Inside the mind of Zardari

By Cyril Almeida
Friday, 01 Oct, 2010 as published in Dawn. 


Let’s try and roam the mind of Asif Zardari. Here’s what we know. Faced with an unhappy uniform, a hostile robe and a historically opportunist opposition, Zardari has but one option to reduce the pressure on him and his government: make the necessary gestures — some small, some big, some symbolic, others substantive — that will buy him time and space to live to fight another day.



Zardari needs to make the necessary gestures that will buy him time and space to live to fight another day. – File Photo.

A few ministers sacked or reshuffled, a few ministries read the riot act, a few unpalatable advisers jettisoned or nudged off centre stage, some hard decisions on the economy, some smart decisions about handling the courts, and voila! The sense of crisis would lift, the PPP’s fortunes would rise once again, and the party could arrive in election season at the end of 2012 with a fighting chance.

Conversely, do nothing, at least nothing good, and Zardari and his government will eventually be chewed up and spat out by the forces agitating, covertly and overtly, to remove them. But nothing is precisely what Zardari has chosen to do. Why? Why would Zardari choose to be frogmarched towards an increasingly certain ouster instead of doing what’s necessary to earn a reprieve and improve his party’s prospects at the next election?

The popular answer: because Zardari is self-destructive, because he is hardwired to pick the worst among available options, because Zardari will be Zardari, if you will.

But the popular answer isn’t necessarily the right one. In fact, unless you possess a pathological hatred for Zardari, the popular answer is really quite silly. (The man has proved to be more shrewd than many thought possible, something even his opponents acknowledge, if only in private.)

So let’s roam through the mind of the regent of the PPP and try and figure out what his game could be.

First: the rejection of personal culpability. Pakistan’s problems are systemic and are beyond the fixing of any one person or single government, Zardari must be telling himself. In this he would, to a large extent, be correct. There were economic problems before Zardari’s government and there will be economic problems after this government. There was militancy before and there will be militancy afterwards. The state was on the decline before and it will be on the decline after this government.

So if you’re Zardari, you believe that success of only the most limited kind is possible. (For the rest of us who aren’t Zardari, it’s obvious that lowering self-expectations is a convenient way of deflecting blame when nothing is achieved.)

Second, the appetite for power is undiminished. The early predictions of this being a one-shot game, that Zardari and his ribald bunch of misfits wanted to grab as much as they could as quickly as they could before decamping, permanently, to safer, more comfortable shores, has proved wrong. Zardari is addicted to politics, loves a scrappy fight and has ideas about doing this all over again.

Third, the base has to be safeguarded. The core PPP voter is an odd creature, doggedly sticking with a party that has spent more time out of power than in. But, and this is perhaps key to everything, the diehard jiyala can and does suffer from disillusionment and disaffection.

The few times the PPP has been in power, it has proved to be a governance disaster, eliciting groans from even the most faithful of party supporters. Nothing seems to turn the PPP voter off the party more than a stint in power for the party. This time has been no different and the alarm bells are ringing across the country.

The several PPP by-election victories offer little comfort: by-polls are almost always about local personalities and issues. At the next national election, if part of an orderly and on-time transfer of power, the wave of discontent could well decimate the PPP.

Now, if that’s the scenario you’re faced with as Asif Zardari, then an unconstitutional ouster by the unhappy uniform, a quasi-constitutional ouster by the hostile robe or a forced changed by the opportunist opposition doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

Two and half years into a five-year term, the PPP has been exposed as wretchedly incompetent and with little appetite or capacity to even try and fix things. Which means the most democratic route — a peaceful transition of power at a preordained time — now offers little hope to Zardari’s PPP.

In a delicious paradox, the one thing that does offer Zardari and his PPP hope for a brighter electoral future is the very group trying to undermine them: Zardari’s enemies.

If those enemies succeed in bringing down this government, they will get the back up of the disaffected-at-the-moment PPP base. Anger over yet another PPP government dismissed before its time will smoulder among the party’s base. The establishment will never let the PPP rule, the jiyala will fume. The Punjabi overlord will do whatever it takes to keep the smaller guys out, the hardcore PPP supporter will rage. The upshot? The PPP base will be secure once again.

Success the regular, principled, democratic way makes onerous demands: fix the economy, right governance failures, re-establish the state’s writ in a strife-torn country. But that would test even the ablest of administrators and the most towering of statesmen, personalities the PPP doesn’t exactly have a surfeit of.

Success the lowest-common-denominator way is more straightforward: trigger the visceral, emotional reactions of the average PPP voter. Make that voter feel like it’s the PPP against the world, remind him that he has more to fear from other powers than to gain from the PPP, and he is likely to stick by you.

Not convinced? There is a precedent. Nawaz Sharif’s ‘I-will-not-take-dictation’ speech led to his ouster in 1993 and handed an electoral victory to the PPP. To the uninitiated, Sharif’s defiance of GIK may appear to have been an unmitigated failure. After all, Sharif lost his government and his bitter enemy was returned to power. In fact, it was a strategic success.

That speech, and his robust opposition to the PPP government over the next three years, firmly installed Sharif in the mind of the Punjabi voter as someone the voter could trust as his leader. After all, here was a politician who promised to never ‘take dictation’, the kind of man to give macho, nationalistic Punjabis goose bumps. Eventually, Sharif stormed back to power with his famous ‘heavy mandate’ in 1997.

If gambling on his and his party’s premature ouster is in fact Zardari’s plan now, it’s unlikely to have been the plan from the beginning. But as pressure on his government has grown, as the wolves have closed in and the vultures circled, Zardari’s thinking may have veered towards the more hardball — less salutary, but with better chances of success, given the circumstances.

Could ostensibly self-defeating, stupid defiance really be shrewd strategic defiance? Faced with the likelihood of a devastating knockout in a fair-and-square fight at the polls, Zardari could be opting for a TKO. That way, he and his party can bounce back somewhere down the road, buoyed by an angry PPP base which will have forgotten about the party’s governance troubles.

Still think Zardari is crazy? Crazy like a fox perhaps.


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