COMMENT: Zardari’s politics —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, October 25, 2010

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Governance and all matters are in the domain of the prime minister and not that of the president. So when all complain of governance, the president too joins in and seeks answers from the prime minister. Smart move!

Is Asif Ali Zardari the cleverest president this country has had? He is no Oxbridge fellow, nor particularly well-equipped on any academic scale; in fact his one academic degree, equivalent of a Bachelors, is also a point of consternation for some. Yet, he seems indefatigable in a particularly challenging political environment of Pakistan. Targeted all around for baggage that he carries from previous years, particularly when he was a part of his late wife’s governments, he somehow continues to hold onto a survival tether, conjuring up one or another rebut. He can be faulted for a lot in this morally bankrupt political system of ours but he hangs on unbelievably against each of these institutional assaults. His genuine support base within his own party may be minimal and is built around a few close associates with suspect histories who serve him well to deflect detractions of all kinds.

Consider. In the immediate aftermath of Benazir’s tragic death he was perhaps most ill-prepared to take on the role of leading Pakistan’s most popular political party. He rose to the occasion and within the mourning period began to exhibit a degree of political acumen that surprised many. Keep in mind that while Benazir was alive she mostly kept him away from anything political; and had she been alive today, he would have been perhaps confined to only tending the children while she ran the government. But then adversity threw him an opportunity as he most famously espouses.

His immediate tasks: keep the Bhutto name alive; retain the control of a popular party that included some credible political players, each ready to walk out of the great lady’s shadow and claim their place on the hierarchical mantle when the opportunity presented itself after her assassination. He is not done yet, and the party continues to have formidable challenges ahead in the short to medium term with certain fissures already apparent. But give the man his due: he continues to hold the party together and has through persuasion and some adept manipulation retained his leadership despite centrifugal trends that are a reality in the power politics of Pakistan.

Some of his moves have been particularly smart; and uncharacteristically for most Leos, he has played his hand rather patiently.

To begin with was replacing the traditional centre of power within the party from known, and some might say compromised, players to a relatively new set of actors who may be fiercely loyal in today’s political environment and thus his only saving grace, but are equally the bane that brands his functioning suspect. A rather long absence of Benazir Bhutto during her exile from Pakistan not only permitted desertions by some, it remained a rather loosely led party that has constantly moved away from its philosophical moorings.

Next, he appointed a rather pliant prime minister, and despite the 18th Amendment restoring powers back to the prime minister as the chief executive, retains the real power of decision-making on almost all issues. His posting himself as the president provides him an important ring of safety in constitutional cover against any discretionary institutional challenges; while retaining the party leadership enables him the central hold over all members of the party.

He and his coterie of close associates are patently ill-equipped to govern; indeed a pitiful lack of governance has been the loudest refrain of this term of PPP’s office. But then one doubts if ever this has priority in his scheme of things. His focus has been singularly political in managing challenges to his person, his leadership within the party, and in retaining the form of the party as it has been known. Consider again: governance and all matters are in the domain of the prime minister and not that of the president. So when all complain of governance, he too joins in and seeks answers from the prime minister. Smart move! The prime minister, this or any other, would be his fall guy if push comes to shove in a political set-up where more is expected of the government giving his party another lease of life in power. That is another ring of safety. That the incumbent prime minister has not particularly distinguished himself in that role is perhaps the hugest understatement of contemporary times.

His move to share power with practically all parties, except the PML-Q, at the Centre or the provinces shields him from overt backstabbing that lies at the bottom of legendary uncertainties in political tenures of power. Every time that a coalition partner attempts to venture away, he cajoles them back in with some masterly backroom political manipulation well within the permitted ordains of Pakistan’s reining political culture. He partners, his bête noire, remains the PML-N in Punjab, a relationship punctuated by rather acrimonious public spats and PML-N’s role as the primary opposition at the Centre.

The master-stroke perhaps has been, however, the subtle neutralisation of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s centrality as a presumed alternate option. Pakistan’s unending predicaments keep the PML-N leader idly ensconced in a wait-and-see mode, unbeknown to him whittling away his influence from the central issues of state and society in perhaps the most challenging and demanding times in Pakistan’s history. President Zardari, in a well calculated move, wrestles the Supreme Court (SC) on one legal matter or another, and a gullible media, obsessed with his person and the altruistic denomination of the SC takes the bait every evening in diverting the public from the issues of the ills that befall a common man, as indeed keep Mian Nawaz Sharif away from the limelight. The implicit advantage is to the PPP: issues get shelved under non-issues; Mian Nawaz Sharif is out of circulation and hence incrementally being made irrelevant; the cost — the central show of Zardari vs the courts goes on — and guess who is in the news?

Mian sahib does himself no favour by absconding from dealing with the issues of the time in a rather surprising abstention. Want proof? Who do the people look to to seek succour in their most difficult travails? Not Mian Nawaz Sharif, but Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Chief Justice (CJ) of the Supreme Court. So while the legal processes would take their given course, and there is enough there to wriggle out of — our law based on the 1860 Penal Code with a 150 year history of loopholes enabling stretched judicial processes — he would fend, duck, block and only when absolutely necessary exchange a blow. He wants time and he is doing well in finding enough of it.

This is looking at Asif Ali Zardari from just one angle; there are many more and mostly not salubrious. But talking of politics alone, his current field of occupation, he has got the opposition mentally dislocated. The early signs are frustration, irritation and confrontation, amongst the opposition’s proclivities. He is also able to create a dominating sense of irrelevance of his main opposition in the contemporary political context. It should become a case study of some significance. Zardari may never write a book; but if he does it shall have to be a primer in politics; suggested title: Machiavelli For Idiots.

The writer is a defence and political analyst

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