In a country where politics is a no-holds-barred game of winner takes all, we have been blessed with many star players. It is the only game in which we excel. The Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – seems to inspire most of our politicians more than our sportsmen. The goal is the attainment of power as a means of personal enrichment. Since everyone cheats and breaks their word, those who are best at getting away with cheating and breaking their word usually win.
Our newly elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, has shown that there is no one in the country who can beat him at the political game. In less than one year, he has risen from exile and near oblivion to become the most powerful civilian president of the country. He has done this despite the double handicap of facing prosecution on graft charges in four countries on two continents and having been medically diagnosed with psychiatric problems. Faster, higher and stronger than that is hard to imagine.
Zardari was called the Nelson Mandela of Pakistan by the Shaheed Chairperson. He has himself compared his trials on corruption charges to the persecution of Jesus Christ. I would call him the Usain Bolt of Pakistani politics, because of his fast-track rise to the presidency. There are others who would compare him with sprinter Ben Johnson. Along the way, Zardari has also beaten (or at least matched) the records set by two military dictators, Zia and Musharraf, in the discipline of breaking solemn political commitments made to the nation.
Zardari has declared that democracy has been completely restored. Mission accomplished. Not so fast, dear Asif Ali Zardari! Don’t you think you forgot about your commitment to restore the judges and repeal the 17th Amendment? If you think that this issue will now go away because you have replaced Musharraf in the Presidency, think again. Besides, don’t you think that as the symbol of the unity of the federation, as the Constitution describes the president’s office, you should now sever your links with the PPP?
Zardari’s first act as president was an inauspicious one. He took oath from someone whose own appointment is unconstitutional, who violated the Constitution by taking oath under the PCO and who later validated Musharraf’s trampling of the Constitution. How can a court headed by such a person be expected to act as the custodian of the Constitution?
If Zardari had restored Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to his post, most Pakistanis would have been prepared to forget that he has come to power through the backdoor of the NRO, under a deal masterminded in Washington to ensure that Musharraf’s successor was either Musharraf himself or someone whose policies closely resembled his. But Zardari has convinced himself that his own fate is inextricably intertwined with that of the Dogar court. So he will not easily allow a return of Chief Justice Chaudhry. Zardari is not bothered that this leaves the judiciary in complete disarray and sets up a dangerous precedent by sanctioning a subversion of the Constitution. In thinking that he can get away with it, he is repeating Musharraf’s mistake.
Although the PCO judges have upheld the NRO, Zardari is also keen to have a constitutional amendment to give permanently validity to the Ordinance. In addition, since he is not known to possess a university degree, constitutional protection is needed for the judgement of the Dogar court last April invalidating the condition that only “graduates” may be elected to the Parliament or the presidency. (Zardari’s official c.v. says that after secondary school, he pursued his further education in London where he studied business. It does not disclose at which institution he took his course and whether he obtained a degree.)
Giving constitutional validity to the NRO and to the judgments of the Dogar court was the main purpose of the Naek constitutional package. The rest was window dressing. That attempt had to be given up, but now that Zardari is president, his hands have been strengthened. Everyone who comes on board will get a piece of the cake. And the cake is Pakistan. Only Pakistan will be the loser. Musharraf will also get his amnesty – under another round of “national reconciliation” – if it helps Zardari in getting the votes he needs to pass his constitutional amendment.
Zardari has yet to answer the question what he stands for. He has so far said little beyond proclaiming that he would fulfil Benazir’s mission. His views on the socio-economic challenges facing the country are not known. He has said nothing at all on two of the root causes of our problems: an exploding population and an education system that is in a shambles. What is his vision for the country? Does he have one? Now that he has got the power that he wanted, he will have to answer these questions. It will not be enough to rename airports and streets and hospitals and schools after Benazir.
At his first press conference, Zardari had nothing of substance to say in response to questions on the threat of rampant militancy, economic policy, US incursions into Pakistan or the repeal of the 17th Amendment. The whole effort was to sidestep questions, not to answer them.
What he said on Kashmir was confusing and disturbing. There was no expression of solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris who have been demonstrating in Occupied Kashmir for azadi, or of sympathy with those killed and injured by the Indian forces. He made the promise that “before the month is over, before the coming of the Congress government’s going into election, we shall have some good news.”
Which election was Zardari referring to? The state “elections” in Occupied Kashmir which are due next month but are likely to be postponed and which the APHC has said it would boycott? Or the Indian national elections which have to be held before May 2009? And on what basis was he making this prediction? Musharraf too used to say that a Kashmir solution would be found during the current tenure of the Congress government in India. Zardari’s promise of “good news” suggests that even after Musharraf’s departure his policy of sell-out on Kashmir is being continued.
Zardari had nothing at all to say about getting access to nuclear technology for civilian purposes, although one of the journalists asked him about it. We do not know if Zardari evaded the issue because he is not briefed – an alarming state of affairs considering that he is the leader of the largest party in the country – or because he intends to follow the Musharraf policy of sweeping the matter under the carpet.
No question was put to Zardari on the NRO or about accountability in general. Either our journalists were too polite and did not want to embarrass the biggest beneficiary of the NRO now that he is the head of state, or they were too afraid, or they think that it is not an issue at all, because graft has now become acceptable. If Zardari is consistent, he should make kickbacks legal for all holders of public office and top bureaucrats by exempting them from the accountability process.
Zardari said little about the country’s economic problems, apart from his prescription to raise the support price of wheat and other crops to stem the rise in food prices. To pay for the increased price supports, he is reported to favour a simple solution: “Print the notes.” Economic policy is obviously not his forte. His talents lie in another department.
Zardari now has a firm lock on power at the federal level: a pliant judiciary, a puppet prime minister and a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, thanks to some smart deals with the smaller political parties. But he still does not feel completely secure because he does not control Punjab. He is not likely to rest till he has taken care of the Punjab flank. The present truce between the PML-N and the PPP in the province is therefore unlikely to last long. Zardari will try to topple the Shahbaz Sharif government, sooner rather than later. Members of the Provincial Assembly belonging to the PML-Q hold the balance. With the virtual meltdown of the party after Musharraf’s resignation, competition between the PML-N and the PPP for their support has intensified. And it is going to get dirtier, nastier and sleazier.
The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service. Email: asifezdi@ yahoo.com