Hunter S Thompson, that wildest of ‘70s journalists, once said of Richard Nixon: “He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But (the badger) fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.” Asif Zardari has had his share of ill-mannered comparisons with animals, but a badger’s fighting instincts come as credit to him.
Eight years after his first political obituary was written, Zardari remains as immobile as ever within the confines of the presidency and, of most shock to his teeming enemies, seems set to stay. While the coalition grows even more bloated, the opposition has begun eating itself. Commentators, who once thought his every move imperiled the ‘khappay’ government, now see a second presidential term within reach. Enter, the routine appraisal of the president as a political genius with the necessary unscrupulousness required to lead this quintessential ‘hard country’, and you have a reasonable idea of what’s passing as informed opinion nowadays.
But we have conflated Zardari the politician with Zardari the president. Considering him a moustache-twirling anti-hero may be the less painful option, but it’s led us to skim over what his tenure has been for the country: a slow-burning catastrophe. Preoccupied as we are with issues most petty, with Swiss letters and French chateaus, we’ve lost sight of the fact that Pakistan is entering the abyss. In Balochistan, it may have already fallen through. It is a narrative of agencies and separatists, of dead settlers and disappeared persons. While charging the umpteenth committee to study ‘the crisis’, the government has instead outsourced the running of the province to the security forces. This may yet have absolved them, if anyone actually interested in healing Balochistan had been prevented from doing so. Instead, the sitting governor’s sole achievement is his YouTube hits.
And that’s the half of the country the president’s men don’t yet have an excuse for; for everything else, there’s a Shaheed-i-Jamhooriyat counter-narrative. Has Zardari not been hamstrung by judges at home and generals abroad? Has he not been savaged relentlessly by the media? Has he not been treated with disgust by urban dwellers, with their smug SMS jokes and middle class pretensions? Did he not come in at a time when the country was tottering on the proverbial brink (albeit like most of his predecessors)? Aren’t terrorism, bad economics and social inequities long-running structural problems that no one can magic away overnight? And whatever the president’s popularity ratings, have they ever kept his party from winning by-election after by-election? These claims might as well be infallible truths for all the difference they make.
But the government cannot absolve itself of what it’s actually there for: governance. And by dint of being co-chairman of the incumbent party, the president isn’t a benign symbol of the federation — nor does he pretend to be. Yet, it’s better to pin his economic performance on technocrats, Raymond Davis’ release on the judiciary, the handling of Salala and Osama on the army and Americans, the floods’ devastation on God — any shirking of responsibility, really, that will allow this government to be the first to crawl to the finish line.
This may have been passable if our problems weren’t so dire. As the Shia bloodbath across Balochistan continues — becoming a pattern that is as horrifying as it is unprecedented — what institution is there left to pin it on? How systematic will their slaughter have to be for it to become a point of interest? Would the Eighteenth Amendment (and the NFC award and the one or two other lines of boilerplate the president’s tenure has given us over the last four-and-a-half years) suffice instead?
Then again, maybe we should prefer benign neglect from the executive to what happens when it actually does something. As warring factions playing on crime and ethnicity tear Karachi apart, we are told to celebrate the president’s exceptional efforts towards reconciliation — one that never went beyond the coalition in Islamabad. After Zulfiqar Mirza is appointed to flood a city — one screaming for deweaponisation — with even more weapons licenses, we’re made to wonder what all that fuss in Lyari was about. As mobs driven to rage by loadshedding in Punjab descend on the homes of PML-Q legislators, we’re expected to extol Raja Parvaiz Ashraf as our latest prime minister-loyalist. He might be installing private helipads and power lines in his first month, but doesn’t the elite despise grassroots successes anyway?
And standards of living? Economic growth has been flat-lining the longest time in recent memory. Yet, it’s not as if the economy’s exactly collapsed … at least, that’s what Those Technocrats tell us. Drones? The president has been quoted by Bob Woodward as saying: “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It doesn’t worry me.” For an issue so obfuscated by his aides, that is remarkable straight-talk from the man himself.
Why blame him though? Shoring up this insane state of affairs is a legion of confederates. If the MQM may sometimes shift uncomfortably in its seat from time to time, the ANP has yet to even budge. And what display of political pragmatism is complete without the Chaudhrys of Gujrat? It goes to show that, for electoral relevance in Punjab, even the houses of Zahoor Elahi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto can set aside their legendary hatred for one another.
The president is entitled to completing his term and serving a subsequent one if parliament so chooses. One only wishes that he’d use his much gushed-about tactical smarts to instead better the lot of the people he presides over. But those two aims — rescuing the country and perpetuating oneself — may be mutually exclusive ones in Zardari’s playbook.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2012.