after every strong anti-Musharraf announcement and assertion by Nawaz Sharif, the PPP dilutes the sentiment by raising divisive issues?

The answers to these questions lie in the process through which Zardari had made his transition from a detested prisoner to a comfortable VIP in a hospital to a deal negotiator and then a beneficiary of soft peddling concessions, and ultimately the NRO.

According to my understanding which is based on close contacts and discussions with Benazir and Zardari during their years in exile, Asif is deeply apprehensive of the establishment. He is, thus, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. He wants to achieve the common goal but in a different manner, as he has dealt with the brutal powers of the state for many more years than Nawaz Sharif.

He has been forced to adopt national reconciliation as the cornerstone of his political strategy although after a grand coalition with the PML-N and the ANP, he had no cogent political reasons to bend over backwards for such reconciliation and compromises. His personal experiences with the judicial system have made it easier for him to justify these compromises.

Only he knows what commitments and assurances he had given when he was allowed to travel abroad, or in his long interactions with Musharraf’s men or US diplomats, but what is clear is that he does not want to confront the powers that be in a blatant and direct manner. His stand on the judges’ issue was also serene due to his own experiences and memories but in his deeper thoughts he wants a free judiciary and independent judges.

But still he does not have the confidence and resilience to go for it in collusion with his political allies. Thus, he has been using Nawaz as a sort of launching pad.

A quick look at the scene after the Feb 18 elections would reveal that both Asif and Nawaz have moved towards their joint objectives, under a considered and calculated strategy. Every time media hype was created about differences or a deadlock was evident the two leaders put their heads together and moved out of it towards their common goal: get rid of Musharraf and restore the judges and judiciary.

It may seem odd to some, but this strategy has worked so far. The Musharraf camp has been left guessing about its counter moves, as confusion deliberately unleashed has not created a state of confrontation as Musharraf may have liked, to seek sympathy of and a possible intervention by his old constituency, the Army.

Both Asif and Nawaz realise that the restoration of the deposed judges is not linked to any judicial reform package; as such a package can be introduced in parliament on any issue at any time, provided the numbers are available. Both also realise that an independent judiciary would help the political forces more than the establishment.

Yet the PPP has deliberately kept the issue of linkage alive to keep the enemies confused. But once a resolution is adopted and an executive order is issued by the prime minister, the return of the deposed judges would be quickly achieved using the powers of the interior ministry, exactly as was done on Nov 3 by the then Gen Musharraf.

Whether the coterie of all those former handlers, go-betweens and negotiators, now holding key positions and trying their best to hold sway over Zardari and to bring him around to make secret or hidden compromises on the judges issue, will succeed is, however, yet to be seen.

All those who are attacking him may be sincere to the cause of the judges but they must realise that Zardari also knows that the sensitive issue can become a huge political liability if he dithered. The single beneficiary will be Nawaz Sharif, he knows.

The fact is that Zardari has been put into an unprecedented situation after Benazir’s murder and by the Feb 18 election results. He will grow into the oversized shoes in due course, as he has shown that he can.

But the critics unfairly expect that a man who was kept out of the game should now put up a near-perfect performance which requires enormous qualities of determination, commitment, patience, sagacity, vision and intellect.

Critics and friends must help him acquire or polish these qualities of mind and soul, boost his confidence to get out of the mindset of a scared prisoner, since failure for him, and democracy, is not an option.

Zardari knows that if he fails so perhaps will the PPP, because after Benazir and her newly-crowned heir, the party has no one to keep it together. It would break up into many factions ranging from PPP-Aitzaz to PPP-Zardari or PPP-A to Z. If, however, Mr Zardari succeeds in resolving the judicial crisis largely to the satisfaction of the lawyers and the political spectrum, he would emerge as a political leader larger than life.
Source: The News, 5/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:48 am

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