KARACHI: The mystery surrounding President Asif Ali Zardari’s departure earlier this month came to an end on Sunday when he arrived back in the country in the early hours of Monday as suddenly as he left.
The plane carrying the President landed at Air Force’s Masroor Base in Karachi past 1am, from where he was taken to his residence, Bilawal House.
By Sunday evening, the rumours about his arrival back in the country were headlines. That the rumours had emanated from the presidency were evident from the fact that most of his aides were hinting at his return, but refused to either confirm it or speak on the record.
Reports of security being bolstered at Bilawal House in Karachi were cited to prove that he would land there rather than in Islamabad.
But by midnight, after his plane had taken off from Dubai, there was still no official confirmation of where the president was to land; it was only when his plane entered Pakistan airspace that it was confirmed that he was on his way to Karachi.
President’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar told Dawn around midnight that the president would arrive at Karachi.
According to Pakistan standard time, the president flew from Dubai at around 11:30pm. He was accompanied by his younger daughter Asifa Zardari, security guards and his doctor. His plane landed at PAF Masroor base, where he was received by PPP leaders.
A close aide to the president also confirmed that Mr Zardari was feeling well, though he would rest in Karachi for a few days and chair party meetings before proceeding to Islamabad.
It was on Dec 6, a national holiday, that President Zardari was suddenly flown to Dubai. The country was left wondering what had prompted the departure.
The explanations ranged from serious illness to rumours of a soft coup to the idea that he had gone away to escape possible repercussions of the investigations into ‘memogate’.
The reason for the rumours galore was the memo affair which had towards the end of last month had compelled the government to announce the resignation of Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani.
Since American citizen Mansoor Ijaz had alleged that the PPP government had tried to collude with the American administration to rein in the Pakistan military, Haqqani had been fighting a losing battle.
He resigned on Nov 22, but within days the Supreme Court accepted a petition to look into the issue and asked the president, the army chief, the IS head and Husain Haqqani to submit their replies on the controversy.
With the SC order, the controversy got a new lease of life.
Rumours and speculation Critics and some observers began to conjecture that the scandal would sweep up the PPP government. The conjectures intensified to the extent that the general consensus was that Asif Zardari was under immense pressure.
Rumours and reports of his incoherent conversations with friends; colleagues and visiting dignitaries were the talk of the town as well as the country.
Hence, when he was flown out, most people were willing to believe that the pressure had had an adverse effect on his health, though the exact illness remained a mystery. From heart disease to stroke to mental disorders, everything was mentioned.
However, some analysts dismissed the reports that the president was seriously ill and instead claimed that he had left because he did not want to risk being in the country when the SC received the replies of the army chief and the ISI chief.
According to this theory, the president feared that if the replies of the military officials implicated him in the memo controversy, it was better for him and for the party that he be out of the country to lead and strategise for the PPP.
A third, more bizarre theory, which found few claimants, said he had left the country under a deal and would not return.
Sadly, the lack of accurate information from the PPP about the president’s health and illness simply gave the rumours more credence.
This lack of information gave his more vicious detractors the opportunity to argue that the president was unfit to continue as president because of his poor health.
That the government became aware of the consequences of this campaign was evident from the phone calls that the president then made from his hospital bed to the prime minister and journalists. Within days he shifted to his residence in Dubai.
However, a statement by the prime minister on Dec 12 that the president may need to rest for a couple of weeks then led to another round of speculation.
Compounding the confusion were the replies submitted to the SC on Dec 15 in which the statements of the ISI chief and the COAS were contradictory to the federation’s: the military officers were of the opinion that the memo existed and needed investigation while the government argued that the SC should dismiss the petition.
However, it is noteworthy that within a day the prime minister and the army chief held a lengthy meeting to dismiss the rumours of a confrontation between the army and the government while COAS Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was even reported to have spoken to Zardari on the phone.
Whether it was something the general said or just the magic of the treatment the president was receiving but a day after the call, Zardari felt well enough to return to the country.
Analysts believe that while his return to the country will end one set of rumours, the whispers will not end completely.
All is not well in Islamabad, it appears, and people may continue to closely watch the president’s movements, and his relations with the military leadership, to determine if the crisis emanating from the memo scandal was over.