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Asif Zardari: Consummate Cunning or Spineless and Unscrupulous

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 25, 2012

    Despite the revulsion that Asif Zardari invokes among his detractors, even his most bitter critics are often forced to acknowledge with admiration, if also intense frustration, how Pakistan’s unlikely president has for all intents and purposes outsmarted all his opponents and ridden out all the storms to take the PPP-led coalition to almost the finish line of its five year term, a first in that country’s history. Zardari’s success in managing to keep his party in office against all odds and opponents and in the face of a terrible record of governance is what prompted one opposition stalwart to say that a PhD was required to understand Zardari’s politics. But recent events, and in fact a reappraisal of past events, suggests that the secret of Zardari’s success might be so mundane that one does not need a doctorate to understand it. The only reason why no one has so far put a finger on it is because in a socio-political environment flush with bizarre and over-the-top conspiracy theories, simple and straightforward explanations are difficult to imagine, much less accept.

    What exposed Zardari in recent weeks are two significant decisions he has taken. The first was the government’s giving in to the Supreme Court on the issue of the letter to the Swiss authorities for reopening the money laundering cases against Zardari. After three years of political brinkmanship, during which the government tottered from one political crisis to another and lived mostly from month to month and at times even week to week, sacrificed one Prime Minister and expended all its energies on resisting writing the letter, the final denouement involving an oblique reference to the immunity enjoyed by the President was quite an anti-climax. Naturally, the question everyone seemed to be asking was what did the government gain by its dilatory tactics on the letter issue. Zardari’s acolytes claim that the government’s resistance pushed things to a point where the judges became amenable to a compromise wherein a reference was made to the immunity of the president. But even now this immunity remains to be claimed and it is possible that the caretaker government that will be in office in the next few months might actually waive this immunity if the situation so demands.

    What is more, by agreeing to write the letter, Zardari has resiled from his emphatically declared stand that the PPP will never allow the ‘trial of Benazir Bhutto’s grave’. Of course, he could well take the position that what he said wasn’t Quran or Hadith, a plea he took when he backed out of a commitment to restore the judiciary in 2008-09. But it remains to be seen how this will play out with the PPP’s core constituency in Sindh, which was earlier being riled up on the hounding by the judiciary of the martyred Benazir Bhutto. The impression that is gaining ground is that it wasn’t so much Benazir’s trial but that of Zardari that was behind the obstructionism of the government on the issue of the letter.

    As if this was not damaging enough politically, Zardari’s other major decision – the passing of the Sindh Peoples Local Government Order into law – has opened the party to accusations that it was bartering the interests of Sindh and Sindhis to curry favour with the MQM. Despite months of tough negotiations, the agreement between the PPP and MQM on the SPLGO has practically conceded all of MQM’s demands and given rise to fears in Sindh that the first step towards the bifurcation of the province has been taken, and that too by a party that never tired of playing the Sindh card in politics. At one point it seemed as though the deal was off and the MQM gave an ultimatum to quit the government. The threat worked and Zardari leaned over backwards to appease the MQM and concede almost everything that it demanded.

    While this might have kept the coalition intact and even paved the way for a pre-poll alliance between the PPP and MQM, such a close embrace of the MQM is a double-edged sword for the PPP, especially in Sindh. On the one hand, it helps to keep the peace (such as it is) in Karachi and avoids an all-out politico-ethnic civil war breaking out in the commercial capital of Pakistan; but, on the other hand, it affords an excellent opportunity to not just Sindhi nationalist parties to cut into PPP votes but also other national and provincial parties like PMLN and PMLF to make inroads in Sindh. In a tightly fought contest, particularly in many marginal seats in rural Sindh, this erosion of support could prove very expensive for the PPP in the next elections.

    In both these instances, what emerges clearly is that when things reached the edge of the precipice, it was always Asif Zardari who blinked first and backed down. The MQM had at one point been successfully pushed against the wall by giving it a taste of its own medicine in Karachi using Lyari gangs loyal to PPP and Pashtun gangs loyal to ANP to target MQM workers. That was a time when Zardari could have twisted MQM’s arm to get concessions out of the party. But he let the moment pass and sacrificed his own loyalists to appease the MQM. With the judiciary too, Zardari enjoyed an upper hand after the sacking of former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. It was quite clear that the judiciary, reeling under charges of corruption, cronyism and political partisanship on the one hand and rubbing the military establishment the wrong way by passing scathing remarks in the missing persons case on the other, was under pressure and would not have found it easy to sack a second and perhaps even a third Prime Minister. But once again Zardari blinked and agreed to write the letter.

    Indeed, in every single crisis or confrontation, the standard operating procedure of Zardari seems to be to first resist and dig in his heels and when things get to a boiling point, back down and give in instead of forcing the other side to throw in the towel. This pattern of behaviour has been seen repeatedly during his run-ins with the judiciary, army, coalition partners and opposition parties. While he is always ready to enter into a confrontation, he is never ready to take this confrontation to a point where mutually assured destruction forces the other side to back down. For Zardari, the only mantra is ‘survive today to fight another day’. No doubt, he has displayed nerves of steel by not quitting even when the pressure became unbearable. But rather than fighting to the bitter end, he prefers to make Faustian bargains and offer enough to the other side to make it back off.

    While Zardari seems to have crafted spinelessness into a fine political art – he calls it the ‘policy of reconciliation’ – and ensured the survival of his party’s government, his readiness to compromise has only whetted the appetite of his opponents. For instance, the judiciary has opened another front against him by ruling against any political role for the President, something that will catch Zardari on the wrong foot with elections around the corner. The Army refuses to throw its weight behind the government on the issue of carving a consensus on how to conduct the war on terror and wants the government to carry the can and face the pressure as well as opprobrium for not taking decisive action against terrorists. The opposition has forced him to compromise on issues like judicial commission, and selection of Chief Election Commissioner and the Caretaker government, all of which stacks the deck against the PPP going into the next election.

    In Zardari’s defence, it could be argued that he tried to break the mould of traditional Pakistani politics that centred on a confrontationist approach towards political rivals. As such, his politics of least resistance and accommodation and compromise is quite novel in the Pakistani context. But the problem is that while even the most pliable and flexible politician has certain red lines, Zardari has no compunctions or red lines when it comes to striking a deal that will ensure political survival. In fact, it is precisely his ability to do the unthinkable – for example, striking an alliance with PMLQ, and earlier with the PMLN – that has consistently confounded both his detractors and admirers and given him the aura of great cunning and cleverness. At the same time, his failure to take an unshakeable principled stand on anything at all has given him the reputation of being undependable and unreliable.

    The result is that only cronies and those who hope to gain something stick by Zardari; the ideologically inclined tend to distance themselves from him. The compromises made might have allowed Zardari to take his party to the finish line. But in the process, the party might have been damaged very badly and its entire future could well be at stake.