September Issue 2013
“His relationship with the media was characterised by his refusal to be intimidated by screaming headlines and juicy sound bites. He had an eye on history, not on headlines — and that is what guided him in his decision-making. He beat his rivals at their own game.”
This is how President Asif Ali Zardari and his five-year term were summed up by his closest aide, veteran PPP leader Farhatullah Babar.
An ace polo player cum playboy-turned politician, Zardari has secured himself a place in history books as the first-ever democratically elected president of Pakistan who not only completed his full five-year term but handed over power to his successor from the opposition, Mamnoon Hussain, without any bitterness or rancour. In short, he ended his term like a good sportsman.
But how will history judge him and his tenure? Will it be with a measure of empathy or with total disdain for what Bhutto’s party has been reduced to, post his period of governance? Never in its history has the PPP fared so badly in the elections — it has been routed in all but one province, Sindh, its home base.
Babar offers his own assessment of Pakistan’s most controversial politician. “Zardari was a grossly misunderstood and underestimated head of state. But history will judge him differently. Let us wait for its verdict.”
“He will be remembered for raising the bar of tolerance by several notches,” says Babar. “He endured not only criticism, but also ridicule. Out of eight thousand beneficiaries of the NRO, he was singled out for censure.” Babar is referring to Zardari’s long-running battle with the Supreme Court over the re-opening of the Swiss cases, which cost him his prime minister who chose not to write that wretched letter, but his presidency remained intact.
Zardari, the perennial survivor, survived many controversies, from the issue of the restoration of judges, to his holding of the dual offices of president and PPP co-chairman, to the reopening of the money-laundering cases against him and to his differences with the army over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, the Memogate scam and his “unwarranted” praise of the US for the Abbottabad operation, in which Osama bin Laden was killed.
In Farhatullah Babar’s words, “He was relentlessly chased by those who pretended to be perched on a high moral ground. But the more they chased him, the more he appeared unruffled — to their utter discomfort and frustration. He refused to be provoked. This made his detractors twist and turn and look so petty and small.”
Pakistan’s most vocal politician on television, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, paid Zardari a back-handed compliment: “You seriously need to do a PhD on Zardari in order to understand his politics.”
In 2008 when he took charge as president, no one had expected “Mr Ten Percent” (as he was then branded by his opponents for allegedly taking a 10% commission on all government deals) to survive even for two years. The odds were stacked against him. From allegations of corruption to accusations of total misgovernance, he not only survived them all, but managed to leave the presidency with a certain measure of dignity. And even his worst opponents now grudgingly praise him for his tolerance level, his efforts at keeping his warring coalition members on board through the art of compromise and reconciliation — some called it wheeling and dealing — and, above all, for handing over all presidential powers to the Parliament, including the most controversial one pertaining to the sacking of the prime minister and his cabinet — a step that was quite unprecedented and earned him kudos from the opposition as well.
Asif Zardari’s life could be divided into three phases: His teenage years, as an apolitical person, when he enjoyed the reputation of being a play-boy and, later, a polo player. Next followed his political innings, which began in the mid-80s, post his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, one of Pakistan’s most charismatic politicians. And finally his post-Benazir years and his stint in the presidency.
Zardari got off to a shaky start, after the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007. He was in Dubai with his children when BB was killed in a suicide attack in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. It was her last public meeting before the elections and political pundits had predicted PPP’s victory.
At his first press conference in Garhi Kuda Baksh, he appeared confused and nervous as he disclosed Benazir’s “last will,” appointing her son Bilawal as PPP chairperson and handing over the reins of the party to her husband. He had to be corrected. He named Makhdoom Amin Fahim as the party candidate for prime minister, but later, following his old friend, Aga Siraj Durrani’s intervention corrected himself and said the party would decide about the candidate after the elections. Also, he suspended the party’s election campaign for 40 days — an unwise move which went against the PPP, as the other parties continued with their campaigns.
However, the grieving widower bounced back and soon made clear his political ambitions by tightening his grip on the party. Following a PPP victory in the elections, he went into negotiations with PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif over the implementation of the Charter of Democracy (COD) and reinstatement of the deposed judges of the superior court.
Within a month of the PML-N joining the PPP-led coalition, it was clear that Zardari was not particularly keen on restoring the judiciary and the brief honeymoon period between the two was soon over. It took almost a year for the judiciary to be restored.
One of the biggest blunders of Zardari’s career was his decision in the first year of office, to impose governor’s rule in the Punjab. It ended up giving a real political boost to the Sharifs and the lawyer’s movement. However, unlike his spouse, Zardari never hesitated to admit his mistake. He not only withdrew governor’s raj but, on March 16, 2009 accepted the opposition’s demand for the restoration of the judiciary. Although it defused the political tension at the time — credit for which must also go to the Sharifs — it saw the beginning of a conflict between the PPP government and the judiciary. The battle lines were drawn.
This tussle not only resulted in the conviction and resignation of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani but also threatened to dislodge his successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was facing corruption charges. Meanwhile Zardari himself, unlike in the ’80s and ’90s, was not directly clamped with any fresh charges of corruption, though his critics believe that he had a hand in many of the cases being investigated by the courts — but the evidence was missing.
What awaits Zardari after September 8, when his term as president expires? Will he opt for a low-profile life in Dubai, New York or London, or will he devote his energies to leading the party from the front in Pakistan and help regain the lost glories of Bhutto’s PPP? Or will the Swiss cases return to haunt him?
Accused of concealing information about CIA’s operation against bin-Laden, petition has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking to bar him from going abroad once his term expires. While the Supreme Court debates Zardari’s fate, his children, Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, beside millions of PPP supporters, would want nothing more than to see the party of Bhutto and BB regain its lost glory — and live to fight another day.