Cyril Almeida, a critic of the government, writes in the influential newspaper Dawn an article that calls attention to the fact that President Zardari’s government has had some real success.
How has Zardari managed to turn such relative, emphasis on relative, successes into a situation where everyone is reaching for their keyboards to write his political obituary?
MINUS one lives. Pakistan’s favourite human pinata, Asif Ali Zardari, has been battered to within an inch of his presidential life; all that remains is for the end to be pencilled in and the orgy of ecstatic punditry to explode on your TV.
No? It ain’t over until it’s over? He may yet salvage his lame-duck presidency? Miracles do happen? Who are we kidding. President Zardari will either be plain ol’ Asif Zardari long before his term is officially set to end or he will be President Zardari sans the powers that attracted him to the office in the first place.
That the president’s free fall is largely of his own making is doubly satisfying to his enemies. But the rise and all-but-certain fall of Zardari raises the same troubling question that haunted the country in the ‘90s, the ‘70s and the ‘50s: can our politicians ever make it work?
There are so many cautionary tales, so few uplifting stories in this wretched place with its wretched politics and its wretched history. Zardari was never one of the good guys, but here’s the vexing thing about him: from a policy perspective, his government has got at least three major things right. On militancy, the economy and Pak-US relations – three foundational issues on which the medium-term future, at the very least, of the country itself rests – Zardari has made the right choices.
That a politician could pick the right course on major policy issues is reassuring to those who cling to the hope that democracy can, some day, one day, work here; that the same politician would also wantonly destroy his political capital overwhelms that tiny sliver of hope. One step forward, two steps back.
Not convinced of Zardari’s relative successes? It’s no coincidence that the internal consensus on the need to fight against militancy has come on the Zardari watch. Yes, his government has been ham-handed and inconsistent at times and has benefited from the rantings of Sufi Mohammad, the flogging video, the TTP’s foray into new areas and its relentless campaign of violence. But no one really doubts that Zardari would like to see the militants defeated. Unlike the dithering PML-N and the opposition of parties like the JI and Tehrik-i-Insaf, the government’s position is well known and it has nudged the country towards backing the fight against the militants.
On the economy, Zardari’s team has done no worse than many of its predecessors, and certainly better than the last phase of the Musharraf era. We can quibble over the details, but for a country that has for long been a ward of the IFIs, dependent on handouts from foreign governments and locked in a cycle of boom and bust, the Zardari era doesn’t look especially bad from a historical perspective.
On US-Pak relations, step back from the noise for a minute and ask yourself this: can we afford to have anything but friendly relations with a superpower that is billeted in our backyard? Again, Zardari has not calibrated the government’s policy towards the US as well as it could be, seemingly giving too much or voicing too little opposition when it is merited, but the general thrust of the policy has been correct.
So how has Zardari managed to turn such relative, emphasis on relative, successes into a situation where everyone is reaching for their keyboards to write his political obituary? In other words, what has he done wrong?
The facile answer is, the president should have avoided the mistakes he’s made. He should have restored the judges while he still could take credit for it. He shouldn’t have blundered into imposing governor?s rule in Punjab and trying to take over the government there when the numbers were against him. He should have realised the NRO was a ball chained to his ankle that his opponents, as well as some of his allies, could easily exploit.
But Zardari’s original sin, as it were, is something else: wanting to rule from the presidency. The bid to grab the presidency and lord it over the country and its politicians was a gamble that was never going to pay off. The irony is that Zardari regards it as his smartest move.
The presidency has historically been a poisoned chalice and Zardari grabbed it just as it had become the focal point of opposition. After Musharraf’s disastrous exit, the presidency needed to be aired out, cleared of the smoke and debris of intrigue and power games. Smart politics demanded that attention be deflected to other quarters, the prime minister’s seat, the cabinet, parliament.
Even for a people with a short collective memory, the Musharraf shadow was always going to cast a pall over the presidency for some time. By insisting on keeping it as a focal point, Zardari took the unnecessary risk of the people asking, how is this really different from the Musharraf days? And Zardari was always going to get nowhere in that debate.
Most, if not all, of Zardari’s problems flow from the fateful choice to become president. We can only guess at the reasons he opted to try and rule from there. Perhaps it was the presidential immunity from prosecution. Perhaps it was the physical security that the presidential palace offers. Perhaps the low level of public interaction expected of the occupant as compared to, say, the prime minister attracted a frightened Zardari. Perhaps it was just the irresistibility of absolute power and lording it over both the provinces and the centre thanks to the Musharrafian powers arrogated to the office.
We will never know for sure what Zardari’s reasons were, but we can see how bad an idea it was. A year into a five-year term, the death watch is on.
Some have bemoaned how on a day dozens of people were killed in Rawalpindi, the country was transfixed by Altaf Hussain cutting the president off at the knees over the NRO. But it wasn’t a case of misplaced priorities. Without political stability, it is difficult to have policies, let alone fight a war against a shadowy internal enemy.
And Monday showed us once again how political stability can be a chimera, vanishing in an instant and leaving the country rudderless. Tempting though it may be, there?s no point in blaming Zardari really. He’s only done what others have done before him and others will do after him.
Sixty-two years since its creation, the country still doesn?t have the answer to the question, can our politicians ever make it work?