IT’S a deep, dark place but it’s still running the show, so down the rabbit hole we must go.

The arrogant Zardari will be grinning smugly. Sharif, the only political rival who matters, has been cleverly corralled into a small patch of Punjab.

The paranoid Zardari will be seeing shapes in the shadows. The boys in uniform are trying to recover their image down in Karachi, but is there more to it?

But it’s the cunning, ruthless, calculating Zardari that will be dominating. Believing the biggest prize of them all — the next general election — is within his grasp, he’ll be scheming and plotting and willing to do whatever it takes to win.

And he’ll be feeling pretty good about his chances.

He may just be right. Here’s why.

To steal an election, a civilian has to neutralise three players: the army, the main political rival and the outside powers. If two of those factors gang up against you, you’re good as gone.

Zardari thinks he can pull it off and clear a path to emulating ZAB in 1977. Once rivals and threats are neutralised, he plans to use money, patronage, fear and control of local administrations and the interim set-up to sweep to victory. It will be ugly, it will be nasty, it will be vintage Zardari, the man he’s skilfully hidden behind the avatar of Zardari the democrat the last three-and-a-half years.

Sharif has proved the easiest to marginalise. Ever the opportunist, Zardari has used history to his advantage — Sharif is fixated on October 1999 and the army is unsettled by the prospect of him coming to power — by playing on the mutual suspicion and dislike between Sharif and the army.

Power is what all politicians, big or small, crave. With Sharif looking like a loser — who has taken on the army so forcefully and come to power? — Zardari has become that much more attractive to the bit players and freelance politicians. Come campaign season, Zardari will accelerate the process of attracting winning candidates to the PPP honey pot, leaving Sharif more isolated than ever.

The army is a slightly trickier proposition.

When Zardari looks their way, he knows what he sees and they know he sees it. Many in the high command loathe him. They feel utter contempt for his utter disregard for matters of governance and the economy. Of course, they also fear that the awesome incompetence and plunder on the civilian side may shrink the army’s trough and imperil their privileges.

But they are trapped. The chief has taken an extension and Sharif gives them the willies: direct intervention isn’t really an option; the civilian alternative unpalatable.

Still, the high command does have some cards to play. When they don’t like the incumbent and they don’t like the alternative, they can always try and keep both weak.

It’s a favourite tactic from the oldest playbook in town: prop up the ones with few genuine electoral credentials to eat into the vote bank and seat count of the parties with serious electoral clout.

In Punjab, there’s the Imran Khan factor to peg back Sharif. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the ever-reliable Fazlur Rehman can help hold down the ANP and the PPP. In Balochistan, the brutal repression of the insurgents and their sympathisers could erode the appeal of the moderate nationalist parties. The convulsions in Karachi are helpfully reminding the people why they shouldn’t have faith in any politician.

So, paranoid Zardari may be wondering if the boys in uniform have quietly begun deploying their weapons against him. But he’s also the right amount of shrewd: ultimately, the boys would rather let Zardari play his electoral games than let Sharif in through the back door.

The outside powers, so crucial to the last election, brokering as they did the NRO and the return of BB and Sharif, aren’t likely to be much of a factor the next time round. Zardari had hoped the IFIs and the West would bail him out by bailing out the country, but they have baulked, tired of the transparent lies about economic reforms and fiscal responsibility.

Disillusioned and sceptical as they may be, though, there is no alternative to Zardari on their radars — and Zardari knows that.

Just to be sure, he still scares them about Sharif’s intentions. Foreign powers neutralised.

Threats and rivals thus defanged, Zardari is turning to the pièce de résistance of his rule: converting an accidental term into a monumental edifice to cunning, guile and opportunism by snatching a second term.

Less Caesar and more Iago, no trick or artifice will be below him. The piles of cash have been acquired; the interim set-up studied for loopholes; the presidential overhang will be deployed to full manipulative effect.

Scarier yet is what will come after the election victory is secured.

Zardari is about as much a democrat as Musharraf or ZAB. Having inverted the rules of divide and conquer — now, it’s the Punjabi-led establishment that is divided between the army and Sharif — Zardari will be master of all he surveys. No checks and balances, no one to stop his pillaging and acquisition of pelf, no one to even try and arm-twist him into paying any attention to governance — he’s probably dancing a little jig already.

Only two things can stop him: Sharif, if he wises up and somehow stops the election from being stolen; the army, if it decides the costs of non-intervention are higher than the benefits of the status quo.

Oh Zardari is dancing that jig all right.

The writer is a member of staff.


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