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Islamabad diary: A president proving all too true to himself

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by Ayaz Amir

Those counting on Asif Ali Zardari’s reinvention, that as president he would cast off the baggage of the past and be a new man, can be reminded of a line from Dostoyevsky that the second half of a man’s life is but a continuation of the first half.

Prince Siddhartha may have wandered off into the woods and attained enlightenment but that came after years of trial and renunciation. Here we have no Siddhartha, only someone catapulted to high position because of a quirk of fate, a tragedy visited upon his wife. Someone, moreover, whose principal claim to fame, apart from his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, was his apparently unbounded zest for surpassing wealth.

And there is no forest promising enlightenment, only a mess over which this Pakistani version of Croesus presides, a mess whose alarming proportions under his stewardship acquire a darker shade by the day.

It is easy to say that here’s a man who is clearly out of his depth. But it would be a futile exercise to blame him because since his sudden and largely unforeseen rise to power — first as PPP leader, then as president of the Republic — he has done nothing out of character. He has been himself and has done and said what comes naturally to him.

He is accused of cronyism and nepotism. But in the twilight world he inhabited before his wife’s assassination thrust him into the spotlight, these would be counted as virtues, not failings. The chattering classes or the newspaper-reading public — most of the time one and the same thing — may wax indignant about the installing of half-dead horses to high positions but in the president’s code of honour this again would count as a virtue: rewarding and therefore being faithful to those who stood by him in adversity.

Zardari has been criticised, and rightly so, for taking two planeloads of hangers-on to Saudi Arabia even if at his own expense. Presidents don’t do such things and if the splurge is from their own pockets, questions will be asked as to how those pockets are so deep. But we can almost be certain that in Zardari’s dictionary this counted as a good deed, a good turn to his friends and hangers-on, with the question of any criticism not arising because he was footing the bill himself.

It is a bit worrying to think that there was no one around him to tell him that he was wrong. Which should give us a peep into the kind of advice on which the country is being run, if the present drift and slide can be compared to running anything.

In Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth (Parts 1 and 2) Prince Hal, the king’s son, is a libertine, keeping company with Falstaff — the sublimest rogue in all literature — and his gang. They carouse together and even commit robberies together. But on the death of his father, Prince Hal, now Henry the Fifth, undergoes a transformation. Assuming the responsibilities of kingship he renounces his old ways and admonishes Falstaff to keep away from him. Falstaff was expecting rewards and high favours. He becomes a deeply disappointed man.

Pakistan expected a miracle when Zardari became president. But he has been faithful to himself, and has been what he always was, proving the sad truth that it is not given to everyone to undergo a Henry Fifth transformation. The old companions are back with none of Falstaff’s wit and vivaciousness. Falstaff’s vices were of the kind Ghalib and Hafiz and Khayyam would have approved of. Acquisitiveness did not figure amongst them. But if the spirit prevailing in Islamabad today can be summed up in a single word it is acquisitiveness. But is there any reason to be surprised? Wasn’t this precisely what was feared when Zardari’s rise to the top was imminent?

Why is there such a growing outcry against the proposed sale of the Qadirpur gas field in Sindh, probably the last bit of profit-making enterprise still left in public hands? Apart from other arguments whether this sale is in the country’s interest or not, the lurking suspicion in people’s minds is that all is not well with this proposed deal, that it is being made less for anything else than for lining the pockets of a favoured few.

Government credibility under Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz had plunged to an all-time low. People had stopped believing what they were told. Barely two months into the Zardari dispensation the impossible has happened. Official credibility which couldn’t have gotten worse stands further devalued.

Take the action against the country’s biggest forex dealers. The government could have every legitimate reason to go after them but, given government credibility, there is no shortage of people ready to believe the worst, even if it sounds far-fetched, that this action was taken because the dealers in question, earning huge profits from the flight of foreign currency, did not appease the right hands. This could be an extreme case of paranoia but that it should exist says something about the prevailing mood.

Exception was taken at the time to the remarks Zardari made when he met Sarah Palin in New York, in that they were considered less than presidential. What he said to President Bush, commending him for helping bring about democracy in Pakistan, also seemed to have an unseemly taste to them. But then what were we expecting? When Zardari was elected president — and it bears remembering that he was elected — was anyone under the impression that he was about to surprise us by some hitherto undiscovered gift of elocution?

We have got what was on offer, there being no cheating or falsity involved in the transaction. Zardari never promised anyone that he was about to change. In fact, if pressed on the matter, he would very likely have insisted, and vehemently at that, that there was nothing to change. And that if there was any wrong impression about him it was the work of enemies and paid agents.

Indeed, far from inducing any humility or the need for introspection, Zardari’s ascent to the presidency was trumpeted by his inner circle as the final proof of his smartness. That by bagging the prize of the presidency he had outwitted all and sundry, from Musharraf to the Sharifs to everyone else.

No one has ever accused Asif Ali Zardari of not being smart. No fool could have married Benazir Bhutto and no fool could have manipulated the political scene as he has done since the February elections. But there is no shortage, never has been, of smart and clever operators in Pakistan. Musharraf was clever enough but where did that leave him eventually? Could anyone be smarter than Shaukat Aziz but what’s the general opinion about him now?

It is not clever people that we lack. We have them in plenty, in every sphere of national life. Go to any bazaar, any patwari, any police station, any property agent’s office, and cleverness, or low cunning which cleverness all too often becomes, will be found stacked on the shelves, packed into every corner. It is wisdom, some measure of it, that Pakistan has been searching for these past sixty years and it is this elusive grail we are not finding.

If cleverness alone could be the solution to our national predicament we would have been out of the woods long ago and well on the way to the promised land. But that we are still wandering about in circles, still groping for a sense of direction, shows that it is something more we need.

If Zardari was on his own and had only himself to look out for all would be well. But our tragedy and perhaps his too is that, for better or worse, his fate and the nation’s are, for the present at least, intertwined. His presidency prospers and we swim. But if he makes a hash of things, as his actions or his lack of understanding about the basics of government suggest that he may well do, he may not take the pillars of the temple down with him — for that would be to exaggerate matters — but he undermines the entire post-Feb 18 dispensation.

What that might mean, what it might lead to, is not entirely foreseeable at the moment.


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