He could ride the most fearsome of storms, we thought — and he did. Pakistanis lapped up the aura of invincibility he courted, perhaps more out of fascination than admiration as the media heaped awe on Asif Ali Zardari, declaring him the uncrowned political oracle, the uber-survivor. Analysts unabashedly lavished praise on his mythical abilities, his flair for conjuring rabbits out of thin air, his panache for stitching opposites together. To be fair, he indeed survived a veritable buffet of crises. From Memogate to the judicial rubbishing of the NRO to the disqualification of his prime minister, a public sector eyeballing bankruptcy, the crash of governance in Sindh, Zardari attracted scandals like Don Juan did nymphets. Yet he completed his presidential term of five years, silencing all the naysayers.
Is he really the granddaddy of intrigue, the Moriarty of politics? My perverted conventional wisdom concedes that he deserves many pats on the back for navigating his ship through a more than tumultuous presidential term. Question is, how and at what cost to Pakistan? Is mere survival a praiseworthy end, the fallout notwithstanding? Much more than any latent talents, his real benefactors have been the conspiring circumstances. A striking confluence of events strait-jacketing the very forces that have long hewn the course for Pakistan.
Numerous factors helped Zardari survive the judicial/media onslaught despite unprecedented mismanagement. Foremost was General Kayani’s aversion to disrupting the democratic process though not necessarily out of any love for democracy. Pervez Musharraf’s disastrous fling as president, the Kargil fiasco and Osama’s discovery in its own backyard were like jabs smack in the face, leaving the establishment with a bloody nose. This effectively forced it to take a back seat, convalesce in the shadows and rebuild. The judiciary, bent on claiming space in the national discourse, through its rebukes of martial law dampened the establishment’s messianic fervour further. In addition, the military was stretched thin with its occupation on both the eastern and western fronts. Zardari had, therefore, little to worry about and could focus all his wile on neutering the rest. The West happily threw its weight behind the elected civilian government. Lastly, Zardari demonstrated great flair in keeping his greedy coalition partners satiated and was thus able to summon political support at will. I wonder though if feeding slobbering partners is a talent at all.
Wide-eyed appreciation of Zardari’s Houdini acts blinds us to the monumental unravelling of governance during his term. What about the toll his survival instincts took on Pakistan? The question has to be eyeballed squarely to make a rational, dispassionate assessment of Zardari. The truth is Karachi drowned in blood on his watch despite the fact that the key stakeholders (MQM, PPP and ANP) were all part of the ruling coalition. Yet Karachi continued to sink in the bog of incompetency, greed and indifference of frightening proportions. The economy cracked open as the government lived off borrowed money. Public sector enterprises like PIA, Pakistan Steel and Pakistan Railways caved in under the weight of corruption and mismanagement. Compounding national misery was the unprecedented power crisis that shut down hundreds of industrial units, rendering thousands jobless. The crowning embarrassment was the disqualification of Prime Minister Gilani who went down fighting gallantly, protecting his president in the Swiss money scandal.
The 2013 elections saw the first democratic transition of government in Pakistan. Zardari’s PPP lost massively across the country, barely mustering enough seats to assume the reins in Sindh. For the unfortunate citizens of Sindh, the nightmare continued under the doddering leadership of Qaim Ali Shah. The leaderships of Punjab and Sindh were a strange contrast: where Shahbaz Sharif looked firm and in control, Shah looked like a threadbare puppet. Extortion, target killing, land mafia, and terrorism took over Karachi, plunging the city of lights into a deathly darkness. The PPP had to pay a heavy price for the governance collapse with a complete wipeout in the Gilgit-Baltistan elections. The party of the people, felled by its own, was a pale shadow of its former glory.
The PPP survived Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging. It survived Benazir’s assassination. It survived Ziaul Haq’s brutal martial law. The PPP did not survive Zardari. The party that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had founded is imploding, bleeding loyalists, withering at the altar of Zardari’s whimsy and cronyism. It has lost its ideological moorings. The fall of the PPP makes for an epic story of a starry-eyed beginning, of blossoming into a juggernaut and of a heartbreaking demise wrought by its own. Zardari has deprived Pakistan of the political Left, so necessary to balance the raging Right. And this is unpardonable. He survives for sure but is irrelevant to Pakistan. The myth of Zardari stands busted.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2015.
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