Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s coup d’état of July 5, 1977, forced many political leaders into exile abroad, and many came to live in London. It was during this time that my relationship with Zardari Sr. grew. Contrary to popular misperceptions, his fortune predated his son’s marriage into the Bhutto family. Zardari Sr. was a landowner and businessman, and he was the chief of Sindh’s Zardari tribe when he died. Since at least 1972, he owned a house in Wembley and another in Belsize Park, Hampstead. Jam Sadiq Ali was given use of the latter property during his days of exile from General Zia’s Pakistan, and the house guest somehow managed to have its ownership transferred in his own name. Ali would eventually become chief minister of Sindh in the 1990s and abuse that office to harass his former benefactor.
Ten years after the coup, as Benazir Bhutto’s spokesman, I had the honor to announce to the world news of her engagement to Mr. Zardari’s son Asif. This was July 29, 1987. As expected, both families were delighted, and so were millions of Bhutto fans across Pakistan. This unnerved the military establishment, which tried to throw a spanner in the works. Rather bizarrely, an Urdu-language daily ran a news report quoting Mrs. Zardari as allegedly saying that the Zardaris would be inviting General Zia to the wedding. When the mother of the bride, former first lady Nusrat Bhutto caught wind of this, she was not pleased. “If Zia or any other general is invited, the engagement is off,” she said.
A few days later, on Aug. 2, Mr. Zardari gave me a handwritten note (below) at Sanam Bhutto’s flat strongly refuting the news item. That note, reproduced here exclusively and for the first time, reads: “I read a report in Karachi’s daily Jangtoday that quoted my wife as saying that we would be inviting General Zia-ul-Haq to the wedding. I only want to state that I was prosecuted for a year in Gen. Zia’s martial-law court. They would call me in the morning, let me go in the evening, and in the end, disqualified me from politics for seven years. It was during Zia’s rule that thousands of political workers were lashed, and put in prison. Innocent people were hanged. An elected prime minister was martyred over a falsified case. How can my wife or I invite a person considered a tyrant and liar by 90 million Pakistanis to share in the happiness of Asif and Benazir’s wedding? I strongly protest this journalist’s incorrect reporting. Besides, I am an important member of one of the member parties of the [Movement for the Restoration of Democracy]. I request all journalists to not print any report regarding my son’s engagement without my confirmation. We know all about this conspiracy.”
The following years brought him much to celebrate and be proud of. In 1988, his intrepid daughter-in-law became the first woman to lead a modern Muslim country, and was reelected prime minister again in 1993. He was blessed with grandchildren whom he doted on. And he saw his son get elected to the country’s highest office. But like the Bhuttos, his struggle would be a constant one. The moments of history that validated his political struggle alternated with testing times. He was forced into exile, again, after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the Pakistan Peoples Party’s government on Aug. 6, 1990. His son spent almost a decade in prison on charges framed by Nawaz Sharif’s government. To keep up pressure on the PPP, charges were also framed against Zardari Sr. and he faced them with his usual equanimity.
His grandchildren were the greatest source of his happiness. On Sept. 21, 1990, Bilawal turned 2. Ms. Bhutto asked me to take him to London so he could meet his grandparents. Zardari Sr. and his wife were at Heathrow Airport to receive him, and celebrated his birthday the next day ensuring that the child—who is now the chairman of the party and chief of the Zardari tribe—would catch no indication of the hardships his parents were facing in Pakistan at the hands of a strident and vicious opposition.
Zardari Sr. was not simply the president’s father. He was a gentle, tolerant, considerate man, and an able politician. His passing at a hospital in Islamabad on May 24 at the age of 81 brought to a close a life spent in the service of democracy. His first wife, the president’s mother, passed away in 2002. He is survived by his widow, Timmy, three children, and grandchildren, and will live on through their words and deeds.