Asif Ali Zardari. — Photo by Reuters
Asif Ali Zardari. — Photo by Reuters

The WikiLeaks have elicited no government investigation, no suo motu notice. But for those who care, they have achieved something bigger.  They have agitated the political animals and if reputations are worth creating and protecting, WikiLeaks have enriched data reputation and images are built upon and broken.

There is the secular MQM which wants to be taken note of by the Americans. There is Maulana Fazlur Rahman who, perhaps inspired by rumours of US-Taliban parleys in Pakistan and Afghanistan, promotes himself as the prime minister of the country and advising the US not to put all its eggs in the PPP’s basket.  There are the Sharifs who are let down by the Americans who they can contradict, and the Saudis who they can’t. And of course, there is Asif Ali Zardari.

I for one find it difficult to say if the cables enhance Mr Zardari’s reputation or detract from it. It is detraction if the desire is to see a would-be or sitting Pakistani president to hold its own against the Americans, even if as a client but as a client who knows his rights. It is enhancement if Mr Zardari is to be measured on the old scale of just how much sympathy he can generate. I know a few people out there dislike him. In my case, after going through the Leaks, I felt more sympathy for my president than I had ever done.

As the WikiLeaks helps recreate the scene, consider the mountains Mr Zardari had to scale as he pieced together a PPP government after the 2008 general election. His problems have been well documented by the cables the American envoys in Pakistan sent to Washington. One of these cables dating back to a day or two before the Feb 2008 polls spells out his preference for Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi as the prime minister of his party (Mr Zardari was duly advised against it given the chances of Mr Qureshi holding his own). In this message and others, he is seen pondering over his choices and Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani figures as more unlikely prime minister in these.

Mr Gilani’s name was far below Mr Qureshi’s and Aftab Shaban Mirani’s in a list of probables that in its original form had Mr Zardari on the top. He did wonder aloud about his own candidacy. It is unclear if he dropped out purely under advice of the then ISI chief Maj General Nadeem Taj or there were some other factors (as well) behind his decision. In any event, Mr Zardari appears to have been denied what he must have considered as his privilege as the head of the biggest political party.

In a cable belonging to the period soon after his Murree declaration along with Nawaz Sharif, Mr Zardari displays his knowledge of Pakistan’s political history when he says that 30 days could often extend to 80 or 90 in the country. As he speaks in the context of the pledge he had made to Mr Sharif to restore the judiciary in a month, it is here that he escapes the pale of a sympathetic analysis and offers himself for a scrutiny by those wanting to judge a politician on the basis of his political guile. But such diversions are momentary and before long the right course is rediscovered.

The WikiLeaks confirms the names of a couple of men Mr Zardari felt duty-bound to protect. One of them was a general by the name of Pervez Musharraf while the other was Abdul Hameed Dogar who Musharraf had chosen as his chief judge after deposing Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and many of his colleagues on the bench. Mr Zardari, as a president who would have been a prime minister, appears to be lacking in the powers worthy of his high office as he fails to honour the promise he had made to these two gentlemen. In the bargain, he gets a few more sympathetic gasps out of the forever sympathetic folks like yours truly.

The feeling turns to that of protest if not of outright grief as another cable in the Dawn-WikiLeaks Pakistan Papers collection has Mr Zardari complaining how arch rival Nawaz Sharif felt no threat to his life from the militants. Not only this, he is actually quoted as telling a US envoy that he was broke and couldn’t even pay his private guards.

That is one image to have for a very watchful politician who is so eager about public perceptions that, again according on the authority of a WikiLeaks cable, he had once asked his party's MPs to sacrifice their expensive wrist watches and sport cheaper versions more in sync with the times.

A tick equal to the value of a tickle or a bit too ticklish than that – have your pick. But with growing, overpowering sympathy, to me it was an innocent attempt at keeping your wards under your watch.

Asha’ar Rehman is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

 

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