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Old Monday, January 03, 2011
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Post Zardari — the master politician

By Zafar Hilaly (The writer is an analyst and a former ambassador to Yemen, Nigeria and Italy)
Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2011

here is a world of difference between the ways the Bhuttos conducted political skull drudgery and the manner in which Mr Zardari goes about it. And frankly, he’s got them licked. Faced with the situation that Mr Zardari faces today, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would probably have had his former coalition partners subjected to the kind of harassment that governments are known for to get their way like, for a start, tax enquiries, the registration of frivolous cases etc. This would have been followed by harsher ‘incentives’ to change their mind, of which packing them off to prison or the Dalai camp was the most extreme. Had he resorted to such measures, there would have been uproar. He would have ended up with egg on his face and the odium of being branded a despot, like he was when he chased out Mufti Mehmud, Wali Khan, the Mengals and the Marris. The one advantage that Mr Bhutto had, which perhaps enabled him to operate as imperiously as he did, was that he did not need JUI or MQM votes to survive at the centre. He had enough of his own. Moreover, the courts were far more pliable then.

Benazir Bhutto’s instincts would have led her to negotiations but the negotiations would have been vexed with her refusing to climb down. Being too proud to suffer humiliation at anybody’s hand, and most of all the MQM, she would have tossed them out of the government in Sindh and made up the loss in the centre by siphoning off the PML-Q with whatever it took, including by-elections if need be. Of course, this would have led to all kinds of turmoil in Karachi, to which Benazir would have responded with perhaps another crackdown. In any eventuality, the outcome would have been messy and in the process she would have picked a fight with her husband.

In contrast, the consummate Mr Zardari has emerged once again smelling, if not like fresh roses, then at least withered ones, with all his former allies back in harness. The ‘great conciliator’ has this marvellous ability to reverse himself with such aplomb that he actually makes it look as if he relishes it. So powerful is his imagination (he claims that it was he who restored the CJ) and so focused is he on retaining the presidency, that he will say and do anything, even hallucinate, to achieve his ends.

Mr Zardari is in many respects the arch type, subcontinental politician compared to who an eel is like a leech. “Well come to the fold, Mr President”, is what the Maulana will tell him when they next meet, adding, “You have earned your spurs”.

But, without wanting to take anything away from Mr Zardari, let’s face it, no one is interested in replacing him at the helm in these storm-tossed days. Mr Sharif certainly has no such desire. There is not enough money in the treasury for another motorway in the sky; and the restraints that current financial discipline poses must be unbearable for a man with his spending habits.

The hapless fauj have also their hands full with the extremists and the last thing they need is for someone like Mr Sharif to remind them of their duty of guarding the motherland, fatherland, sisterland and nothing else at all. They fear Mr Sharif because he is someone whose thoughts go from the eye to the heart without going through the head. They are scared that, if push comes to shove, he may disband the army and replace it with the Taliban.

As the Bhuttos were never the recipients of enthusiastic army support when the going got tough, obviously it was not factored into their calculations so it’s a little unfair, I suppose, to think that they would not have done as well as Mr Zardari. Anyway, just speculating is fun.
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