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In Defence of Asif Ali Zardari: Abdullah Zaidi

August 10, 2011

Guest post by ABDULLAH ZAIDI

What comes to your mind with the mention of Asif Ali Zardari? “A cunning, vile, and corrupt man,” said my 19 year old cousin. This was a good summation of what the urban middle-class thinks of him. The more I hear people talking about him the more I am convinced of the power of propaganda. “Give the dog a bad name and hang him,” Zardai once said about himself. That is what is at work here.

Despite what has been said about him, Zardari did have a political background. His father Hakim Ali Zardari entered politics well before Partition and was a member of the Khaksaar Tehreek in 1931. He was first elected to the National Assembly in 1970s. All this talk of Zardari as a political orphan who hogged the Bhutto dynasty upon marriage with Benazir, is a non-starter. In Benazir’s husband, the Bhutto family wanted someone who would remain loyal to her. That is exactly what they got in him. For Zardari, family would always come first. This was the case at the time of Benazir’s death, when he kept the family together. Benazir would often tell close aides that despite his failings, Zardari always remained loyal to the family.

During the ’80s and ’90s Zardari moved from the Prime Minister’s house to prison and back to the Prime Minister house again. All in all, Zardari’s time in prison comes to a total of 11 years. It is ironical that if convicted, all of the cases he is implicated in have a combined sentence of only 10 years. This easily makes him the biggest political prisoner of the country. In 1999, he was almost tortured to death, with the government alleging that he attempted suicide by cutting off his tongue. He developed spondylitis because of rickety police van rides from Karachi to Lahore for court hearings. He could either sit on a wooden bench or stand straight. He started walking with a cane and had to undergo physiotherapy. It is well within imagination that during this time, Zardari could have brokered a deal with the establishment, broken with Benazir and went into exile. Instead, what happened was that Benazir was murdered and Zardari took over a country divided on ethnic lines, on the brink of an economic meltdown, with a full-fledged insurgency in Balochistan and an ever growing militant threat.

Today, the greatest criticism of the Zardari regime is its massive involvement in corruption. While it is impossible to defend the regime’s corruption and nothing can excuse it, one is forced to think that the whole idea of corruption is inverted in this country. The narrative of corruption has two problems. The first is its singular focus on elected politicians. One hears a lot about politicians being corrupt but almost nothing about the enormous amount of corporate corruption. Corporate corruption is the most heinous form of corruption today. However, in Pakistan it would seem that every corporation is working well within its boundaries and is completely cognisant of its responsibilities. A major part of this corruption is related to the Pakistani military which has the greatest economic stake in this country. Are all these military-run business giants working cleanly? Is the military’s $17 billion business empire clean? Is the acquisition of 12 million acres of public land by the military clean?

Although it is the Government’s responsibility to weed out this menace, it would be wishful thinking to demand that a weak civilian government stand up to an overpowering army. Nevertheless, it is the parliament, and not the judiciary, which probed corruption in National Logistic Cell (NLC), a military-run organization, and indicted two Lt. Generals and one Major General. The Supreme Court today is in essence the anti-corruption regime of this country however almost all of the cases it has taken up involve civilian politicians. It does not receive much attention that the judiciary’s own performance with regard to disposal of cases and prosecution of terrorists has been questionable.

The second problem with the corruption narrative is the middle class’ concept of corruption. For the urban middle class a non-corrupt state would mean a laissez fair system which would leave the rural population at the mercy of the corporates. The Pakistani term for such a system is ‘meritocracy’ or ‘technocracy’. This is also why the urban middle class, which dominates the media, bureaucracy and military, fails to understand why the same ‘corrupt’ politicians come back to power through elections. Rural voters vote for people who they think can best connect them to the ‘English speaking state’. They are concerned with immediate issues such as tube-wells, canal lining, roads, employment, sanitation, water. They live largely aloof from the issues that the mainstream media raises. This is also the reason why Jamshed Dasti was re-elected despite a fierce campaign against him by the middle class.

The middle class rhetoric against ‘corruption’ is not unique to Pakistan. In India, a similar movement led by Anna Hazare calls for passing a Lokpal (Ombudsman) Bill which would make elected representatives accountable to a committee of ‘good’, ‘clean’ but un-elected citizens. Unlike Pakistan, however, the Indian media has been very critical of this movement. It is also worth mentioning that corruption in Indian politics way surpasses the corruption here. To cite an example, just the 2G spectrum allocation scam cost the Indian exchequer $39 billion.

So while we castigate the current regime’s corruption, which we should, we should also be cognisant of the parallel narratives of corruption. In this country politicians have continually been booked for corruption while everyone else goes scot-free.

Finally, there have been substantially positive things that have been initiated by this regime but they need several articles to discuss. For now we can do with just noting them. The NFC award, the 18th and 19th Amendments, the Devolution plan, and the Benazir Income Support Program are all success stories to say the least. It is for the first time that we have a functioning Parliament (in which the opposition and government coexist), an independent and aggressive judiciary, and a free media, all at the same time in this country. All of these are institution-building measures which shall have a lasting impact on the country’s political dynamics.

(The writer works with a think tank in Islamabad. These are his personal views. His email is abdullah.muhammad.zaidi at gmail dot com.)

21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2011 5:58 PM

    its DEFENSE.

  2. voyeur permalink
    August 10, 2011 7:28 PM

    Sir,
    I realize that some criticism of Zardari has been specious. However, just as I would not deride a politician just because his family has no political background, to my mind, the fact that Zardari’s father was a big politician is no reason to say he was qualified to be president.

    Is it of any meaningful benefit to common Pakistanis that he remained loyal to the ‘family’?
    I feel that this family loyalism is some kind of elitism that assumes that a betrayal of the family is the betrayal of Pakistan.

    I would rather have a leader who betrayed his family than one who betrayed the public (By way of corruption/abuse of power/maladministration etc.) Just as India has bigger corruption scandals we have bigger family sycophancy too. When Hina Rabbani Khar was here a friend tweeted derisively that she wins in Pakistan in a “family borough” I told him that’s no big deal considering our entire country is a family borough.

    Here is a question you can answer better than me: Has Zardari delivered good governance to Pakistan? For all the connection this political class has provided the rural masses to the English speaking state, are they better off today? I appreciate your point that laissez fair is probably a horrible alternative to shift to, but this should be no excuse for tolerating corruption.

    You are better placed to answer another question: Has Zardari not been corrupt? Now and at the time he first earned the “Mr. 10%” tag.

  3. August 10, 2011 7:43 PM

    Wah ,bare mian to bare mian, chote mian Subhan Allah.

    Fine, there may be substance in defending AAZ, but to wrap up defence for Jamshed Dasti,

    If I may tell the readers Jamshed Dasti is the person who stood up in the Parliament opposing Sexual harrassment Bill, who threatened Mukhtaran Mai to withdraw her rape case, and foul mouthed about her on TV, a holder of fake MA Islamiat degree. When the judge asked him to name the Quranic Surahs, he told the wrong names of first two Surahs.In summary, he is a local thug, with 35 criminal not political charges on him

    To claim:
    “Rural voters vote for people who they think can best connect them to the ‘English speaking state’. They are concerned with immediate issues such as tube-wells, canal lining, roads, employment, sanitation, water.”

    Hahh who are you kidding, Mr Zaidi? Had that been the case, the plight of rural Feudal Pakistan would’ve been much different.

    We in India & Pakistan know very well how local thugs, especially in rural areas, manipulate polls and voters to make way into the parliament.

    • readinglord permalink
      August 12, 2011 5:27 AM

      Why to castigate Dasti! The most serious charge you leveled against him is that of a fake degree but as I came to know through our media his degree was not fake but only the institution which had awarded that was not recognized.
      As regards his statements exposing the fraud of Mukhtaran Mai these have been vindicated by the judgment of the SC on her appeal.

      The only fault of Dasti is that he is a straightforward man, a rarity in politics.

  4. Sohail Hashmi permalink
    August 10, 2011 10:29 PM

    Mr 10% is how he is popularly known in his country, though his take is reputed to have been higher at times. but between a corrupt military regime and a corrupt civilian regime my preference will always be for a corrupt civilian regime. The choice of an honest regime is not on offer.
    and as far as fighting a popularly elected govt, no matter how corrupt, with the help of a handful of non elected good citizens is concerned, it is not my idea of fighting corruption.

    the likes of Anna, Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi and others who have never ever contested an election, would always target the democratically elected and never the corporate houses.
    their separated at birth cousins across the border speak the same language and I have as little sypmathy for them as I have for their home grown siblings.

    • Aditya Nigam permalink*
      August 11, 2011 3:18 PM

      Pardon me, Sohail, if I fail to understand this strange logic of our warped times. So, a defense of Zardari is necessary because he represents the ‘popular sentiment’ (and as Ilmanafasih’s comment points out, that could also be a misogynist, Talibani viewpoint) as opposed to the English speaking middle class or because we only have the alternative of a corrupt military regime to choose from? And I really do not understand this point about people who have never contested an election. First it is not fair to say that such people (and here you name some people) would only target democratically elected governments when you know that most of the cases of recent corruption that are being raised by the campaign have to do precisely with corporate corruption that functions hand in glove with that of politicians. In fact, it is only through the latter that the former materializes – if the Radia tapes affair is any indication.
      But really I would now like to see a defense of Jamshed Dasti – especially after the comment above has made clear his stance on Mukhtaran Mai and the Sexual Harassment Bill? Since the wikipedia link provided in the post says nothing about any thing as far as this man is concerned and, just in case, Ilmanafasih is misleading the world about him, would you like to take a call or Shivam?

  5. cmnaim permalink
    August 10, 2011 11:49 PM

    What the writer totally ignored is that during the absence of BB and AZ the PPP had managed to produce a few independent leaders who had run the party and also gained some respect for the party in the country in the country and some trust with the people. For one, Aitzaz Ahsan. Or Salman Taseer. What happened to them? Why did they disappear from leadership and decision-making within the party? He also did not mention the infamous secret “will” of BB that actually put the crown on AZ? Is that any way to run a respectable political party that intends to bring democracy back in the country? And what if AZ passes away tomorrow — will the writer be happy to see Bilawal crowned as both the president of the party and the President of the country. Fondness for this worst form of oligarchy reflects only adherents’ own elitism.

    The free media in Pakistan came into existence under Musharraf; the independent and vigorous judiciary came into existence through its own initiative and the non-partisan support of a whole range of people. Neither owes anything to the PPP. As for the lawmakers and the executive, their efforts or progress could be best described as one step forward, one leap backward. Consider the most recent flip-flop in Sindh–one day the local governments disappeared, and the terrible colonial commissionaries were brought back, now they have been discarded and we hear of a return to the Nazims.

  6. Littlemiss permalink
    August 11, 2011 1:04 AM

    Hakim Ali Zardari was a scoundrel, cheat and robber in his own time – a common thug who robbed corporate Pakistan with impunity. Not sure about politics – but he definitely did pass his corrupt genes on to his son.

  7. August 11, 2011 5:36 AM

    Sorry, for needing to make some more comments.

    There is one thing colliding with an elected regime, no matter how corrupt it is. And doing that would be banging one’s own head, as their mandate makes them stay in place.

    But there is another thing colluding with a corrupt regime–be it a military or elected. One has a right to criticise them for their wrong doings to keep them in check..

    The tragedy with AAZ is that he has blind haters or blind supporters. There is hardly anyone judging AAZ objectively pointing at his positives and negatives simultaneously.

  8. ooh, On the Other Hand permalink
    August 11, 2011 7:08 AM

    shivam vija, please publish a similar pieces in defense of A.Raja, Suresh Kalmadi and others whom the middle classes think are corrupt.If Zardari can be defended like this why not they too. Anyway this piece reads like an advertorial.

    ‘In this country politicians have continually been booked for corruption while everyone else goes scot-free.”
    Poor politicians, I am sure that the next post is that among looters the politicians are those who loot most but criticized as worst enemies of the people.

  9. Abdullah Zaidi permalink
    August 11, 2011 4:00 PM

    @All

    I apologize for not responding yet. I shall respond at my earliest.

    Thanks for your Comments.

  10. hadia khan permalink
    August 11, 2011 8:21 PM

    “The writer works with a think tank in Islamabad”. God help us!

  11. August 11, 2011 9:16 PM

    I wonder if I can attach links here, but Aditya Nigam if you could leave an email here, I would send you links of all that I have said. What I said about Jamshed Dasti is the least one can say, and is an open fact in Pakistan, broadcast nth number of times on TV.

    I am also keenly awaiting Abdullah Zaidi’s defence of Jamshed Dasti.

    And yes I agree, Zardari is a butt of propaganda in Pakistan–far more than what he deserves perhaps.

    Let’s see.

  12. August 12, 2011 8:54 PM

    @all
    First of all let me tell you guys that this article was originally meant for a Pakistani audience only, so we have a little contextual issues.

    Well, firstly in our country there is immense talk in our country about the fact that Zardari is a man who had no political standing before he got married to Benazir. Benazir and her family had suffered (and somehow did have a right to politics) but Zardari had no political baggage. I was only answering this criticism, not making a case for familial politics in Pakistan. I do not believe that Zardari deserves to be the President because he comes from the largest political dynasties of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan have the right to elect their representatives. They have elected the PPP.

    To answer your question about his governance. I would answer with a NO and YES. On the outset the mal-governance of this regime is very palpable. No one can defend the corruption and nepotism that goes around in Pakistan today. The question worth asking is, did Zardari trigger this corruption? What can the Zardari regime (which btw faces daily existentialist challenges) can do, and is doing to provide good governance in this country. It is true that it has big failings on this front. One of the biggest failures of the regime and the Parliament is that it has not even passed a comprehensive Accountability Law.

    But as I said, narrative of accountability should not be singular with a undue emphasis on politicians. While, we rally, lobby and castigate corrupt politicians, we should also talk of the institutionalized corruption in this country. There are some questions worth pondering here. Firstly, was there no corruption before Zardari? Is all the infinite anger, propaganda, slander directed towards him because he’s corrupt or because he is shifting the centre of corruption from Rawalpindi to say Sindh? :P If corruption is the original sin why is it just the original sin now and not before?

    Historically, the PPP has done substantial things for marginalized areas in Pakistan. That is why it has its main support base in these constituencies. The claim that rural population is manipulated by the feudals endlessly is condescending towards the activism and politics of the rural people in this country. The urban claims that the poor villagers can be manipulated and we educated urbans cannot is very condescending. In fact, I think it is the urbans who never go to vote because they rely on a totally different structure for power, resources, benefits etc. A good example of this is Balochistan. According to the establishment’s narrative the Baloch Sardars/tribals who have subjugated the Baloch population for years are and running the insurgency. The establishment uses this argument to murder, maim and abduct Baloch activists. What does not get attention is the fact that this insurgency is now being run by the middle class in areas such as Makran where there is no Sardari system for at least a century.

    I would like to make another point regarding governance of this regime. This July the process of devolution initiated by this government was completed. The concurrent list was done away with, which means that above 40 subjects, which were previously domain of the centre, were transferred to the provinces. This was originally promised in the 1973 constitution but Centrists somehow delayed it for around 30 year. Now this was the dream this country was made on. This marks a watershed in the history centre province relations of this country. Today the provinces stand most powerful ever.

    Last, but not least is the case of Jamshed Dasti. I would never defend Dasti as whole. I was only writing in a particular context which I would like to elaborate in this comment. Ex-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf introduced the law in which the condition of a mandatory graduation degree was put for election to the National Assembly. Thus a dictator stripped an overwhelming majority of the country’s population from the right to stand in elections. Jamshed Dasti violated this law, he got a fake degree, went into the elections and won. later he was caught. The Supreme Court grilled him and he was humiliated all around. The media vilified him beyond limits. Finally, he resigned. Then Dasti went into elections again. The media derided him and pundits predicted the end of his career. But Dasti won again. It was at least an eye opener for me. I learned my lesson that when it comes to elections, practical issues of constituents are outstanding and everything else is secondary. The media has not learned though. Yes Jamshed Dasti railed against Mukhtara Mai and that should be condemned as much as possible.

  13. akram permalink
    August 21, 2011 12:14 AM

    When I spoke to working class Pakistanis, at least some of them otherwise committed members of the PPP, they were almost all unanimous in their vehement dislike for Zardari.

    The view that it’s only the “urban middle-classes” who have a problem with Zardari is, interestingly, something I’ve only heard from urban middle-classes (upper classes, I should say), who are ideologically aligned with the PPP.

    The presentation of corporate corruption as being in the realm of the military and somehow distinct from political corruption needs to be seriously qualified. There is overlap right across the three realms. The claim that the PPP is the quintessential representative of the rural population, and somehow non-corporate (if not anti-corporate) also needs to be qualified. Ultimately, why single out corporations to the exclusion of big landlords, or medium-sized cotton enterprises, or transport and land mafias?

    The problem with the PPP is not that it is more or less corrupt than other parties or the military or the corporates (whoever they are), the problem is the inability of the PPP to offer a truly national and popular political project to the people of Pakistan that overcomes their quotidian exploitation.

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