Back in the dock

June 12, 2019

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The writer is an author and a journalist.
The writer is an author and a journalist.

ASIF Ali Zardari is back in prison that he has called his ‘second home’. The noose had been tightening around him for long and it was just a matter of time before he would be nabbed. He has been there before but the circumstances of his latest ordeal are markedly different. The spectacle of an old man walking with support was in sharp contrast to the bravado he had exhibited during detention in the past.

For a man who spent 11 years of his political life in prison it would not be like ‘home’ this time around; both politics and age are against him. It is not that the charges Zardari faced in the past were less serious, but the time and situation appear less favourable for the crafty politician.

Although Zardari had never been convicted in the past, it seems harder for him to come out unscathed from the multiple graft cases against him this time. He is in hot water yet again with a damning charge against him in a money-laundering case. There are several other cases of corruption under investigation against him and his family.

He has been accused of running dubious financial and business networks worth billions of rupees through front men. Zardari’s alleged corruption has been under discussion for years, but now, given the incriminating evidence produced against him by investigators, it will not be easy to fight conviction, especially with the axe falling on other political leaders too.

Asif Ali Zardari epitomises the perpetual ironies of Pakistani politics.

Perhaps most troubling for the PPP is the fact that it is not only the fate of its co-chairman that hangs in the balance but of its other leaders as well, including one of Zardari’s sisters who faces similar charges. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who is preparing to take over command of the party, has also been under investigation.

Indeed, some allegations against Zardari for accumulating wealth through dubious means seem hard to defend. But the credibility of the ongoing accountability process itself is questionable and exposes the National Accountability Bureau to criticism that it is carrying out a witch-hunt as well as an exercise in selective accountability. The prime minister’s threat to put the opposition leaders behind bars has reinforced this perception.

Zardari epitomises the perpetual ironies of Pakistani politics. For the past three decades, he alternated between prison and power. Arguably the most maligned politician in Pakistan, he even managed to reach the highest pedestal of power.

He spent three years in prison facing trial on a litany of corruption charges after the overthrow of Benazir Bhutto’s first government in what is described as a ‘military-backed constitutional coup’ in 1990. He was elected as a member of the National Assembly from prison.

It was an unforgettable moment in Pakistan’s political history when Zardari was released from prison and sworn in as a federal minister in the interim government formed after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1993 by the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan who was also responsible for his imprisonment.

Zardari was a prominent member of his wife’s second government. But, after the fall of the PPP government, he was back in prison in 1996 on similar corruption charges. This time he spent almost eight years in prison before being released in 2004 as the Musharraf government sought reconciliation with the PPP. Interestingly, all the graft cases against Zardari were filed under Nawaz Sharif’s two governments in the 1990s.

Senior military officials remained in contact with him in prison trying to make a deal that could have paved the way for the PPP to join the government. But the negotiations went nowhere. The cases against him dragged on without him getting convicted. All the cases against Zardari were later withdrawn under an agreement, also known as the NRO, between the Musharraf government and the PPP in 2007. The Supreme Court, however, later annulled the ordinance and restored all cases.

In the years following his release in 2004, he got himself elected as the country’s president. An accidental leader as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, not only did Zardari become the first democratically elected president in the country to have completed his full term, he also left office with a guard of honour. He is also rightly credited for the enactment of the 18th Constitutional Amendment that granted greater autonomy to the provinces.

But that may not be the reason alone for which Zardari will be remembered. There is indeed a ring of truth to the widespread perception of his government being one of the most incompetent and corrupt in Pakistan’s recent history. As a result, the PPP was dealt a humiliating defeat in the 2013 elections, limiting to Sindh the writ of the once most powerful political force in the country.

Will history repeat itself yet again for the country’s most controversial leader? The charges against Zardari are indeed serious; yet, given the unpredictability of Pakistani politics nothing is impossible. But whether or not Zardari is convicted, the possibility of his return to the political centre stage remains limited. He had already taken a back seat in the party leadership, allowing Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to take charge.

Slowly but surely, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is making his presence felt on the national political scene. He has infused new life into the PPP that many thought was on the ventilator. He has certainly inherited the charisma and the mass appeal of the Bhuttos that had been missing from the party since the assassination of his mother.

But there is still a long way to go before he can take the party out of his father’s shadow and away from past baggage. He remains trapped between two conflicting legacies — one inherited from his grandfather and mother, the other from his wily father. It will require much more than mere rhetoric for the party to reclaim its lost position. The current crisis that the party is going through also provides an opportunity for the leadership to clear some unpleasant baggage.

The writer is an author and a journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2019