Friday, November 20, 2009




    If the results of the February 2008 elections and the subsequent formation of the PPP-led coalition government could be touted as the 'revenge of democracy', then surely the orchestrated and very vicious campaign against president Asif Zardari in the media, streets, drawing rooms and indeed corridors of power in Pakistan is the 'revenge of the establishment'. The knives are out for Mr Zardari. The only thing that now remains to be settled is whether the infamous 'establishment' will rest content after depriving him of all powers and reducing him into a mere figurehead as head of state, or Mr Zardari's removal (voluntary or forced, violent or bloodless) from the Pakistan's political landscape alone will satisfy it. The only problem is that if he chooses to dig in his heels (something that his past track record and people close to him suggest he will do), then there is no easy way of getting rid of him. But whatever the method selected – street power, judicial coup, military intervention, physical elimination, political manipulation – its repercussions will severely destabilise the country in times to come.

It won't be wrong to say that in many ways Mr Zardari is himself responsible for his predicament. A couplet of the Punjabi poet, Munir Niazi succinctly sums up the Mr Zardari's state: "the people of the city were cruel and merciless, but I too had a death-wish". His biggest mistake was that he tried to do the impossible – effect paradigm shifts in politics, diplomacy, and national security strategy but without disturbing the power structure which props up the system. Worse, he didn't shake the system when he had the chance, which was in the first couple of weeks of coming into power when the 'establishment' was on the defensive and would have been unable to strike back. Clearly, if Mr Zardari imagined that he could keep the powers-that-be in good humour and still get his way, he was going to end up falling between two stools, as indeed he has.

    Not only did Mr Zardari blow the chance of castrating the political role of the Pakistan army and establishment when it was down and out, he riled civil society and lost goodwill of the public by holding out on the restoration of the judges. This was an issue which he could have used to not only put the army in its place but also win kudos while doing this. He compounded his mistake by failing to manage the media, which because of its right-wing, Islamist orientation is firmly embedded with the military establishment. Mr Zardari somehow wasn't able to appreciate that the predominantly Punjabi 'Media Mujahideen' were always going to be hostile to him and would never reconcile to a Sindhi president. The unkindest cut of all is that the people who never had a good word to say for either Zulifkar Ali Bhutto or Benazir Bhutto are today using them to paint Mr Zardari as an unmitigated disaster, something that they used to say for both his wife and father-in-law when they were alive and in power.

On the issue of national strategic policy, Mr Zardari's very bold, almost revolutionary, enunciation of the sort of ties he wanted with India was probably unacceptable to the establishment. Within weeks of his party coming to power, he told an Indian interviewer that Kashmir needs to be put on the back burner. He followed this up by saying that India didn't pose any threat to Pakistan, something that questioned the entire national security strategy of the Pakistani establishment. As if this was not enough, he renounced (even if only verbally) the 'nuclear first use' policy of Pakistan. And then, for the first time the Pakistanis acknowledged the involvement of Pakistani nationals in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and also moved against the top leadership of the terrorist organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba, something that against would not have gone down well with the Pakistani military establishment.

It was not only his policy on India that caused disquiet in the Pakistani establishment. Mr Zardari's closeness to the Americans too went against him. The Pakistan army wanted to play the lead role vis-a-vis the Americans and was not willing to let the civilian government forge an independent relationship with the US keeping the military out of the loop. Indeed, the entire furore over the Kerry-Lugar bill was not so much against the conditionalities in the bill as it was against Mr Zardari. The fabricated opposition to the bill was the establishment's way of telling the government where it gets off. Too much reliance on the Americans is in any case not a very good idea. The Americans back you only if you don't need their backing and yet do their bidding. But if you are dependent on the Americans for your survival then your ability to deliver naturally is called into question. What is more, if you become a liability rather than an asset then you tend to lose your utility and the Americans don't bat an eyelid before they cut their losses and start backing another horse.

    While the tussle with the establishment was bound to take place within a few months of taking power, Mr Zardari could have kept an upper hand in this tussle if his political strategy had not foundered. The mistake he made was not that he tried to effect political reconciliation in a country that was perhaps not quite ready for it; his mistake was that he was unable to maintain the political momentum with which he built coalitions in the centre and the provinces. The broad-based, and often contradictory, alliances he stitched up were not entirely altruistic and had an element of political insurance built into them so that if one partner walked out of the coalition, the government would not get reduced to a minority. While this gave him space for political manoeuvre, the utility of this space was only so long as he could keep all coalition partners together because the moment one big partner walked out his dependence on the rest of the coalition partners became that much more which then opened the government to all sorts of political pulls and pressures and blackmail.

Unfortunately for him, while Mr Zardari was adept in power politics of the palace he was unable to combine this with an ability to connect with the street, something that his rivals and partners like PMLN and MQM were able to do. His ability to connect with the street was compounded by the bunker mentality that he seems to have developed. To an extent, by cloistering himself in the Aiwan-e-Sadr, he has effectively allowed the prime minister to become the public face of the government, something that is in keeping with parliamentary norms. But it is also seen in public as displaying fear for personal safety which naturally doesn't go down well in a country at war with itself. Of course, the accusation of having a bunker mentality is an example of the no-win situation in which Mr Zardari finds himself. If he steps out and addresses public meetings and takes an interest in government activity and projects, he is accused of becoming an active and political president of the type Musharraf was, which is not in keeping with parliamentary norms. But if he doesn't do this and stays out of public sight, he is accused of a bunker mentality.

In other words, Mr Zardari has become a punching bag and there is no longer any logic, reason, rationale or sense on the issues on which he is being targeted. For instance, he is accused of not surrendering the powers that Musharraf vested in the presidency, but no one is willing to say how Mr Zardari can surrender these powers without any constitutional amendment which is not possible without bringing other smaller parties on board which have their own demands which they insist on dovetailing with any constitutional package that is brought before the parliament. Or in the case of the infamous NRO which has been used so effectively against Mr Zardari. But somehow what is conveniently ignored is that if this law was present when the coalition was formed, if it was there when Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan, if it was there when Asif Zardari became president, then how come no one made it an issue at that time and why has it suddenly become such a cause celebre.

There can be no two opinions that there has been a lot of mismanagement and mal-governance by the civilian government. But surely the blame for this must rest on the head of the prime minister and not the president. Surprisingly, while on the one hand the PM is said to be ham-strung by the powers of the president, on the other hand when the PM reshuffles the bureaucracy, sacks his NSA, removes political appointees of the president who have some controversy surrounding them, no one asks how he is able to assert his authority if he is so powerless. To absolve the PM of any blame for things like sugar crisis, inflation, energy crisis, and a host of other issues and make Asif Zardari the fall-guy is nothing but a politically motivated campaign to put pressure on the president to quit.

It is now only a matter of time before the establishment gets rid of Mr Zardari. As things stand, despite there being no easy way of removing him from the scene, only an inveterate and incorrigible gambler will put his money on Mr Zardari staying in the Aiwan-e-Sadr till 2013 when his term expires. Of course, once he goes, the very same people who are vilifying him will discover his virtues, as indeed they have done in the case of his wife and father-in-law.


    <1630 Words>                    20th November, 2009



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