111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

How he blew it!

Let’s hand it to Asif Ali Zardari – what fate decrees he accepts uncomplainingly. As the consort of the vastly more educated and cerebral Benazir he struggled manfully even if playing second fiddle bored him to death.

As the minister for environment in BB’s second term (1993-96) he did not know much about the subject but persisted regardless and though he never mastered the job he did not fail by much. And, it must be said, he also bore imprisonment stoically. As the head of the PPP (2007-13) he proved highly controversial and divisive but typically hung on; and only quit due to force majeure.

Currently as president he is out of his depth as a foreign contemporary (Obama) confided; nevertheless, he is learning and gaining in confidence. His address to the UNGA was impressive even if most of the credit should go to his speech writer. But otherwise too, the tired clichés that so dotted his public utterances are less evident.

At home, friend and foe alike praise Zardari’s survival instincts and his deft political skills which enabled his government to complete an unprecedented full term in office. In fact, his political cunning is fast becoming the stuff of legend.

But that said I remain puzzled why. Are not the weak in courage almost always strong on cunning? And is not the greatest cunning to appear to have none, whereas, Zardari gives the impression he is too clever by half? Besides, Zardari’s longevity in office has less to do with any special skill and more because traditional opponents preferred not to exploit the catastrophe he periodically threatened to bring down upon himself. An example was the controversy over the restoration of the CJ. Had Kayani not intervened and Nawaz not called off the march, Zardari would have been toast.

But let’s leave that to future historians. Let’s instead consider what we will remember most of the Zardari years.

Foremost is the feeling that Zardari was in politics exclusively for the promotion of his personal interests and those of his family, friends, and protégés. The queue of persons talking about it and proffering what they see as evidence stretches from Karachi to the Khyber. But he’s been there before.

However, what we need no corroboration for is how dull and relatively insignificant achievements of his government, like a hospital here, a road and a bridge there, have been made decorous with suitable decorations, exaggerated claims and rituals; or how capitulations and U-turns are embellished and ennobled with euphemisms and adornments; or grave setbacks, like the TTP takeover of the Tirah valley on 26 March, are ignored just to make life more agreeable.

No less worrying is how often the subtle message pedalled by this regime is that the country’s ills cannot be cured but only assuaged; how catastrophes cannot be averted but only mitigated. In other words, how life is all about gliding over the surface and leaving the depths unplumbed.

This eternal search for shallow pleasures; this dressing up of reality to look like what it is not, only so that it will pass without stirring up resentment is actually what is not only cloying and revolting about the Zardari period but also so distinctive.

Not that Zardari is the only one who preferred illusion to reality. But infinitely more than most it was during his regime that fake statistics and empty boasts rained down and ugly things were hidden and tragic facts swept under the carpet and, of course, economic deception came into its own.

For Zardari sober policies imposing real sacrifices and stern discipline were not the desired goals; or the admission that difficulties had to be faced and could not be annulled by a sleight of words but needed a lot of grim studying, careful planning and hard work. He didn’t care that the people should not be fed the economic myths they wanted to believe in and the lies they expected to be told about their future.

I recall BB being similarly reluctant to tell the truth about the economy which was in dire straits (1996) and how during one of our many candid exchanges I suggested she appear personally on TV armed with chalk and blackboard to explain to the public how she proposed to deal with it.

‘The public will appreciate being told the truth,’ I stressed. She looked at me askance. Suspecting she was thinking about the public fallout I remarked, sotto voce, ‘But, Prime Minister, after one term even God would lose an election in Pakistan.’ It is interesting, 17 years later, Imran Khan made a public vow ‘to always tell the nation the truth’. If the penny has finally dropped, there’s hope yet.

Western diplomats disconsolately say: ‘Pakistan is the opposite of Moscow. In Moscow nothing is known but everything is clear. In Islamabad everything is public, there are no secrets, everybody talks yet one understands nothing.’

Take the matter of terrorism. It has engulfed Pakistan. Of late sectarian organisations have merged with the TTP; we also hear from the ISI and the MI that terrorists chased out of Swat have made common cause with the Karzai government and are mounting raids on Pakistan. Ten of thousands of Pakistanis have been killed by terrorist attacks (approx 50,000 since 2001 including 15,000 soldiers since 2008) and fear lurks in every fold of life in Pakistan. By dominating our lives terrorism kills hope and teaches sordid resignation.

And though this happened on Zardari’s watch what did the supreme commander do? Not act the part of the fearless leader braving danger at the head of his fighting men but the private figure inert, seemingly transfixed in his bunker, living in his own world of make-believe.

Resultantly, whatever Zardari may say to encourage the troops and the people, and even if he means it, it sounds insincere and replete with unfelt sentiments and emotions. His actions belie his words. The people are no fools; they don’t always confuse the veneer for the solid wood.

I don’t think Zardari quite realises the harm his gutlessness at such a dire moment of our existence has done him. He may emerge physically unscathed by not risking bloody heroics, preferring instead a bourgeois escape but he is seen, as much by the party faithful as the public at large, to lack the one quality the PPP seemingly had a monopoly of – the utter fearlessness of its leaders in the face of danger.

Frankly, whether leaders are selected by the blind and haphazard choice of polling booths or through secret intrigues or whether they come marching in does not really matter. What matters is whether the leader has an intuitive and prophetic understanding of what his countrymen long for and has the kind of raw courage, especially in times of war, that fires a nation. Asif Ali Zardari had the rare chance of showing that he did, and he blew it.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: charles123it@hotmail.com

Zafar Hilaly, "How he blew it!," The News. 2013-04-02.