KARACHI: PPP Co-Chairperson Asif Zardari told US Ambassador Anne W. Patterson a day after signing the Murree Declaration with PML-N head Nawaz Sharif that he and Mr Sharif “had agreed (very privately)” that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would not be restored but that he was worried about the optics of the jurist's continued detention. He also told her he had already reassured the then incumbent CJ Abdul Hameed Dogar that he need not worry about the Declaration.
The Murree Declaration, signed on March 9, 2008 was touted as a big breakthrough for parliamentary cooperation between the two major winners of the February elections. Its primary clause related to the agreement to restore within 30 days all the judges removed under Gen Pervez Musharraf's November 3 Emergency proclamation.
The revelations about Mr Zardari's interpretations of the Murree Declaration and his political game-playing are contained in a previously unpublished confidential diplomatic cable dated March 10, 2008 sent to Washington by Ms Patterson. She had called on Mr Zardari on the same day “to get his version of the 'deal'” with Mr Sharif.
When Patterson asked about the 30 day deadline contained in the Murree Declaration which would “supposedly reinstate” the judges, “Zardari laughed and said in politics thirty days could become eighty or ninety.” He also “revealed he had been in touch with Chief Justice Dogar to assure him he would not be removed.”
The PPP leader seemed more concerned about the poor image Justice Chaudhry's continuing house-arrest would create for his yet-to-be-formed government. “Zardari said he had to do something about the judges: a new civilian government could not keep the former Chief Justice and his family, including two disabled children, in confinement two blocks from the parliament,” wrote Ms Patterson. “Zardari had conveyed this view to ISI head Nadeem Taj and NSA Tariq Aziz,” wrote Ms Patterson, referring to President Musharraf's interlocutors who had been in regular contact with Mr Zardari after Benazir Bhutto's death. “He had asked the government to move the former Chief Justice to his family home in Quetta, but the government had refused, arguing that the CJ 'had a gun' and would forcibly resist being moved.” Ms Patterson noted in a comment that “No one wants the black eye of moving the former Chief Justice and his family under the glare of international publicity.”
Mr Zardari reassured Ms Patterson that he would do nothing himself to rock the status quo. “He reiterated his commitment to working with Musharraf and especially Tariq Aziz, with whom he felt particularly comfortable. He wanted Musharraf to 'relax' and not be so concerned about the former Chief Justice.” According to the cable, “Zardari said he was at pains to rebrand the PPP as friendly to business and to encourage American investment.”
He also told the American ambassador that “he would have been willing to work with the PML-Q if they had dumped the Chaudhrys — which Musharraf had been reluctant to do.” Ms Patterson noted in her assessment that “at this point we do not believe it realistic to try and put together any coalition with the PML-Q.” In an earlier cable dated February 20, 2008 - just after the elections — Ms Patterson had reported that Mr Zardari had already told her he would not work with PML leader Pervaiz Elahi. “Why,” he asked her, “should I include someone who has just had an embarrassing defeat at the polls when I can attract many of his assembly members to my side. They are already calling us.” Ms Patterson noted in a comment in that cable that “Zardari is far less emotional than his late wife. He seems both ruthless and practical but his political skills have not really been put to the test.”
Ironically, three years later, Mr Zardari's political skills have been well tested. He has not only survived despite regular predictions of imminent political demise, and successfully engineered Gen Musharraf's ouster, but has also embraced a coalition with the PML-Q led by the Chaudhrys — once Gen Musharraf and they had mutually 'dumped' each other.