He’s come a long way! By Anjum Niaz

I have a dream for Pakistan. My dream is to free this great country from the shackles of poverty, hunger, terrorism and disunity

(President Asif Ali Zaradari, September 20, 2008)

Today they meet. Asif Ali Zardari and George W Bush – president to president. How our president handles his new job is yet to be tested. Can he jettison the negative image he piled up as the First Gentleman? Here are some rare glimpses from an interview conducted 12 years ago. The widower today wants to husband the running costs of his new home just as his wife did when she was at the Prime Minister’s House. “BB switches off all the lights at night; do you think she will let me spend government money on the upkeep of my horses?” Asif Ali Zardari said when stories about his ‘million-dollar-worth’ polo horses housed in ’80 air-conditioned stables’ surfaced. “I pay for the food of my cats, chickens, dogs and horses from my own pocket.” But the First Gentleman conceded to having “50 stables” and owning “12 horses.” He said, “Nawaz Sharif (his bête noir then) has made a laughing stock of himself when he accused me of owning ponies costing Rs30 crores. Where in the world do ponies cost 300 million?”

What was life like with a woman who had brought him to the PM House twice? I asked the husband. After a long pause, he said, “Very difficult to say the least. It’s not easy to be a male spouse in such a position in this part of the world…it’s not easy.”

If today I was to sit with Mr Zardari and have a two-hour interview the way I did on a cold, dark January night, ten months before his wife’s government was sacked for corruption, my questions would be different. Today, he rules Pakistan; he’s his own master and not a spouse who continually had to defend himself against corruption charges. At his first press conference after he was sworn in as the president, Zardari vowed to cut down the expenses at the presidency. On his first presidential trip abroad, he opted to take a commercial flight and not fly in ‘Pak One’ which is his right. This time too, he’s landed in New York without any frills or special plane.

Travel with me, dear readers, to the year when his wife lost her job and her brother. It was 1996. When I asked Zardari about Murtaza Bhutto’s accusations that Zardari had usurped the family name because he felt threatened by him, I was told: “It’s a cheap shot to popularity. The people have rejected him. The man (Murtaza) contested the elections from 35 seats and could only win a piddly seat from Larkana, thanks to his mother. Had it not been for Begum Sahiba, he would have lost.”

What was the basis of their rivalry? I asked Zardari, as the three little kids – Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Aseefa trooped in to say goodnight to their father. Their mother was at Larkana in connection with their grandfather’s birthday anniversary.

“People in life sometimes take directions which cannot be later changed…it happened to me. I don’t even know the man, I’ve just met him four times, but respect is dear to everyone – whoever gives respect begets respect – though I don’t make distinctions between ordinary people and syeds, pirs or mirs, be they blue-blooded or yellow-blooded, respect is what one wants…whether he (Murtaza) likes it or not, I’m the husband of his elder sister and in one’s culture one does not talk too much in front of one’s bahnoi (brother-in-law).”

Without turning ballistic, Zardari allowed me “all the time in the world” to question him on anything under the sun. But once the interview was printed, he poured scorn over the article. “With friends like you, who needs enemies?” he impugned as I tried defending myself before a mocking group of men encircling him at the wedding of President Farooq Leghari’s son. I knew I would never again be invited to interview him.

Here is how I began my article on the First Gentleman: “He’s the most controversial figure east of Suez. Stories of mega bucks stashed away in Swiss banks accrued through huge defence kickbacks, en exotic French villa, monies made in just about any government deal, and ‘meddling’ in appointments of all grade 18- 22 officers are stories gaining currency in Islamabad today… some call him Godfather one and two and say he was “corrupt” during Ms Bhutto’s first term, but he’s “much worse” in the second! According to a former opposition MNA, ‘He appoints and controls all the presidents of the nationalized banks and gives directions to all the heads of the DFIs (Development Financial Institutions) handpicked by him, every night on his secrophone…you can’t catch him because he covers his tracks beautifully.”

I remember blurting out the above charge sheet as soon as we sat down to the interview in the cozy family lounge after ‘Sahib’ had given instructions to his staff that he was not to be disturbed. Pleading “not guilty” Zardari calmly replied “You have to realize that Benazir Bhutto is the prime minister of Pakistan, she’s not a puppet created by anybody. The country can’t be driven by dual drivers (AAZ & BB). Besides, what experience do I have that I can give her advice on matters of the state?” But you’re often reported to sit in on important official meetings, I persisted. “Nonsense, I don’t have the time to do that,” he retorted. But, you’re accused of running the government? Even naming federal secretaries who have a reputation of delivering? I continued. “Why should I do that?” he asked. With that very charming smile of his, he said, “How much do I gain by it? I am 41 years old; all these gentlemen you’re referring to are old enough to be my father’s age. Besides, I don’t belong to Islamabad. I’m a Karachiite and if I had my way, I’d be living there – that’s where my eyes sparkle – how do you expect me to know the bureaucracy here. I don’t even know most of their names!”

What about your cronyism? Your detractors say you mastermind all appointments, transfers and sackings on that basis? By now, I had entered dangerous territory. Young Zardari was gracious enough to listen and respond. “I don’t even think the deputy commissioner Nawabshah has been appointed by me. I can’t even tell Minister Yusuf Talpur to appoint his secretary (agriculture) according to my wishes. All these things are done by the PM and her cabinet. People can say whatever they like and you (the press) can write whatever you feel like. I have taken some journals to court for defamation including a Lahore weekly. I haven’t read these stories, I don’t read trash and nor do people read it, leave alone what is written.” Zardari named the two journalists whom the PPP had spurned. “Had we made them ambassadors or given them party seats, today they wouldn’t be writing against us.”

Ms Bhutto says her husband is a businessman, a property developer. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here and you can be accused of your VVIP status? I asked Zardari.

“No, my property development work is only Karachi-based and it’s only in the private sector. It’s nothing to do with the government. I have got plots which I owned before I met BB and am now in the process of developing. I don’t think anybody can raise any fingers at me. All my plots are 15 years old. The only new plot I purchased while BB was in government is the plot in front of Bilawal House because Jam Sadiq wanted a high rise constructed there.”

Do you wish to hold your wife’s office some day?” I threw in a mindless zinger to Zardari, never imagining he would slip into his wife’s shoes 12 years later.

“No way! I couldn’t even read the files she reads every night! I am not trained that way, besides no one will vote for me. I’m a political identity of a very small stature. But as a male, I’ll always stand vigil outside my home. Even the smallest male sparrow fights with his life to safeguard its nest from the predator, the kite. Whenever my house is threatened, one will resist – no matter how small or weak a man one may be.”

Are you happy being married to Ms Bhutto? Was my final question for Asif Ali Zardari.

“Happiness is relative, life is never perfect, you have to be content with what you have and not lust after more, there’s no end to greed. Life is a challenge and only they live who dare.”

The last sentence speaks volumes of our new president. One wishes him success, for the sake of Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting. Email: aniaz@fas.harvard.edu

Source: The News, 23/9/2008

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