Islamabad diary: Savouring the ultimate irony

By Ayaz Amir
In a land which has always excelled at all kinds of ironies—none more striking than the constant gap between rhetoric and reality—the ultimate irony has to be Asif Ali Zardari as president of the Islamic Republic. Someone more vilified and demonised over the years than even that other target of righteous anger, Gen Yahya Khan, chosen by the flow of events to preside over the breakup of Pakistan.

Who would have thought it? If anyone had predicted six or seven months ago that Mr Zardari was a potential presidential candidate, he would have invited ridicule or been denounced as a fool. Yet, this is what is coming to pass. If this be not the hand of destiny, what is?

From Governor General Ghulam Muhammad (in his last days in power a certified madman) to President Pervez Musharraf—whom we have just got rid of, perhaps only to realise that we may be about to take a jump from the frying pan into the fire—we’ve had quite a collection of heroes as our presidents. Set to join this pantheon is Asif Zardari.

Not the least of the ironies surrounding this imminent development is the circumstance that, although Zardari owes his rise to political prominence to his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, the question of his being considered for president would simply not have arisen had she been alive. The conventional wisdom prevailing in Pakistan People’s Party circles prior to Ms Bhutto’s tragic death was that her interests and those of her party were best served if Mr Zardari was kept away from the spotlight.

But into the spotlight he was thrust when untimely death removed her from the scene, making him the focal point around which the party rallied. He always had his detractors, within the party influential Sindhi politicos who found it hard to stomach the idea of being led by a Zardari (Zardaris not exactly being very high in the hierarchy of Sindhi politics), and outside it others who were in turns appalled and fascinated by his reputation for corruption.

But had he not seized the reins firmly the PPP would have been in trouble. It wasn’t easy filling Benazir Bhutto’s shoes but, on the whole, he managed the transition after her death pretty smoothly and, unlike the PML-N leadership which was torn between the merits of participation and a boycott, was very clear in his mind that the key to moving beyond the Musharraf era lay in election participation. As we can now see, this was the only correct strategy, as Imran Khan, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Mahmood Achakzai, et al, who took the boycott route to political irrelevance, have opportunity enough to contemplate.

The coalition was a good thing and the PPP and the PML-N were not playing false with each other when they entered into it. It was the strength of the coalition which made government-formation so easy at the centre and in Punjab and the other three provinces. And it was the same factor, amongst others, no doubt, which strengthened Zardaris’s hands, enabling him to pour cold water so easily over Amin Fahim’s overripe ambitions.

The judges’ issue was the rock on which the fragile barque of the coalition has finally split. Zardari has few excuses to make regarding this issue. He shouldn’t have made promises and entered into solemn commitments meant only to be broken. He had his reservations about Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry right from the start. But he should have been more open about them in his discussions with Nawaz Sharif, instead of following a course of action inviting charges of betrayal and even of treachery, and leading to the first signs of bad blood between the PPP and the PML-N since the elections.

People at large also feel betrayed because it was not for this that they delivered such a kick to the Musharraf order on Feb 18. Any opinion poll would tell us that there was overwhelming support in favour of the coalition surviving and getting a grip on the many problems facing the country. While those problems remain unaddressed conditions are being created for the PPP and the PML-N to go back to the bickering and conflict which was the hallmark of their politics in the 1990s.

Stability, above all, is what Pakistan needs at this juncture. The key to getting rid of Musharraf was the unity of the coalition. The need for this unity has not disappeared. The Americans are breathing down our necks, asking us to “do more” in FATA. We follow this advice blindly and keep chanting the mantra that America’s war is our war, and we risk getting sucked further into a spiral of conflict over which we will have little control. But we can resist this pressure and think priorities out for ourselves only if the two big political parties stay together, at least until the next elections, whenever they come.

Anyway, in the shape of a Zardari presidency the improbable is about to happen, My Lord Saeeduzaman Siddiqui’s candidacy, and friend Mushahid Hussain’s posturing—Mushahid a candidate of Musharraf’s party, the Q League—notwithstanding. For better or worse we will have to live with the consequences of this development. When Ronald Reagan became US president in 1980 there was no shortage of people tending to dismiss him as a B-grade actor. He went on to become one of the most influential presidents of recent times. It won’t do to dismiss Zardari as someone of no consequence, because everything about him should tell us that as president he won’t be a pushover. So it is best to size him up more realistically.

He won Benazir Bhutto’s hand in his own right, which was no mean undertaking. (Someone else trying to woo Ms Bhutto was the Customs officer, Shuja Shah, who, as legend has it, made the fatal mistake of writing to Gen Zia to seek permission to propose to Benazir Bhutto. This he did on the advice of Pir Ali Muhammad Rashdi, Sindhi politician and columnist, who reportedly said that a job in Customs was not worth sacrificing even for a daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. One can only wonder what his thoughts on the subject would be now.)

Living in his wife’s shadow while retaining his own identity—even if that meant nurturing a reputation for cutting sleazy deals and promoting a culture of cronyism—was also not a small achievement. Look also at the way all the charges of corruption against him, most of them reputedly well-grounded, have fallen by the wayside. Even money-laundering charges in Swiss courts, potentially a danger point, have been dropped.

At one time a congressional sub-committee in Washington investigated Zardari’s foreign accounts, Shaukat “Shortcut” Aziz, then in Citibank, also being called upon to testify. All this is documented but the trail has gone cold or has been allowed to get cold. The Americans know all about it. Let’s just hope they don’t have any kind of hold on President-to-be Zardari, because if they do it only further complicates our security situation. A president open to blackmail…takes us into the realm of the unthinkable.

A bad sign about the future is the flourishing of cronyism in Islamabad these days. All those considered the usual suspects in previous PPP dispensations are back in position or are waiting in the wings to make a comeback. What about the reputation for sleaze and corruption? When Chaudry Shujaat and Pervaiz Elahi rose to power under Musharraf I thought this was one family that had no need to make more money. I was proved wrong. Are we about to see another edition of Mr Ten Percent or a break with the past? The jury has to be out on this one.

In the domain of national security we face another danger, and that comes from the American apologists holding key positions in the present government. They range from Hussain Haqqani in Washington to Maj Gen Mahmud Durrani and my friend Interior Adviser Rehman Malik in Islamabad. If they continue to influence decision-making we are in for some more hard times.



Source: The News, 29/8/2008

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