By Saleem A Sethi, Weekly Pulse Magazine, September 09, 2013
He was probably the man most abused in the country; so much so that his name became synonymous with some kind of an abuse itself. Zardari was his name. Politics was the game. And he is about to complete his five-year term on September 8 as the first democratically elected president of the country in its entire history. “People failed to understand when I used to say that ‘we are here to make history, not headlines”, President Asif Ali Zardari remarked in a farewell dinner hosted for journalists at the President House in Islamabad on August 26. It seems, they will, now!
These five years were some of the most tumultuous in the country’s history because it was faced with so many problems; energy crisis, floods, economic meltdown, gas shortages, international isolation, bad relations with the United States, strained relations with India, war in neighboring Afghanistan, recurring domestic political instability, civil and military differences on policy issues and, to top them all, an existential threat to the state in the form of internal terrorism. It, indeed, wasn’t easy to lead Pakistan in the face of such grave problems and challenges. No wonder then that both Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan People’s Party failed on most counts. But this is also a fact that the party, and the man behind it, delivered on many fronts.
Asif Ali Zardari managed very skillfully to dislodge Pervaiz Musharraf and become the president himself. Most of the people weren’t aware of the ambitions of the man at that time and thought that somebody else will enter into that coveted office with Zardari leading the PPP. Many also thought that those moving the strings won’t let him become the head of the state and the Supreme Commander of the armed forces. Everybody was proved wrong when he was elected President on September 6, 2008. But a bed of roses was not waiting for him at the Presidency.
Before the coming into power of his party and his entering the office of the President, he befriended Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML (N) to an unnatural extent and made several promises which he had no intentions to fulfill. But he started on the wrong footing first by reneging on the restoration of superior judiciary judges and then declaring publically that political agreements were not the Word of God that can’t be changed. No one among his admirers could have thought that he could err so hugely at the start of a democratic dispensation in a country where ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ were already perceived ‘lie’ and ‘liars’, respectively. This further tarnished his hitherto stigmatized reputation.
This gave a golden opportunity to the ‘hidden forces’ to isolate and bedevil his person; and from which Asif Ali Zardari didn’t recover during the next five years. He was accused of everything; from corruption (Mr. Ten Percent revived/Swiss Cases, etc.) and disloyalty to the state (Memogate), to mental and physical disorder and moral turpitude, and what not! During the initial about two years a no-hold-barred character assassination campaign was launched in the mainstream media, social networks and through phone messages which made him a pariah in public perception. Whether the allegation was true or not is beside the point; everything dirty stuck when thrown at him.
Moving beyond the personal stigmas and problems, it needs no elaboration that all the policies of the previous PPP government flowed from the Presidency. It was a mere formality to do anything in the name of the prime minister or the cabinet. So, whatever good or bad was done during these past five years, it can be rightly laid on his doorstep; and there were actually both good and bad things.
He took over when there was a great mutual distrust between the military and civilian sides of the state. Asif Ali Zardari took a bold stand against militancy and terrorism, but he was bogged down by allegations of being an American agent, playing in the hands of the Jewish lobby. Confusions and resistance regarding the terrorism and extremism issues was so deep and persistent, that he had to bow down and ultimately take his hands off the vital national security matters that required not only strenuous efforts but also involved great personal and political risks. This helped easing tensions between him, his party and the brass to some extent momentarily but didn’t pay off well in the end; terrorism continued to have great negative ramifications on the governance and the brass didn’t let him off the hook in any case (remember what was done to him in the Memogate affair?).
But despite his and his party’s failings on foreign policy and terrorism fronts, the civilians during his captaincy tried to take steps in political and constitutional domains. Some good legislation was done during this period. Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment, devolution of powers to the provinces, legislation for women and children rights were no doubt big leaps forward. Empowerment of parliamentary committees, amicable resolution of issues among the provinces relating to NFC award, ‘creation’ of Gilgit-Baltistan, renaming NWFP as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, changes in the century-old Frontier Crimes Regulations and reforms in the laws governing political activities in tribal areas can rightly be attributed to his leadership during those testing times.
President Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP government also boasted about the ‘politics of reconciliation’ during all these years. This policy surely brought in dividends as long as sticking to power was concerned. But it had both positive and negative connotations. For the government it meant continuity in the face of perpetual political instability. It also helped bringing down the level of antagonism that traditionally existed among politicians. But it also had its bad side effects; it made the government vulnerable to blackmail by its coalition partners. More than that, politics of reconciliation was interpreted at public level as compromise on principles and ideologies and that there were no rules in the game of politics. This added to the already tarnished image of politics, politicians and, above all, of Mr Zardari himself among the masses.
It is now a matter of record that many long-term positive steps were taken on the constitutional and political fronts under his guidance. However, these could not help him or his party because the fruits of measures taken in these spheres normally do not reach the masses in short periods of time. Secondly, if such matters are not complemented by good economic decisions and maintaining peace on ground, everything constitutional, democratic and political becomes meaningless for the public at large. Broadly speaking, there were four main reasons which rendered his team helpless and left the people disappointed. These were; 1) terrorism/law and order, 2) political expediency, 3) corruption, and 4) international economic slowdown.
But Asif Ali Zardari’s government suffered more due to ‘image’ problem and PR failures rather due to the actual issues. To begin with, Benazir’s Bhutto’s untimely death helped create the perception that the leadership of her party had gone into the hands of the corrupt – personified and led by Mr. Zardari. Behind the scene propaganda reinforced this ‘image’ up to a point that it started looking ‘real’. We are not going to be judgmental at this juncture as if the charges were true or false because, out of power, it will become easy in the days to come to check the veracity of most, if not all, of the allegations against him and other members of his party’s government. We are trying here to place things in political and historical perspective and to analyze the effects of certain steps on public perception.
The tarnished image of Mr. Zardari and his ‘gang of forty’ (as the opposition termed his team) was strengthened by; 1) his choice of key confidants, and 2) his stubbornness to retain them in the face of serious allegations and their actual and perceived waywardness. This image problem was supplemented by the PR disaster of the government which exhibited itself in two forms; silence of the government officials and absence/lack of communication between the masses and the government. Gandhi had said that, “We should meet abuse by forbearance. Human nature is so constituted that if we take absolutely no notice of anger or abuse, the person indulging in it will soon be weary of it and stop”. But it worked the opposite in case of Asif Ali Zardari and PPP. The more they showed ‘forbearance’ (read, they kept silent), the more it reinforced the ‘belief’ of the people that they were really corrupt; thieves, as they were called in public.
The second biggest Public Relations failure was the shying away of government leaders (President, Prime Minister, ministers) to periodically ‘communicate’ with the people. Public, radio/television addresses by the President or the Prime Minister became a rarity. Such was the case with other important ministries and ministers, who remained missing when people expected them to come forward and console them. The difference can be gauged after the recent TV address of Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif which not only boosted his government’s image but also the morale of the people. This was a great injustice to break with a good old tradition and positive PR tool used by leaders the world over even today to communicate with their people and take them into confidence – to give them a message that there existed a government to protect them and that their affairs were handled by responsible hands.
It will require some time to analyze in detail the positives and negatives of the previous government and the five years when Asif Ali Zardari remained President of the country. But to sum it up at the moment, his presidency was a mixed bag. He started with much fanfare and tall claims but abdicated his rights and authority midway, particularly on the issues of law and order and terrorism. He preferred personal loyalists instead of men with caliber appointed on merit. This affected governance badly but he didn’t care. He probably wanted to prove to the world that he was a friend of friends till the very end. This had nothing to do with governance. And not only that Zardari’s choices were often considered bad, these sometimes smacked of mala fide intentions – like the appointment of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf first as Water and Power minister and then as prime minister. Perception about such people was nothing more than that of agents, go-betweens or bargainers.
Notwithstanding all these negatives, President Asif Ali Zardari’s government is credited with some historical, political achievements; restoration of the 1973 Constitution in its (almost) original form was first among these. And though people initially considered his desire to complete the five-year mandated term as something ‘selfish’, it has proved to be a remarkable victory for democracy itself in the end. It has shown the people that ‘change’ can be brought through constitutional and democratic way also. And that they don’t have to always look upon the undemocratic forces for it.
Though he had no other option, the way Zardari and his party accepted defeat and handed over the reins of power to another democratically elected government, deserves acknowledgement. He might have been a master manipulator with steel-nerves but he didn’t go for political witch-hunting and didn’t muzzle the free voice and criticism of the media. This is what democracy teaches.
So, let’s say goodbye to Asif Ali Zardari with good grace, not as an individual, but as a president who represented this country for five long years. He will be stripped of the immunity from now on and will be answerable for his deeds in the court of law. Let’s strengthen this tradition. Let’s believe in democracy for once. Let’s say with one voice; the President is gone, long live the Pakistan.