My friend Aakar Patel from India has made an assessment of President Asif Ali Zardari as a politician, likening him to “all Indian prime ministers since 1991” and later Mughal kings who “used tact and guile rather than force”. To the outside world, he appears “moderate, more so than Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan”.
Skill, mentioned in Patel’s article, implies a capacity to be flexible. His ability to deal with diverse factors is appreciated as a gift, which again means exercise of suppleness from a position of weakness. The message is that a weak person must be pliant in confronting his rivals and those who support him. Why should a weak man be flexible?
A weak man must have multiple options in a given situation. A strong man doesn’t need many options because he can force change where change is obstructed by opponents. A weak man hardly has the ability to lay down the law; he is more likely to conform to laws laid down by others. Obedience requires constant adjustment through elasticity of approach. However, perfect adjustability also means lack of guiding principles.
There are two domains where there are virtually no rules: politics and foreign policy. No real international law exists to compel states to behave predictably. But formal law and informal principles are required in human beings to make them predictable in behaviour and, therefore, trustworthy. Politicians are notorious for not having principles. Despite laws like floor-crossing against this trait, there is enough space for them to be ‘flexible’ in their loyalties.
No state passes the test of completely predictable behaviour. The dictum that reigns supreme today is: there are no permanent friends and enemies in international affairs. Foreign policy must remain endlessly tactile (read transactional) so that there are endless options available for the conduct of diplomacy. Not even the US as a superpower can do without a flexibility of approach. Pakistan has recently suffered because it tried to lend ‘fixity’ to diplomacy by getting parliament to lay down the law on policy.
Let’s admit that President Zardari has no principles. He, therefore, has endless options. He embraced the Q League whom he once called ‘Qatil’ (killer) League to increase his majority in parliament. On the other hand, Nawaz Sharif insisted on remaining ‘principled’ by adhering to his oath that he will have no truck with the PML-Q because ‘traitors will not be accepted back’. Even the most moral supporters of Mr Sharif advised him to dump principles but he did not. In the end, even an anti-Zardari media reluctantly admitted that he was the better politician.
President Zardari is the man who can save Pakistan in two domains: in politics and in diplomacy. The army has prevented him by behaving rigidly in foreign policy till it was too late for making certain the dividends from its position of strategic advantage. Instead, he was indirectly made to face a Supreme Court case implicitly accusing him of treason. As the leader of a liberal party, he still survives as a guarantee against a ‘tyranny of the majority’ backed by terrorism.
But governance cannot be without firm regulation. It is governance where President Zardari’s strength becomes his weakness. He made a mistake with the judiciary right at the beginning and is paying for it. Judiciary is mandated by the Constitution to hold all governments to rules of governance. He has lost a lot of support in Pakistan because of the poor quality of governance by his party. Error lies on both sides: being without principles and being hidebound with inflexible literalism.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2012.