Asif Zardari: The sudden hero – By Nadeem Paracha

The historic passage of the 18th Amendment Bill in the current National Assembly is rightly being paired with the country’s first ‘Constitutional revolution’ i.e. the making and passage of the 1973 Constitution during the government of the country’s first elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The 1973 Constitution was an outcome of a widespread consensus struck between the ruling PPP government and parliamentary parties, both on the left and the right.

But the recent (18th) Amendment, whose contents are said to be an attempt to restore the 1973 Constitution in its ‘original shape and spirit,’ is truly something special; perhaps even more so than the moment when the National Assembly passed the 1973 Constitution (the first of its kind in Pakistan).

However, it was Z. A. Bhutto who himself became the first violator of the said constitution. This act of his set a disastrous precedent for the many heads of state and governments who followed him after 1977.

By the time his executioner, General Ziaul Haq, began finding a firm footing as the country’s third military dictator, he is on record in describing the 1973 Constitution as nothing but a piece of paper. To pad his outburst against this, the wily General went on to ape the hyperbolic disposition of right-wing parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, by saying that ‘our constitution is the Qu’ran.’

Of course, the harsh (and so-called) ‘Islamic laws’ that the General enacted during his eleven terrible years as head of state, are not exactly based on the holy book; but rather on a vicious mixture of man-made fallacies such as what is called ‘Political Islam,’ and a perception of society, politics and gender that is rooted in ancient patriarchal cultures of Arab tribes.

Ziaul Haq went on to sabotage the constitution with a number of amendments, the biggest being the amendment that gave the president the power to dismiss a popularly elected government and parliament – mainly on the basis of his own individual whims.

This power has been used by (three) Presidents four times ever since 1985. It was finally revoked by the second Nawaz Sharif government in 1997 (through the 16th Amendment), but there was little celebration attached to the event.

That is because also in the pipeline were amendments being suggested by the Sharif government, which smacked of the kind of political and theological hypocrisies the Zia dictatorship was known for.

In the name of Shariah and Islam, Nawaz had actually wanted to (constitutionally) give the prime minister dictatorial powers. Whereas Zia had given the parliament an Islamic tone by calling it the ‘Majlis-e-Shoorah,’ Nawaz wanted the prime minister (mainly himself), to be known as ‘Ameerul Momineen’ (commander of the faithful).

It was such ‘Zia-ist’ acrobatics of the second Sharif regime, that (supposedly) made his tormentor, General Parvez Musharraf, reawaken the idea of returning the power of dismissing an elected government to the President (through the 17th Amendment). This act was vehemently opposed by the PPP and Nawaz’s PML-N, but Musharraf had enough support in the (post-2002-elections) parliament and senate to get the amendment passed.

When, after the 2008 elections, the majority party (the PPP) was able to form a coalition government at the centre and in the provinces (except in the Punjab), a lot was expected from the new elected regime.

The popular electronic media (much of which squarely reflects and represents the political disposition of the country’s [usually conservative] urban middle-classes), was in the forefront in airing the widespread discontent that the Musharraf dictatorship had started to trigger against itself after 2006.

But the same media suddenly changed gears when PPP Co- Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, was elected as the country’s new president.

Disaster became the middle word in any discussion and analysis related to the matter. The new president was denounced by ‘analysts’ and the opposition as being ‘power hungry,’ ‘corrupt,’ and out to destroy Pakistan.

No doubt Mr. Zaradri is a controversial figure, but then which prominent politician or for that matter, General isn’t?

His misfortune in this respect was the way he was targeted by the media when he first arrived in the parliament as a minister in his wife, Benazir Bhutto’s first government (1988-90).

An entire generation of military men and politicians had greedily reaped great rewards during the Zia dictatorship (1977-88); a time when the US and Saudi Arabia were lavishly dishing out millions of dollars as direct and indirect aid to keep Zia’s military regime fattened and happy to continue fighting America’s proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

That impacted the overall psyche of the society as well. Exhibitionistic Islamic ritualism and lingo conveniently co-existed (and at times came together) with an overpowering need for greed and a get-rich-quick attitude that contributed in turning Pakistan into one of the most (ideologically and spiritually) confused nations.

This is the Pakistan that Benazir’s first government inherited. Being an astute pragmatist, she understood well the kind of cynicism and materialism that had begun to dot Pakistani politics.

Millions of rupees were being showered by the PML-N and certain remnants of the Zia era (in the intelligence agencies) against her (albeit not very affective) government.

For example, in 1989, industrial tycoons (in league with media bosses and PML-N seths), who still hadn’t forgiven her father for his (disastrous) ‘socialist economic policies’ in the 1970s, began running a paid campaign against the ‘corruption’ of her government and especially that of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

For weeks, the country’s mainstream newspapers were dotted with glossy quarter-page ads against the ‘misdeeds’ of the first couple. Then, on the behest of certain intelligence agencies, the opposition parties moved a no-confidence motion against the prime minister.

Tons of money exchanged hands in the process, as the opposition tried to buy out the ruling members of the parliament and the government retaliated by putting in money and resources to keep them on its side.

Money spoke. In fact it screamed. It became the only valid option for politicians to take part (and survive) in politics. For this each and every prominent politician is guilty. Just like the military men, the bureaucrats and the civilian faces of Zia’s dictatorship who first introduced this trend in the game.

What’s more, also involved is the society at large. For example, when a common man is stopped by a cop for a traffic violation, bribery is not only on the cop’s mind. It is playing on the common citizen’s mind as well; because if the cop does not ask for a bribe and instead begins to book the violator, the violator is most likely to wriggle out of the situation by offering the cop a bribe. However, this man is then also likely to go home and curse corrupt politicians for all the ills plaguing Pakistan.

Such hypocrisy is common in this country. And perhaps to repress it, many of us look for punching bags to vent out our awkward (and guilty?) state of mind.

Thus, though it wont be an overstatement to suggest that almost every prominent politician, military man, industrialist and media boss (ever since the 1980s) has (in one way or the other) been involved in what we generally perceive to be as corruption, it is Asif Ali Zardari who has been bestowed the honour of becoming the punching bag of a highly contradictory society.

It was the media that enacted this bag, and it is the media (especially electronic) that has taken up the glorious task of turning Zardari into a punching bag once again.

If Zardari isn’t a saint, then neither are any of those calling him the devil.

Many of them would turn around and suggest that they are equally against the Sharif brothers. But the truth is, if one really has to make a just and fair sweep of everything and everyone whom we think is or was corrupt, we are bound to also take into account, not only politicians, military men, bureaucrats, cops and judges, but many of our own too, who we see exhibiting so much concern about corruption in drawing rooms and TV studios.

And what to say about Zardari’s most vocal opponents in certain clearly (if not proudly) biased TV channels?

If a thick book can be written on the corruption of our politicians, then one can easily scribble a dark comic book highlighting the shadowy and questionable ways of some of the media bosses and their anchormen whom we see every day contemplating the date of Zardari’s fall.

At times such talk shows start seeming like televised sessions of a whiners’ club, foaming and dining on the latest slice of conspiratorial pizza coming out from the rumour oven in Islamabad.

I won’t be surprised if one of these gentlemen begins to ramble about the presence of flying saucers over the President’s house, operated by evil aliens disguised as Swiss bankers!

But what now?

Against all odds (and rumours), Zardari has actually gotten his name highlighted in the bright sides of the country’s political history, thanks to his role in the passage of the 18th Amendment (that also includes the once impossible task of renaming the NWFP), and in the smooth running of an unprecedented coalition government (of former adversaries).

Something no government ever since Z. A. Bhutto’s demise could do (or even imagine to do), has been done by a regime whose main architect is a man most detested by the media.

Fate seems to have rewarded a mixture of luck, rugged pragmatism and patience and rightly decided to bypass television, to give the ‘devil’ his due.

Source: Dawn, 09 Apr, 2010



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