Interview with Asif Ali Zardari


President Asif Zardari

In an interview with Muhammad Badar Alam in the monthly Herald, President Zardari talked about the floods in the country, the international response, on the role of military in the Pakistan government, the next elections, disaster management in the country, on the role of military in Pakistan and rumours surrounding the current government.

Q. Do you think there is a credibility gap between the government, the people and the international community?

A. This question has been asked of us before. Democracy is young, needless to say. That’s obvious. If you see the money the Unites States is providing through Kerry-Lugar aid law, it is three times what [General (retd) Pervez] Musharraf got. The Reconstruction Opportunity Zones were never on the table when Musharraf was in power. If you see new market access, it was never even given, despite Pakistan being the most allied ally of the West, even when he [Musharraf] was in government. The amount of money that has poured in since the flood happened is also unprecedented. When Ban Ki Moon [the United Nations Secretary-General] came over, he said that in the 65 years of United Nations history, he had never confronted such a disaster as the flooding in Pakistan. If this is what CNN, Fox News, Express TV and Dawn News had highlighted on the first day of the floods, then the message would have gone through. The Kashmir [earthquake] death toll was a 100,000 which was unparalleled in the history of Pakistan. So that hit harder and it had a reaction. I am not at all disappointed in the world’s reaction; I am quite encouraged by it. What I am hurt about and feel concerned about is the reaction of our own people when we said, “we are going to tax the houses of the affluent, the people who are not affected by the floods.”

Q. There is a strong opposition to this because people say why should we pay the government more taxes when we are not getting returns for the taxes that we do pay…

A. That is a matter of debate and you can research how much the country gets [in taxes]. It is very small compared to what our gross domestic product is. What is the running cost of the country of our size? What is the magnitude of the threat that we are facing? Like, for instance, the threat of terrorism [because of Pakistan’s] international geo-strategic location. This is a natural result of where you are located.

Q. But the government stumbled into it…

A. No, you did not stumble into it. You were created out of it. You supported the winning side in World War II. Out of that conflict, the Muslims of the subcontinent asked for a country and got a country despite a lot of opposition. The then Pakistan was like what you see in the flood areas. There was no infrastructure. Roads were made, areas were brought under irrigation, and look at the per acre yield and the amount of industries you have now. And in between you are struggling for your survival and had five wars.

When you talk about governance and about giving taxes and not receiving [anything in return], you must remember, we are living in a country of our own. I should be the one to complain the most. I have done prison time for 13 years without any conviction.

Q. If we compare the current situation with what we witnessed in the 2005 earthquake, there were no reports that we see in the media today…

A. There was no media, please give me that much. The media wasn’t even allowed to go there.

Q. But can’t this be put to the civil-military disconnect that there is in Pakistan. At that time there was no such disconnect.

A. You cannot put it to that. This disaster is too humongous. You must understand when the world is saying that it has never seen such a disaster in 65 years. It is not a big disaster in terms of human toll but it is huge in terms of area covered which is approximately 100,000 square kilometers — the area affected is 2.3 million hectares. Twenty-one per cent of your population was affected, the houses affected are in millions, health and education facilities affected are in the thousands. Even the Haiti earthquake and hurricane Katrina were nothing compared to this. We are still not out of the symptoms and you are talking about the cure. The flood has not receded as yet. To pass judgment is easy. Can anybody else tell me an example from anywhere else in the world where they moved faster and did more? Look at the positives — the loss of life and the outbreak of disease is minimal, for now. Hunger deaths I don’t hear of. Mind you, there are areas where we still cannot reach, that are cut off from the rest of Pakistan and where we requested countries like China to help. Our information ministry is no match to today’s free media. There was a time when the ministry could be very effective but in today’s time where there are 64 channels, it is not possible. The media is a dragon that needs to be fed everyday. The best thing is to have a nice juicy democratic government which can’t even bite back.

Q. Why is there a perception that the military is not part of the government?

A. I don’t think the military can even step out without the government’s permission. Who pays the military — for the fuel they use, for the men flying helicopters? Who bought them these helicopters? Sixteen of them were given free to me last year by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. Some are at the army’s disposal. The army is one of our sectors. Anywhere in the world, when there is a catastrophe the marines are called in.

Q. But do the orders follow in such a way that the civilian government tells the military to go to certain areas for disaster management and not the other way round?

A. Of course, there is no other way round. This impression is again created by the 64-channel strong cottage industry surviving on one young democracy.

Q. Do you think efforts to manage and mitigate such a huge disaster would have been more effective if we had local representatives on the ground?

A. My chief minister and irrigation minister were literally sleeping on the dykes in Dadu. If the ruling party had not been working in Sukkur or in Jacobabad, do you think these people would have been alive today? It is the party which came into action. Because the democratic aspect of it is less attractive – there are no helicopters, it doesn’t make good visual angle – doesn’t mean that it is not there. During these floods, there was an election happening in Bahawalpur and the next district, Rajanpur, was inundated. If people are so unhappy, why are they voting for us?

There is a disconnect between the media, the people and the pseudo-intellectuals. Jamshed Dasti [Muzaffargarh MNA] is a case in point. You should take it up as a case study. The judges forced him to resign; he stands for re-election, everyone in the 64-channel media goes against him and he still wins. All of a sudden the parliamentarians’ degrees have become important when the law requiring them does not exist. When the law existed, nobody’s degrees were challenged. When the law does not exist, not having a degree has become an offense retrospectively.

Q. Do you see this as a conspiracy?

A. No, I think people are small-minded and have a narrow vision. They do not know how far-reaching the effects of the decisions they take are. God forgive them, for they know not. As far as we are concerned we are used to fighting against odds and so is Pakistan. We shall motivate the people and get out of it.

Q. There is a lot of discussion of the government completing its five-year term…

A. There is no discussion. There are a few headlines and questions asked and answers given. We haven’t sat down and discussed how the government is going to pass the five years.

Q. But after the mandate expires and you go to the elections, what will you take to the voters?

A. If you ask for a journey’s end while the journey is going on it is rather unfair. Let the journey finish and let the people decide. If you ask about the two and a half years, we managed to get a dictator out first time ever without confronting the institution or making the nation aggressive. We could have made the nation aggressive creating a law and order situation but we talked him out of it. First time in Pakistan we made a woman the speaker of the parliament and made a consensus prime minister. We gave Balochistan an economic and political package; we gave the National Finance Commission, the eighteenth amendment. We restored the judges with right timing, after Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar retired, so that nobody loses. This is democracy at its best. At the same time going to the International Monetary Fund is not a populist decision. If I was thinking of populism, I could have said why should I increase the tariff of electricity and take away the subsidy? So we have taken difficult decisions. That again is democracy’s strength that it can take and sustain difficult decisions.

Part I of the interview

Part II of the interview