No more Mr Sonia Gandhi


“MEET Mr Sonia Gandhi.” That, reportedly, was how Sherry Rehman introduced visitors to Asif Ali Zardari back in February, suggesting that he would remain in the political shadows. Many of us feared the illusion was temporary. Our suspicions were confirmed once it became clear that Zardari was the string-puller-in-chief. When he showed little interest in joining the parliamentary wing of the Pakistan People’s Party – but ensured that his sister Faryal Talpur, hitherto a political nonentity, won the by-election from Benazir Bhutto’s ancestral Larkana seat – it became fairly obvious that he was aiming higher than the prime ministerial slot.

 

By then the fatuousness of the Sonia Gandhi analogy was all too obvious. Sonia Gandhi was offered the leadership of the Congress party after her husband, Rajiv, was blown up by a terrorist in 1991. She had the good sense to refuse, and notwithstanding Narasimha Rao’s defects, it was never reasonable to perceive him as primarily a Gandhi family puppet. The Italian-born Sonia was, many years later, prevailed upon to grasp the party reins, but when the Congress was returned to power she was evidently not tempted to head the government. Her wise move did not spell the end of dynastic politics in India, but whatever Manmohan Singh’s flaws may be – and there are many – he does not come across as a proxy prime minister. Unlike Yousaf Raza Gilani.

 

Wielding power behind the scenes was, however, not good enough for Zardari. Barring a last-minute withdrawal from the race, he will be voted in next Saturday as Pakistan’s next head of state. His endeavour has enthusiastically been endorsed not just by the PPP – the party’s tradition of obsequiousness goes back to the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was notoriously intolerant of dissent – but by allies ranging from the ethnically exclusive to the fundamentally flawed. The two exceptions are variations on the Muslim League: Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, which accuses Zardari of ignoring his commitments, and the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, which appears to have resisted the importunations of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, an outstanding PPP opportunist who served as a Musharraf acolyte before launching his unsuccessful effort to ensure that Zardari faces no rivals on September 6.

 

It is impossible not to entertain serious qualms about the prospect of President Zardari. The PPP co-chairman’s incredibly erratic behaviour over the past six months was, arguably, put in perspective by last week’s Financial Times report that suggested “the leading contender for the presidency of nuclear-armed Pakistan was suffering from severe psychiatric problems as recently as last year”. The British newspaper cited documents filed by Zardari’s doctors to keep him out of a British court on corruption charges, which said he had been diagnosed, inter alia, with “dementia, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder” following his final release from a Pakistani prison.

 

Zardari had, by then, spent a total of 11 years behind bars. During that period he is said to have faced death threats and torture. The multiplicity of charges against him weren’t conclusively proven. Clearly, no human being ought to be subjected to such an ordeal. At the same time, someone who has suffered the consequences ought not to aspire for a position of supreme power. If he is  unable to determine his competence in this respect, it is incumbent upon his colleagues to come to the aid of the party.

 

That would appear to b e an unreasonable prospect in view of the report in The Sunday Times this week to the effect that Zardari “has purged almost all of his wife’s top advisers from the party”. Insofar as the Times named only Benazir’s long-time secretary Naheed Khan and her husband, Safdar Abbasi, this hardly qualified as news: it was obvious soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination last December that Naheed Khan – who knows a great deal that has not become public knowledge, and therefore ought to be guarded, not in her comments but in terms of her personal safety – had been sidelined. The suggestion from Sindh home minister Zulfikar Mirza that negligence on the part of Khan and Abbasi accounted for the success of Benazir’s assassins is patently absurd, but it is noticeable that it was Amin Fahim (a potential Narasimha Rao) rather than Zardari who pointed this out. Khan, meanwhile, noted: “Mr Rehman Malik was the security adviser. Second in charge was Zulfikar Mirza. I don’t know why these people have been rewarded.”

 

We don’t know either, but there’s plenty of room for conjecture.

 

Zardari, meanwhile, also featured in an  interesting report in The New York Times, which said that he was being advised by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US ambassador to the United Nations, who has served as the empire’s proconsul in Kabul and Baghdad. Khalilzad apparently was planning to meet him in Dubai when the State Department put a kibosh on the plans, because it did not wish to be seen as supporting any particular candidate in  Pakistan’s presidential election. To the Department’s consternation, Khalilzad has maintained contacts in Kabul and wishes eventually to replace Karzai. He was apparently close to Benazir and evidently wouldn’t object to her widower taking over as the chief honcho in Islamabad.

 

The State Department’s objections do not necessarily mean that his freelance diplomacy does not enjoy George W. Bush’s imprimatur.

 

Zardari, meanwhile, has been quoted as saying that he bears no illwill towards the Supreme Court judges who remain to be restored. However, in an interview to the BBC some months, he had no qualms about  registering his antipathy towards deposed Supreme Court justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the prospect of whose return to the bench has scuttled the coalition between the PPP and the PML-N. Lately the suggestion has been put out that the foreign power which facilitated Pervez Musharraf’s ouster remains adamantly opposed to Chaudhry’s reinstatement. Does that mean the restoration of an independent judiciary has been held back by the US? And, if so, what does it tell us about the level of Pakistan’s sovereignty?

 

The operation in the northern areas has been put on hold for the duration of Ramadan, perhaps chiefly to facilitate Islamist support for Zardari next Saturday – given that Taseer failed in his endeavour to arrange an unopposed election. There appears to be no recognition of the factor that indiscriminate bombardment is bound to swell the ranks of the Taliban, apart from creating thousands of refugees.

 

The potential redeeming features of a Zardari presidency are difficult to enumerate, apart from the fact that his status will thenceforth match his power, if the post retains the privileges that have accrued under military dictatorship. As a consequence, Pakistan’s future seems even more fraught than before.

 

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