April Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Other than joining together in a coalition government, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif have only one thing in common: they are not the men they used to be. Mr Zardari seems to have jettisoned the image of an Epicurean upstart that his detractors slapped on him with considerable success during the two tenures of his late wife, Ms Benazir Bhutto. He conducts himself with aplomb and moves with measure. His style is a far cry from Ms Bhutto’s swishing elegance that overwhelmed any opposition to her arguments, but for a total novice handling Pakistan’s biggest political party at the most crucial juncture of the country’s political history, Mr Zardari has not done badly. He is in command and is taking decisions and, so far, people with diverse views in his party seem to have lent their ears to him, if not their minds and hearts.

Mr Sharif, too, has changed, and much more palpably than Mr Zardari, who has shown a preference to work from behind the scene rather than take centre stage. Once camera-shy and halting in discourse, Mr Sharif has blossomed into a passionate speaker. In sharp contrast to his past reputation of being discursive and singularly lacking more than a 20-second attention span on any issue except food and car drives to hill stations. He has become focused and argumentative in meetings. Gone are the days when sharp-tongued advisors could short-change him. These days, they have to be on their toes because if Mr Sharif does not blunt them with his new-found farsightedness, he would certainly trip them with his trenchant wit.

So far their new look has served the two leaders well. Mr Zardari’s political courage was tested on at least three counts in the last two months. First, when rumours spread thick and fast that he had cut a deal with General Pervez Musharraf at the cost of the cause of the judiciary and the PML-N — his party’s partner-to-be in the coalition government back then. He shut down the rumour mills by staying the course on both counts. As a result, there is now a joint cabinet where the PML-N has the crucial ministries of finance and petroleum and the judges are uncaged and anticipating restoration. Second, when he factored out Makhdoom Amin Fahim from the race for prime ministership and then pre-empted any possible parting kick from him by securing Sindh through a controversial but significant understanding with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. And third, he has kept General Musharraf under the illusion of being positively neutral towards him, while in reality, he has done everything to undermine him. From silently backing the return of the general’s nemesis, former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, to embracing Mr Sharif at every tricky political turn, Mr Zardari has run circles around the retired general, who, ironically, still thinks that his relations with the PPP are on an even keel. This is power politics at its zenith.

Mr Sharif, on the other hand, has used his knight-in-shining-armour outlook to even more spectacular effect. Defying all odds and using his Punjab base for tough negotiations at the centre, he has deftly championed all the popular causes. Those campaigning for the return of the Red Mosque to its former clergy, seem to be counting as much on him as Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. The same is true for the restoration of the deposed chief justice. It is his party, and not the PPP, that stands out as an effective counter to the establishment’s palace intrigues.

Different reasons have made the leaders change their old ways. For Mr Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s assassination has catalysed a new phase in his life, whose requirement is such that he will either measure up to the task or go under and sink. He can either prove that he is capable of managing the mantle of leadership, or, to the contrary, give his critics the satisfaction of having the last laugh as he fades into tragic oblivion. For him, the stark nature of the choices available is the cause of his personal transformation.

In the case of Nawaz Sharif, a combined sense of grievance and redemption is the main propeller of change. The trauma of falling from the dizzying heights of power at the hands of General Musharraf and then the thrill of returning to the country with a political bang, have fixed Mr Sharif’s head in the right direction: he does not want a repeat of the same situation again, ever, and knows that this time the road to survival is through popular support and not backroom deals. Mr Sharif’s advantage, which Mr Zardari does not have the benefit of, is that he has expanded the pool of informal advisors to include even those who could not stand him when he was in power and toyed with the idea of becoming a ‘Leader of the Pious.’ From seasoned secular bureaucrats to those who recite poetry in his praise, from liberal intelligentsia to conservative clergy, a rainbow of opinion is available to him to pick and choose from.

This, by far, is the biggest difference between the levels of change in the two leaders. Mr Zardari is surrounded by those that he feels comfortable with; Mr Sharif does not mind stepping into the lion’s lair and getting into a growling match. This also shows the nature of change in their personalities: Mr Zardari is still on a learning curve, tottering along, sometimes gingerly, sometimes confidently; Mr Sharif has gone past that stage. He has arrived, decisively and emphatically — and he does not mind telling the whole world about it, including those sitting in Washington, looking at him warily.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.