Twenty three years ago, we were sitting in a PIA Fokker aircraft at Peshawar airport waiting to fly to Dera Ismail Khan. Among the 40 passengers of the plane also was a very special couple. Almost every one of us was curious about them. There was a strange tension inside the small cabin space. “Go and greet her, she knows you by name,” my friend and seat fellow whispered in my ear. The couple was sitting in front of us and we could see their backs. My friend wanted me to greet the lady. I was reluctant but he pushed me and I approached them.
“Hello, BB…” I mumbled. Both of them turned their heads simultaneously when they heard my nervous voice. She stood up from her seat with a sweet and warm smile and he followed her. It was Benazir Bhutto with Asif Ali Zardari, the famous newly wedded couple of Pakistan.
Benazir introduced me to her husband—a dark skin man with long hair. He had a big grin on his face. The whiteness of his teeth under his thick and dark moustaches left a lasting impression on my mind. To me Zardari was a wild man, a villain, who had married the princess—our princess, the peoples’ princess.
I met with Benazir Bhutto at Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao’s house in Peshawar along with a group of students on 21 April 1986. It was our first face to face meeting with the legendary daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
As young students we had heard a lot about her. And on 10 April 1986, when she landed at Lahore Airport ending her exile we saw her from a distance and we stayed in her Caravan from Lahore to Peshawar. But on that spring afternoon, when we saw her from a close distance, we were mesmerized by the personality of the 33-year-old leader of the Pakistan People’s Party. She was stunningly beautiful and charismatic. Lot of people felt jealous as we left the meeting room. Meeting Benazir Bhutto was a privilege, an honor. She was a queen who ruled millions of hearts. She was a symbol of hope and many dreamt that she would bring a revolution in Pakistan.
Soon I became a journalist and had the opportunity to interview Benazir for daily Jang. Perhaps it was her first interview with an Urdu newspaper in Pakistan. It was a journalistic scoop and I was so happy not just because she had granted me an interview but she knew me personally. That interview was the beginning of our friendship that lasted till her sad death.
As a journalist, I offended Benazir with my reports and write ups. She would be annoyed by my pinching questions during press conferences and harsh criticism in our one on one meetings. I was a difficult friend but she was a graceful woman with a very kind heart. Benazir always showed respect for people like me.
In 1987, the news of her wedding came; it was a bombshell for leaders, activists and supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party. How could it happen? They asked. To them Benazir Bhutto was not an ordinary person. In the eyes of her many supporters Benazir was a Goddess, not a woman.
And there were others who could not comprehend that an educated, liberal, and modern revolutionary leader agreed to an arranged marriage with a man she never met or knew before.
The biggest objection and criticism was on the choice of her bridegroom. Why Zardari? Who was he? Several PPP leaders as well as activists and friends were disappointed. We became executors, judges and decision makers on behalf of Benazir.
Asif Zardari was the choice of Begam Nusrat Bhutto, the mother of Benazir, but we could not see the wisdom behind the decision of the former first lady. All of a sudden many PPP workers and supporters had an enemy in form of Asif Ali Zardari. Opposition to Asif began from within the PPP the day he married Benazir. Asif was the ‘Beast’ who had stolen the Beauty of Pakistan.
During the first tenure of Benazir Bhutto as the Prime Minister, Asif Zardari remained in the background in the beginning but soon that was to change. Ruthless spy agencies and dishonest journalists launched a vicious campaign against the government.
Golam Ishaq Khan, General Mirza Aslam Bag and General Hamid Gul are among the dark and dirty characters of Pakistani history. Such enemies of the people used puppets like Brigadier Imtiaz and Major Amer of the ISI to dislodge Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government. The 1989 ‘Operation mid-night jackals’ was part of the conspiracy that had started with the creation of the Islami Jahmoori Ittehad (IJI) by General Aslam Bag and General Hamid Gul.
The October 1989 ‘No Confidence Motion’ against Bhutto’s government had the full backing of the Army, the ISI, the President House, the Punjab Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif and a large section of the media. It was a very tough challenge for the new fragile government. It was also a time when the quiet husband of the Prime Minister came into action. Asif Zardari understood the motives and the power of his wife’s enemies. He used his amazing skills of political negotiations and his ability to build friendships, even with strangers. He single-handedly outmaneuvered his opponents by playing his cards well. The ‘No Confidence Move’ failed thanks to Asif Zardari’s efforts. However, this success further angered enemies of Benazir and in Asif they found a soft target.
Journalists associated with Jamat-e-Islami and the ISI crossed all limits to demonize Asif Zardari. The term ‘Mr. 10 percent’ was coined by a leading journalist of Lahore at a meeting where allegedly Nawaz Sharif was also present. A character assassination campaign was carefully planned and successfully executed. Newspapers were filled with fake scandals and false and filthy stories all about Asif Zardari. Subsequently, the vindictive ‘Old Gin’ in the President House used the filth as a pretext to axe the elected government in August 1990.
Asif was imprisoned without any charges and his enemies were jubilant. But by then there was a beautiful harmony between Benazir and Asif. Their mutual bond was stronger then ever. In Asif, Banazir saw a strong, dedicated and true man. A man who was wrongly blamed and faced a vicious character assignation campaign, but he stood by Benazir. She, too, defended him, however, Asif was persecuted for crimes he had not committed.
In 1993, when the Benazir-led PPP formed the government for the second time, Asif played a crucial role in putting together the ruling alliance. Benazir wanted Aftab Sherpao, a close relative of the then Army Chief Abdul Waheed Kakar, as the new President, but Sherpao proposed Farooq Lagari’s name. Benazir agreed and Asif ran a vigorous campaign for Lagari. It was Asif’s energy and skills that had placed Lagari in the President House. But in November 1996, the President Lagari sacked the government of his own party. He was also instrumental in implicating Asif in dozens of false cases. Asif was named as the main accused in the murder of Mir Murtaza Bhutto. It was the most horrific and cruel act of the Pakistan’s secret agencies and the military establishment. The brother of Benazir was killed, her husband was accused for the brutal death of Murtaza Bhutto and her government was sacked for the second time on unsubstantiated charges.
For the next nine years, Asif was in jail again without being convicted for any of the alleged crimes. Throughout his years behind bars he was approached by the military junta and its cronies. He was offered high offices and freedom if he gave up and betrayed Benazir Bhutto. He smiled but did not bow to the pressure because he was a committed husband and his courage was taller than a mountain. He did not betray Benazir. It was another side of the unique man.
Benazir was proud of her husband but in the public eye Asif was still a bad man. In 1994, I had an opportunity to interview Asif along with another journalist friend, who was a critic of Asif. After the interview, I asked my friend if his opinion about Asif had changed. His answer was, no. In reality, Asif was a punching pad and a scape goat for the flaws and incompetence of the PPP government. Under this narrative Benazir was very competent and popular, PPP was doing well but the cause of political troubles and party’s poor image was Asif Zardari. Therefore, the PPP and Pakistan would be better off without Zardari.
Following Benazir’s tragic death in 2007, Asif united the PPP and won the office of the President of Pakistan in a legitimate and fair election in which he was elected by representatives of all Pakistan. He received the highest number of votes. Unlike his predecessors, he emerged as the true symbol of national unity and the Federation of Pakistan. His enemies, however, were not willing to accept the reality. They were on the rampage again.
First the media and some political pundits implied that Asif Zardari was behind the conspiracy of his wife’s murder. Then when Asif became the President perhaps some genius minds of Rawalpindi or in Abpara, Islamabad, brought to the public attention the ‘minus one formula’ through their mouthpieces in the media. It was based on the same old wish—everyone other than Asif Zardari was good and acceptable.
His enemies are not ready to recognize that Asif defended the unity of Pakistan or he is the elected president of the country. In the past two years, hatred for Asif has touched new heights and his enemies have gone to the lowest levels to get him.
Despite being the target of a consistent smear campaign and sustained personal attacks, Asif has been remarkably graceful and calm. He is strong-headed but he is also able to compromise and reconcile. He has proved that politics is an art of possibilities. Asif has been behaving as a statesman and a responsible leader. Perhaps his extraordinarily strong nerves and resilience have increased the frustration of his opponents. Through his political wisdom Asif has established that he deserved to be the husband of Benazir Bhutto and in some ways a true political heir of Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto.
Under Asif’s leadership there has been no victimization of political rivals. No one was sent to jail or punished for political reasons. It is a very pleasant change in the Pakistani politics that has been polluted since the Zia-ul-Haq era. Asif should be admired for promoting a culture of tolerance in Pakistan.
As a matter of fact, Asif is not a political philosopher, intellectually he is not as bright as Z.A. Bhutto or Benazir were. Businessman Asif was pushed into politics and yet he did much better than many professional and qualified politicians. He seems to be on a course that can get Pakistan out of its multifold crisis. But in the fog of false and negative propaganda perhaps many of us are unable to notice the positive changes that have occurred in Pakistan since the 2008 elections.
The unanimous election of the Prime Minister in the House of Parliament, the confidence in the President by the whole country and the amicable working relationship between the government and its allies, including with the PLM (N), have been very significant changes in the troubled Pakistani politics. For the first time since 1985, there was no horse-trading in the Senate election. Votes were not sold in any of the provinces. The tribal parliamentarians, however, kept their traditions.
The 18th amendment to the constitution has been the biggest political achievement of the current Parliament because through this amendment the issue of provincial autonomy is addressed and provinces got their just rights and responsibilities after a long time. The 18th amendment is a landmark piece of legislation. Few in the military and civil bureaucracy fear that they could lose power as a result of the 18th amendment. Some military minds are opposed to decentralization and peoples’ empowerment.
Unanimous approval of the National Finance Commission Award was another major step towards a truly Federal and just Pakistan.
Asif Zardari accepted a key demand of Pashtoon nationalists by giving the NWFP its name. The sky has not fallen with the change in the name, but for decades this one issue caused tremendous mistrust in the country. Asif should be thanked for his this brave, reasonable and right decision.
By recognizing the status of Gilgit and Baltistan the government has made another right decision and the credit of this deed goes to Asif Zardari.
The Kalabagh Dam project was another throne in our national life. By abandoning this project, Asif took a huge political risk but again it was the right thing to do.
The return of thousands of displaced people of Malakand division is a monumental victory for which the government should be thanked. The military also played a positive role in rehabilitation efforts.
On the foreign policy front Asif Zardari is not charismatic like Z.A. Bhutto or Benazir. Besides now the military has a much bigger and undue say in the foreign policy matters. Nevertheless, Asif has been successful in striking a balance in Pakistan’s relations with international and regional powers of the world.
He has rejuvenated Pakistan’s relationship with China. During his two years in office Asif has made five visits to China. Each trip has opened new avenues of mutual cooperation. China will invest in different power generation projects that include the building of two nuclear power plants and several other power generation projects. China will also invest in the construction of highways and a railway track through the Karakorum mountain range. These are mega projects.
Asif Zardari has also paid attention to Central Asia and Russia and Pakistan is likely to engage in trade and energy deals with Central Asia. Trust building with Russia can be very beneficial for Pakistan. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Asif Zardari are personal friends and this has helped in our difficult relations with Afghanistan.
Asif also enjoys the trust of the Iranian government and he has close personal contacts with the leadership of key Gulf States which is good news for Pakistan.
Pakistan is walking on a tightrope in its love-hate relationship with the West. The U.S., Britain and other Western countries are not honest and true friends of Pakistan. Thanks to the policies of the military rulers of Pakistan, Western countries treat Pakistan as a hooker. To change the nature of that relationship needs time and a very careful diversion. However, Asif and his team have achieved some tangible targets such as the signing of a nuclear power plant deal with France and resolution of a longstanding dispute with the United States over the delivery of F-16 fighter jets.
Like all sane people in Pakistan, Asif understands that Pakistan cannot reach to a take off stage in economic development until we have friendly relations with India. It is in Pakistan’s interest to develop economic and trade relations, not hostility, with India. The military, media and mullah alliance depict Asif as evil because he plans to alter the dynamics of the Pak-India relationship.
Asif is accused of making money by abusing his office and position. Such allegations must be backed by hard evidence in a court of law. One should not forget that following the 1985 non-party elections the use of money is the norm in Pakistani politics. Most with tons of black money were in the IJI or in the military. This problem is not limited to a person, party or a group. The greed for money is an epidemic that has engulfed all of society.
Asif Zardari is brave and resilient. He has served the people of Pakistan but anytime he can be removed from his office at gunpoint or by the black gowns of the courtroom. Asif is a tough fighter but like other fighters of the Bhutto family he may also end up in the graveyard of Ghari Khuda Buksh.
Asif became the leader of PPP not by choice but due to a tragedy, before that he had agreed to be the shadow of Benazir. In her life, he did not take credit for what he did for the party or the country. Asif deliberately shunned the limelight and provided all the support to Benazir to shine and to lead Pakistan at all forums because he considered Benazir not just his wife or the mother of his children, she was his leader as well.
It is unfortunate that in the past 23 years many of us have not been able to see the tender and people-friendly side of Asif. Once he is gone and the fog of false propaganda has cleared, Pakistanis may miss Asif Zardari. They may see him in a different light, not as a greedy Beast but as a healer and a leader who was wise. A man who suffered and carried wound after wound in his soul because he married a beautiful queen and tried to lead a spiritually wounded nation in the right direction.
Shiraz Paracha is an international journalist and analyst. His email is: email@example.com