Rope-a-dope champ

13 Nov 2010


OLDER boxing fans will recall that epic encounter in Kinshasa in 1974 when against all odds, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman, the world heavyweight champion, to take the title.

The charismatic champ later dubbed his tactics for beating Foreman 'rope-a-dope', and this term has entered boxing lore. Realising he could not out-punch the fearsomely muscled Foreman, Ali resorted to leaning against the ropes, and protecting his head while the champion pounded away at his midriff. Every once in a while, Ali would fire off a couple of stinging combinations that puffed up Foreman's face without seriously hurting him.

But gradually, the effort of throwing haymakers that were largely absorbed by the ropes that supported Ali sapped Foreman's energy in Kinshasa's heat and humidity. Legend has it that Angelino, Ali's wily trainer, had loosened the ropes before the fight, but there is little evidence to support this myth.

As Foreman ran out of steam and his punches lost their power, Ali moved in for the kill, throwing a flurry of blows that set the champion up for a fierce uppercut that sent him to the canvas where he was counted out. Against this backdrop, I want to know what's holding Asif Zardari up? What is absorbing the blows being landed on the president by the judiciary, the army, the media and the opposition? And every now and then, his supposed coalition partner, the MQM, throws the odd punch below the belt for good measure.

Nevertheless, Zardari is still standing, covering his head, and rolling with the punches. Time after time, when the referee asks if he's had enough, he insists he will go the distance. He may not be able to hurt his opponents, but he is proving himself to be a master of rope-a-dope.

What is really holding him up is the fact that for all his flaws, real and perceived, his detractors — and they are legion — cannot work out how to get rid of him. And once he is out of the picture, they don't know who to replace him with. In earlier, simpler, days, the top general would be the automatic choice.

But now, apart from the fact that Kayani does not seem to want the job, the establishment is aware that a coup would immediately trigger an American law that prohibits aid to a military regime that overthrows an elected government. And this is one gravy train our generals don't want leaving the station without them, despite their hysterical objections to the Kerry-Lugar Act that has made this American munificence possible.

In addition, much as the defence establishment despises Zardari, it dislikes Nawaz Sharif even more. The PML-N chief is far more popular than the president, and has scores to settle with the military. If and when he comes to power, he may not go along with the generals as Zardari has done. They appear to be aware of this and are averse to the idea of a populist leader who will not take dictation from them.

The Americans are resigned to bypassing Zardari and dealing directly with Kayani. They, too, would prefer this arrangement to coping with Nawaz Sharif who appears to harbour a distinct soft spot for the fundamentalists. His brother, the chief minister of Punjab, has done little to confront the growing threat of his province's Taliban in the south.

The media, while it loves to hate Zardari, are safer with him than with Nawaz Sharif who, as journalists know to their cost, used intelligence agencies to muzzle them. This government is too weak and incompetent to control the pack of private TV channels hounding it at every turn.

The problem is not just one of packaging and marketing the government: as any advertising textbook will tell you, you need a decent product before you can sell it effectively. And this product stinks, alas. The reality is that the PPP-led government has acquired a well-merited reputation for both corruption and a singular inability to formulate and execute policies that improve life for ordinary Pakistanis.

Granted, the backlog of unmet needs would require any government several terms to tackle. But this lot doesn't even seem to be trying. The floods were a litmus test for Zardari and his team, but by turning up at his chateau in France while the country drowned, he was any PR person's worst nightmare. Since then, millions remain mired in standing floodwaters, seemingly beyond the reach of official relief efforts.

Meanwhile, inflation whittles away at people's meagre resources, and this government's scarce stock of goodwill. Almost everybody I met in Karachi on my recent visit complained of rising prices. The perception is that the government has no control over inflation, as indeed it doesn't. This price hike in agricultural goods is a global phenomenon, but people struggling to survive don't need a lecture on international economics: they want to hear how their government is going to shield them from the ravages of inflation.

The widespread perception — in Pakistan and abroad — is that this government simply cannot govern, and is hanging on to power just to further enrich those in power. When people and industries suffer from electricity cuts that last for hours, they don't want to hear excuses like 'circular debt'; they want to know what the government is doing to improve matters. After two and a half years in power, Zardari is running out of excuses.

With power, you either use it or lose it. Zardari has misused his election and early goodwill to play politics rather than govern effectively. The chickens are now coming home to roost. In Benazir Bhutto's first term, the late Eqbal Ahmed bemoaned her lack of vision. I replied that rather than a visionary, we needed a good manager at the helm. We argued about this, as we often did over other issues, without either of us convincing the other.

I still believe that good, solid management is more important than having a grand vision that is not translated into reality. After all, we know what our problems are; what we need is a team that sets about solving them in a serious and effective way. What is clear is that this government appears incapable of doing what it was elected to do. So while Zardari might last the remaining rounds, this is probably his last fight.