Even his rivals acknowledge that Zardari is a deal-maker par excellence. He has been written off and made a comeback so many times that his doubters have simply stopped trying.
Published February 23, 2024

This piece was originally published on February 23, 2024.

YOU’VE heard the trope: Asif Ali Zardari is Machiavelli’s Il Principe personified. While that most certainly isn’t an endearment, it is perhaps not much of an insult either. Whether one accepts it or not, Mr Zardari seems to have cracked the code to surviving and succeeding in the swampy wastelands of Pakistani politics. There are very few who can claim to have his guile, and none who can claim his political acumen.

Call it the politics of ‘mufahimat’ (understanding and reconciliation) or the politics of ‘mufadaat’ (interests and advanta­ges), the Zardari brand of deal-making has ensured that his star continues to shine.

“Chaos isn’t a pit,” go the memorable lines from Game of Thrones, one of the most popular TV show of our times. “Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them.”

“And some are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”

Even his rivals acknowledge that Mr Zardari is a deal-maker par excellence. He has been written off and made a comeback so many times that his doubters have simply stopped trying

In the chaos of Pakistan’s politics, none has climbed the ladder higher or more successfully than Mr Zardari. He has been thrown off again and again, yet refused to let his falls break him.

He has seized every opportunity to play the game, and won it with an unlikely hand too many times.

The young Mr Zardari was a notorious playboy who often ended up in brawls at Karachi’s casinos. He was known for his then-famous father, Hakim Ali Zardari, who had been elected as an MNA on a PPP ticket to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s first assembly.

The two were said to be close at one time, but fell out at some stage, following which the elder Zardari had exited the PPP. At one time, both father and son supported the anti-Bhutto alliance.

The Zardaris were otherwise regarded as a liberal Sindhi family who ran a successful entertainment business centred around their two cinemas. The son, at one point, had also tried his hand in the construction business, but was not successful.

Turning point

The family’s name shot to national prominence when, through a common family connection, the Zardari scion’s marriage was arranged with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter and protégé, the late Benazir Bhutto. Benazir was well-loved and internationally known: it was natural for the spotlight to shine on her soon-to-be-husband. On the night of their wedding, the two celebrated with thousands of well-wishers, most of them common folk, at Lyari’s Kakri Ground.

The event seemed as political as it was personal, and it catapulted Mr Zardari onto the national stage.

The very next year, in 1988, Ms Bhutto was elected Pakistan’s first woman prime minister. Mr Zardari landed in PM House, and quickly went to work turning around his personal fortunes. It wasn’t long before Ms Bhutto’s first government was mired in scandals of all sha­des and sizes. It was during this time that Mr Zardari earned the title of ‘Mr 10 per cent’.

The axe would fall as soon as Ms Bhutto’s government was dismissed. Among the numerous cases filed against Mr Zardari was one involving abduction for extortion. Mr Zardari was accused of abducting a businessman, strapping a bomb to him, and sending him to the bank to withdraw a large sum of money from his account. The case ran in an anti-terrorism court between 1990 and 1993. Nothing ever came of it.

It was during Ms Bhutto’s next government that Mr Zardari finally started being regarded as one of the most powerful men in the country. He got his own office within PM House, and was even made a federal minister. After that government was also dismissed, he was arrested immediately. A slew of new cases were filed against him, and Mr Zardari once again found himself in jail.

Once again, he was never convicted.

Mr Zardari’s by then lengthy record and the length of time he had spent behind bars, without ever being convicted, added to his legend. He quickly came to be regarded as a shrewd wheeler-dealer who could get out of the stickiest situations without any fatal consequences.

Shrewd move

It was Ms Bhutto’s tragic assassination that proved to be another turning point in Mr Zardari’s fortunes. Though he had deferred to his spouse’s politics during her lifetime, the mantle of the PPP now fell to him.

His shrewd, calculating nature came to his aid, and benefit. Having decided that Gen Musharraf needed to go, Mr Zardari played a cunning hand, using the army chief at the time to get Gen Musharraf evicted from the presidency. No one at the time realised that Mr Zardari actually wanted the job for himself.

The presidency solidified his grip on power. Although he buried Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution as president, the PPP government continued to be run from the President House, with key decisions always in Mr Zardari’s hands.

Although that term led to speculation that the PPP would be wiped out from nearly everywhere except Sindh, Mr Zardari had prepared in advance with the 18th Amendment. It allowed him to keep a foot in the corridors of power while plotting his comeback for another time.

In recent years, with rival parties much larger than his own engaged in a long-running death match, Mr Zardari did not take his eyes off the ladder.

After the 2024 elections, he has emerged as a kingmaker yet again. He has also managed to secure the maximum concessions for his own party (and himself), while giving very little to the PML-N in return.

Even his fiercest rivals begrudgingly acknowledge that Mr Zardari is a deal-maker par excellence. He has been written off and made a comeback so many times that his doubters have simply stopped trying.

They say that “the only thing certain in life is death and taxes”; in Pakistan, it might as well be “death, taxes, and Mr Zardari’s political relevance”.

The man has been derided as a Machiavellian leader, a shrewd and cunning politician interested only in self-enrichment. Yet, he is also the first democratically elected president to serve out a five-year tenure, and likely to become the only person to have held that office twice.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2024

Header image: Asif Ali Zardari, seen here next to his “Prince Charming” Bilawal, has seized every opportunity to play the political game, and won it with many an unlikely hand.