A tale of three speeches-By Cyril Almeida

THE day Asif Zardari was supposed to make one speech, he ended up making three. Well, he only meant to make two, but he made three. This isn’t statecraft; it’s the blind leading the lame leading the deaf.

The ‘second speech’ fiasco is being blamed on that political appointee at PTV, Shahid Masood. Here’s some advice for Zardari: fire him. And the others too.

I’m sure all the people working at PTV, the information ministry and in the president’s media team are nice people. I have no doubt they have families to support and unemployment in these tough economic times is nothing to sneeze at. But good, decent people can also be rubbish at their jobs. The media team surrounding Zardari has a simple task: make the president look presidential. Think Jinnah, not a Disney cartoon. The only reason Zardari got in front of a camera in the middle of the night was to reassure a frightened public that he has a steady hand at a time of crisis. His unsteady gaze and fumbling for words probably frightened the people a little more — this is the man in charge of our fate and security?

The main show — the speech before the constellation of Pakistani and foreign elite — was botched too. I sat, pen in hand, ready to learn about Zardari’s plan for saving us. By the end of it, I wasn’t the only one wondering who will save us from Zardari. Forget his halting, fumbling delivery and his poor English — that’s just red meat for the snickering patricians amongst us. It matters little in which language he speaks and how he chooses to phrase himself, if — if — he is saying the right things. But he didn’t.

Give him a break, the jiyalas cry. He’s learning on the job. Well, I’m sorry. Since when did supporting Team Democracy mean you have to support Team PPP? Especially if Team PPP is running the place into the ground? If Zardari isn’t ready for statesmanship, why must an orphaned country wait for him to grow into his job? He is only president because he wanted to be. And the same goes for the PPP co-chairmanship. It may rankle that the PPP is, in the memorable phrase of Tariq Ali, a “family heirloom”. But that’s our politics, so we can’t get stuck up over it. Now that Zardari has exercised his right to become leader though, it is our right to expect leadership from him.

Bizarrely, some in the news media have argued that Zardari’s speech in parliament was presidential and that if he had given detailed policies he would have been criticised for eviscerating parliament. Rubbish. The circularity of power at the top of the civilian government is lost on nobody. Zardari is the PPP co-chairman. Forget the de facto configuration of power, it is factually his government. Were he to give up the co-chairmanship and strip himself of the powers inimical to parliamentary democracy, it would make sense to make a show of separating the presidency from parliament. But he hasn’t. The country needed policy. Asif Zardari could have made everyone happy by simply prefacing every policy statement with, “My government has instructed me to say….” But we got nothing.

Zardari thundered that he wouldn’t let anyone violate our sovereignty. When Kayani said the same, the realists exchanged knowing glances. The general was pandering to the gallery — playing to a nationalist audience. It was red meat for the people, and the people loved it. The general was playing politics. It’s what Zardari should have done weeks ago.

But in politics what’s fresh yesterday is stale today. A week is a long time in politics. Parroting Kayani’s line 10 days after the general surprised the world was pitiful. It’s a bit silly to talk about inviolable sovereignty when missiles have been raining down on Waziristan for weeks, isn’t it? Tell us instead what you’re going to do about missiles — and terrorism. Especially when you’re about to fly off to the UN to hobnob with the world’s elite.

The Marriott carnage underlined the deadly seriousness of the terrorists. Some still don’t get it. A hack was on TV saying Pakistanis would rather eat onions than lose their self-respect, which American missiles are presumably devouring. This would no doubt be news to all those Pakistanis crying out about inflation. All this talk of our war or America’s war is beside the point. Zahid Hussain has said it best: it is an internal war. Like it or not, we have to fight it — because those fighting the Americans are killing us. And if we don’t kill the terrorists first, the Americans will kill the lot of us.

You want to win the war against the terrorists, defeat those who killed Benazir Bhutto and hundreds of Pakistanis, and rein in our shadowy agencies? Win over the people. All this talk of not violating our sovereignty and being our war is only violating our eardrums. Tell Pakistanis who we are fighting in Bajaur and why. Explain who the terrorists in Waziristan are. Unmask the sectarian hate-mongers in Khyber and Kurram. Use graphs and videos and numbers and pictures to expose the ugliness and hate that is spreading amongst us. The shadowy elements in the state apparatus will strike back. But they are no longer the real terror — the terrorists they have long since lost control of are.

And squeeze the Americans for more aid. The Americans have given us a few hundred million to upgrade our F-16s. With great fanfare, they have also given us 11,000 tons of wheat. Some perspective: our annual wheat requirement is 23 million tons; we are importing two and a half million tons. This is a joke. Get something meaningful from the US. Bring the country money. Bring it fuel. Bring it a plan. Help the poor. Do something. Anything. Husain Haqqani and Mahmud Durrani owe their jobs to the fact that the Americans trust them — but what use is that trust if it earns us nothing? ‘Us’ being regular Pakistanis, not the PPP elite or the establishment.

By now Zardari’s plan has revealed itself and it is wretchedly familiar: the consolidation of power. The trenches are being dug in Punjab rather than Waziristan. If someone dares, he should whisper into his ear: what’s the point of consolidating power if you’ll end up presiding over the burned-out shell of a country?


Source: Daily Dawn, 24/9/2008

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