Islamabad diary: What’s all the fuss about?

Ayaz Amir

Barring a stroke – of which the chances, it has to be admitted, appear pretty slim – Asif Ali Zardari, son of Hakim Ali Zardari, is all set to be the next president of the Islamic Republic. In a country which has seen its share of wonders, this must rank among the greatest of them all.

The drawing room classes are beating their breasts but their anguish is misplaced. Anyone has the right to stand as president and be elected given the right numbers. So if Zardari as president is what democracy ordains, so be it. We have lived through misfortunes and disasters before. And although I don’t want to prejudge the event by saying that this necessarily will be a disaster, let us take comfort from the fact that all things change and nothing is permanent.

Don’t also discount the possibility of President Zardari surprising us all and proving to be the leopard who changes his spots. Indeed, a whole industry has mushroomed in recent days working overtime to tell us what a miracle of change awaits Pakistan. But it takes some effort to swallow this theory.

Yes, sinners have been saints and crooks often turn into upright pillars of society. But we must not go overboard. There was a story in this newspaper the other day that Mr Zardari’s business skills and his ability to cut deals – and I can assure you in the story no irony was intended – could serve Pakistan well and turn it into an economic powerhouse. I’ll wait for this one to unfold.

Let’s also get another thing straight. A president in our setup is no symbol of the federation or anything pompous like that. Was Pervez Musharraf a symbol of the federation? Was Zia, was Yahya? Let’s get out of this fiction at least. Zardari will be a symbol of himself and his party, the Pakistan People’s Party, and all we can do is hope and pray that he manages to rise above his well-earned reputation as ‘Mr Ten Percent’, a tag which, like it or not, will always follow his name.

We can say it again, he has every right to be president. By the same token people have every right to criticise him should there be grounds for doing so. Does he have an unexplained fortune? Yes. Did he buy what was popularly known as Surrey Palace? He did. Did he deny its ownership? He did. Does he have a long list of bank accounts abroad? That’s what we are given to understand. Has he faced kickback and money laundering charges in a Swiss court? Sadly, yes.

Just because Zardari is getting into the presidency should not mean we suffer collective amnesia and forget all these things. The law may not say that he must declare his assets but he should, especially when lurid tales abound about his financial skills.

No, Zardari must do what he has to and the media and public opinion, observing the limits of libel and defamation, must do what they have to. Since when was a president untouchable? Boris Yeltsin, elected president of Russia, was an alcoholic and a buffoon and people said so. Alberto Fujimori of Peru became a fugitive from the law. The Philippines has had a history of corrupt presidents. Africa is full of them. The Islamic world reeks of corrupt and inept rulers. Yes, being an elected president is an honour and a distinction. But given his notoriety, Zardari will be on test to prove he has outlived his past.

Yes, he faced long years in jail bravely, without whining or complaining. But people do that all the time. Some even walk bravely to the gallows, and here I am not thinking of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There is no shortage of brave people in Pakistani jails or jails anywhere in the world for that matter. It is also well to remember that he was in jail on corruption charges and not for having participated in any war of liberation.

At the same time it has to be said that he and Benazir Bhutto were hounded by the Sharifs when the latter were in power. And the Sharifs were on sticky ground when they slapped corruption charges on their opponents because who is there to say there were no skeletons in their cupboards? That old cry from biblical legend, ‘let him who has not sinned cast the first stone’, should have general applicability in Pakistan.

Be that as it may, we don’t have to be prophets of doom to realise that the national situation is dire. The economy if not in freefall already is heading in that direction. The situation in FATA is out of control, however much the army command may console itself by saying that this or that operation has been successful.

What are we to make of the American attack on a remote village (some reports say two villages) near Angoor Adda in South Waziristan? Among the 20 or so dead are women and children, shot at close range. What are we doing about it? Apart from whining, meaningless protests – about which the Americans don’t give a damn because they know we are not about to get off their war chariot – nothing. And this is just the beginning. The Americans will make a Cambodia of us before they are finished with this war – or before they exit Afghanistan, licking their wounds, as so many armies have done in the past.

Never was there a greater need for bold and decisive leadership. What we are getting is too-clever-by-half showmanship. Promises are made only to be broken and this is taken to be higher politics. Zardari says he will keep teaching politics to Nawaz Sharif (this to a correspondent of this paper). So full of himself so early on? Hardly a good sign for the future.

Pakistan needs calm and stability. The economy has to be managed and inflation brought under some kind of control if desperation is not to become a national characteristic. The Yanks, already too brazen as the Angoor Adda assault on civilians demonstrates, have to be told where to get off. We don’t need more lies and dishonesty, nor the kind of political infighting which was a hallmark of the 1990s. But what kind of signal is transmitted by the attempt to resurrect old National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases against the Sharif family?

Whatever happened to the winding up of NAB which the PPP leaders were threatening? When Zardari is a NAB target, NAB is an instrument of evil meant to hound political opponents. The tune apparently changes when Zardari is in the clear, washed of all corruption charges. Then it is all right to deploy the same instrument of evil against the PML-N leadership. It won’t work but then who learns from the past?

Punjab we are being told will be the next battleground. If this be Zardari’s order of priorities God help Pakistan. The enemy is at the gates, there is nothing to check Yank behaviour and the economy’s nose is towards the ground. But Punjab is to be the next battlefield.

We now know that Zardari received psychiatric help when he was cooling his heels in New York. Uncharitable critics say that those psychiatric reports indicating that he had severe psychological problems were excuses to stay away from the Swiss court looking into the kickback charges against him. But we must take Zardari’s psychiatrists at their word. If they put it in writing that their patient suffered from dementia and other grave psychological disorders we must believe them.

Zardari’s recent behaviour – feeling not a twinge of remorse after breaking solemn promises – and some of his recent utterances such as the avowal to teach politics to his opponents suggest that he may still be in need of psychological counselling. If this be so, for the country’s sake let him not shy away from receiving it when he moves into the presidency.


Source: The News, 5/9/2008

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