If the top two contenders for national pastime are cricket and conspiracy theories, third place has to go to hating Asif Ali Zardari. Let’s face it – it’s almost too easy. When was the last time there was a discussion about politics and you actually praised the nation’s president? But sometimes we fall into habits more because they’re easy than because they are good. Shakir Husain, however, is not afraid to pursue unpopular positions and wrote a very reasonable review of President Zardari’s tenure so far.
Whenever people ask me about the funniest Asif Zardari joke I’ve ever heard, my response is always, ‘That he is the most successful president in the 63 year history of Pakistan.’ I can picture readers cringing, noses wrinkling, and people asking to be passed the sick bag. What makes this nauseating sensation worse for most is that if you can get past the silly grin, the last name, the face – whatever your pet Asif Zardari peeve is, you will realise it’s true. Before you abandon this piece here to go and fire off a nasty email to me and the Editor, think about this rationally by removing the last name from the presidency, and just objectively look at what the man has achieved in the two years he has been in office.
Asif Zardari has spent more years in jail than any other politician in this country, has had millions of dollars spent on investing several dozen graft cases which have amounted to nothing concrete against him. Today, he controls the largest national political party in the country – the PPP. The man has dodged more silver bullets in the last two years than any other politician could even imagine. Asif Zardari has overseen the signing of the NFC Award, a feat unto itself. He has signed the18th Amendment to the Constitution defanging himself and any future president who feels like dismissing parliament. Asif Zardari has given provinces more of a share of the revenue they contribute to the federal government, which has always been a sticking point, and he has given the provinces the right to raise additional taxes and retain them. All sore points during Pakistan’s history.
Let’s look at the economic scorecard. While the world tottered on the verge of economic collapse and invincible banks ceased to exist, and the ones that did survive made it through on taxpayer’s handouts the world over, not a single Pakistani bank collapsed. While ‘advanced’ economies like Greece defaulted on sovereign debt with warnings out on Portugal and Spain to be next, wobbly Pakistan has ensured that it pays its international obligations. Sure we have our begging bowl in hand but which decade have we not had that family heirloom ready for some change? When Pervez Musharraf squeezed the dollars out from the Bush administration for Pakistan’s support for the war on terror, he was hailed by the chattering classes for ‘negotiating a good deal’; yet when Asif Zardari pulls off a better deal he is portrayed as someone who is ‘selling out’ Pakistan’s interests by the same people.
All is definitely not well in Pakistan on the economic front but then which country in the world can say everything’s just peachy? We have rampant inflation, food security is at an all-time low, utility prices are going through the roof, and trying to create jobs for the millions of young men and women entering the labour force every year seems like an impossible challenge. These are not Pakistan-specific problems – every country in the world is grappling with the same set of issues. But can the blame for each one of these be laid on Asif Zardari’s doorstep? I think not.
Is Asif Zardari some sort of democratic messiah who has saved Pakistan? Absolutely not. But if you look at the scorecard you will see that he has done better than any other president in our history in terms of making do with what he has. Pakistan has structural problems as a state which have nothing to do with Asif Zardari. For instance, the IMF’s conditions for us to access their cash are a choice which the state has to make. The fact that we cannot balance our budget isn’t anything new. As a nation we like to spend more than what we earn and it is something we have to change.
Mr Ten Percent is what the Pakistani elite and the foreign press love to call Mr Zardari. But my question to the very same people is that which government in Pakistan has been absolutely clean? Two wrongs don’t make a right but why is it that Mr Zardari’s wealth accumulation model is so distasteful? The problem with Pakistan is that it is a small pond and everyone knows everyone. This means all our politicians are exposed. With very few exceptions no politician in Pakistan can explain the source of their wealth and how they seem to live lifestyles which are way beyond their tax returns. The Sharifs and the Chaudhrys of Gujrat – the leaders of the two main opposition parties have never been truly able to explain how they accumulated their wealth. Yet both of the above mentioned are far more palatable when it comes to the chattering classes. Even Shaukat Aziz who wheeled and dealed the exchequer out of house and home was thought to be a ‘professional’.
The ‘deals’ and the ‘commission’ everyone talks about did not start with nor will they end with Mr Zardari, so we need to get over it collectively. Asif Zardari may be an easy figure to channel our collective angst towards but as a society we need to overcome our hypocrisy and our baggage if we are to let the democratic process take root. Failure to settle for anything less will only see us damage our own institutions and allow further military incursions to dictate the course we take as a nation.