It is easy to feel admiration and not a little respect for President Asif Zardari, who turns 57 this week.
Like Manmohan Singh, he rarely allows himself to be interviewed by his own media because journalism on the subcontinent is quite poor. And so, while there is much reported about him, and rightly, his defence is rarely taken up.
Let’s look at him as he enters the most difficult period of his tenure.
Zardari’s official website says that after school he “further pursued his education in London where he studied Business”. This is the subcontinental code for “attended some sort of institution but couldn’t get a degree”, so clearly he didn’t pursue it well.
There’s no shame in this and it doesn’t preclude a successful career in our politics. Not a single member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was able to graduate from college between Jawaharlal Nehru (who passed from Trinity College in 1910) and Rahul Gandhi in 1994. In these eight decades, two generations of the dynasty studied and flunked. Indira failed in Oxford and Rajiv failed in Cambridge. Child prodigy Sanjay could not even clear high school. Widows Sonia and Maneka passed school, but married early and never attended college. Priyanka graduated around the same time as Rahul.
Zardari may not have academic skills or interests, but he is first rate at understanding problems. Like all Indian prime ministers since 1991, he has been in power without a parliamentary majority for his party. But he has been skilful at playing with a poor hand. He is like one of the later Mughals who had to use tact and guile rather than force, which was unavailable to them. Like those hapless royals, he heads a state with expenses far in excess of revenue and a military not entirely in his control.
Even so, he has weathered more crises than any Pakistani leader: memogate, NRO, Raymond Davis, judges’ restoration, CIA, drone strikes, energy shortage, corruption in this cabinet, an aggressive Supreme Court and an aggressive media. And he has done this without losing his cool or exhibiting signs of distress.
With great skill, he has kept the Pakistan Peoples’ Party together. He has united it in its anger at how the judiciary has behaved with it. Initially sulking leaders like Amin Fahim have stayed with it, and Zardari continues to command the loyalty of men of the calibre of Aitzaz Ahsan. As president, he doesn’t have executive power, but there is no question that he is the undisputed leader of the PPP. His word is final. The jiyalas have unconditionally accepted him as the heir to the house of Bhutto. This has mainly to do with his marriage, but it helps that he is temperamentally a PPP man. Internationally, he’s seen as moderate, more so than Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan. It is Zardari, more than his rivals, who is more aligned with what the rest of the world thinks on the war on terror.
As a politician, Zardari has no equal in Pakistan. He has kept his disparate coalition together and managed the difficult MQM brilliantly. He has coolly let go those partisans of his whose passions got the better of them — Zulfiqar Mirza and Babar Awan.
His patient response to what many see as the excesses of the judiciary will eventually benefit him. His political goals are modest. Unlike Imran, who says he will transform Pakistan in three months of power, all Zardari wants to claim is heading an elected government that finished its term, a first for Pakistan. Flexible (except for his unbending posture on the Swiss letter) and pragmatic, he’s the sort of leader Pakistan should have. If he had a freer hand he would have normalised ties with India.
As a man, he is personally courageous and there is no other example of a Pakistani leader who faced being jailed with such stoicism. There was a BBC report, which claimed Zardari attempted suicide in jail during Nawaz Sharif’s second term. If true, this was probably tactical more than out of frustration. Zardari is not the sort of man who gives up because a few things are going against him and his years as president have shown us this. He looks ahead and doesn’t wring his hands too much.
The election of Abdul Qadir Gilani, despite the ganging-up against him of the PML-N, the PTI and the Jamaat-e-Islami should give pause to those who think Zardari’s popularity is approaching single digit.
Multan is home ground for Shah Mahmood Qureshi and this result should also worry the tsunami-wallahs.
Happy birthday, Mr President.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2012.