ZAB reference: taking everyone for a ride - Ayaz Amir - Friday, April 15, 2011

You have to hand it to this crew, the coolest on record, nothing fazing it, nothing making it lose its cool. Just when you think that it has run out of tricks, out comes something else from its hat, testifying to its unrivalled capacity for distracting manoeuvres. Its detractors, never in short supply, have been predicting its demise for the last two years, giving interminable deadlines of its imminent fall. Even the froth on their lips has dried out but the government, having mastered the art of stonewalling and of turning a deaf ear to its critics, marches on.

Messengers of doom, again not in short supply, had their sights fixed on the government’s seemingly endless troubles with the Supreme Court, the NRO verdict and so on, hoping that on this front if no other matters were coming to a head. But just when it seemed the government had exhausted all options, out comes the rabbit of the Bhutto reference.

It might have been expected that their lordships would take a dim view of the matter. But they seem to be going along with the emerging drama. It is already being said that a larger bench may be formed to hear the presidential reference – calling upon their lordships to “revisit” the death sentence passed against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – and there is word that a host of amici curiae may be called upon to assist the court. So this promises to be a longish entertainment.

This is good news for the Supreme Court which has a somewhat cosmic idea of its functions and responsibilities. From what we have seen so far its time is consumed by ‘larger’ issues, having a bearing upon national fortunes, to put it no clearer than that. Normal judicial work, the hearing of appeals and so on, has had less importance in its eyes.

On the question of Bhutto’s trial and his hanging, history has already rendered its verdict. Apart from diehard Bhutto enemies, and their number is not small, most people in Pakistan consider his trial a travesty of justice and his hanging a judicial murder.

But Zardari and company obviously have different ideas. Or is it that their motives are different? And so something about which neither Benazir Bhutto when she was alive nor anyone else felt the slightest need is now before their higher lordships – further testimony to the Pakistani talent for frittering away time and energy on the inconsequential.

And the central character of this drama, the star player on stage, is my imperturbable friend, the very picture of cool, Dr Babar Awan. Nothing fazes him. Hurl anything at him and it just doesn’t stick. Didn’t we all make heavy weather of the fact that Monticello University, from where he supposedly received his doctorate in international jurisprudence or something equally fancy, existed only in the realm of the imagination, that it was about as real as President Zardari’s graduation certificate? But did any of this bother him?

A lesser man would have wilted, or felt slightly embarrassed – a rush of colour, say, to the cheeks. Not Dr Awan who remained his cool and jovial self, chatting and laughing and not a bit put out by all the snide remarks about that celebrated seat of learning, Monticello University, which had to close down, as we were to learn, for issuing fake degrees.

So all the cannons now pointing at him for having distributed sweets on Bhutto’s hanging and for being an acolyte and admirer of Gen Ziaul Haq, the guy, if we care to remember, responsible for Bhutto’s plight, should be seen in the same perspective as his doctorate. It is not going to bother him at all, Babar Awan simply not being cut from the cloth where anything like embarrassment exists. His critics may choke at the throat, not him. His grandstanding has already begun and before the lights go out on this affair we should be prepared for more of it.

Pity Mr Bhutto. First his enemies hanged him and now the so-called keepers of his legacy are not sparing his memory. Many a circumstance since his hanging, not least the transformation of the PPP and its hijacking at the hands of a crowd Mr Bhutto would have been hard put to recognise, would have made him turn in his grave. But none, I suspect, more so than the thought that after all these years who should be defending him in court but someone like Babar Awan, whose first steps in politics consisted of Bhutto-baiting.

People have made a career out of idolising Bhutto. And some have made a career out of hating him. Bhutto is the only Pakistani leader to have had this distinction, inspiring blind ecstasy and blind hatred in equal measure. You have to have something in you for people to hate you. Anyway, Babar Awan cut his political teeth demonising Bhutto. Now he awaits political stardom defending Bhutto in court.

Bhutto’s real lawyers during his trial are largely forgotten figures. Who remembers D M Awan who defended Bhutto in the Lahore High Court? Even Yahya Bakhtiar is a receding figure from the public mind. Transcending the past now steps into the breach our good doctor. For his sense of timing and sense of spectacle, not to mention his gift for the diversionary move, he deserves the highest accolades.

As for the old PPP and the real PPP, this is a narrative and a debate which have lost their appeal and, indeed, their relevance. Is Yousaf Raza Gilani old PPP? He wasn’t anywhere near the PPP when Mr Bhutto was alive. His maternal uncle Hamid Raza Gilani was a Bhutto friend from Bhutto’s time in the Convention League under Ayub Khan. When Bhutto was forming the PPP he asked Hamid Raza to join him but he didn’t, no doubt to his everlasting regret. He joined the PPP later during the twilight of Bhutto’s prime minister-ship. But then the shadows had already begun to close in on what still remains the most colourful and dramatic chapter in Pakistan’s history.

Come to think of it, even President Zardari can’t claim to be old PPP. His father was a PPP MNA in 1970 but by the time of Zia’s coup, or shortly thereafter, he had joined the NDP, the precursor of the present ANP. Asif Zardari contested the 1985 partyless elections from Nawabshah and got a few thousand votes (to his everlasting chagrin, we can be reasonably sure). But then his marriage to Benazir Bhutto in 1987 changed everything.

The PPP had begun to change under Benazir Bhutto. The anti-Americanism and many of the radical slogans which were a feature of the party’s ethos were discarded, as were the ‘uncles’ who had been associates of her father. With her marriage a new power centre within the party formed around her husband. With her assassination this clique assumed the reins of the party leadership. Just as Pakistan today is not Jinnah’s Pakistan, the PPP of today is not the party of Bhutto. To some extent it may still be the party of Benazir Bhutto. But on its flag the most vivid imprint is that of Asif Zardari. This is how the wheel turns. Such are the ironies of history.

Babar Awan becoming Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial champion, the Mark Antony who will be reading his funeral oration so many years later, is less strange than Asif Zardari, through the workings of fate, becoming the PPP’s undisputed leader.

As I said right at the beginning, the chief characteristic of this government, and one for which it will be remembered, is its capacity to stay calm and shrug off criticism. Powerful parliamentary governments have come before and wrecked themselves on the rocks of impatience and hurried decisions. This government is a weak government, weak not only in performance but dependent on coalition support to stay alive. But it has mastered the art of defusing crises, both major and minor, and of avoiding direct conflict. In other words, it seems to have mastered the art of the indirect approach. If anything explains its survival, contrary to the predictions of all doomsday artists, it is this.

Tailpiece: The way Gilani handles the National Assembly, doling out lollipops to all and sundry and never getting angry, is a study in the art of higher management.


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