Who will ace Zardaris’ ace?
As Bilawal Bhutto Zardari steps up to the plate to take on a more active role, becoming the face of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on his mother Benazir’s fifth death anniversary at the family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Buksh, Sindh, the populism that has been the hallmark of the PPP will be served up, heavily garnished with the dark story about his mother’s assassination.
The finger-pointing and the blame — most probably at former Army Chief and President Pervez Musharraf for failing to provide adequate security and, therefore, being complicit — will no doubt be used to muster a sympathy wave that it is hoped would offset the negatives from PPP’s five-year spell in power.
But will it fly? This is a government accused of corruption, inability to tackle endemic energy shortages, gut-wrenching poverty and blood-letting and violence in the premier city of Karachi. This amidst a groundswell of hate sparked by US drone strikes that pits a homegrown Taliban against the populace in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the unseen war on the ethnic Balochis.
Benazir’s legacy is also somewhat tarnished compared to what it was five years ago. President Asif Ali Zardari’s government, so focused on surviving day to day, dodging the many bullets coming its way, has failed to live up to the expectations of the ordinary Pakistani, whose hopes had lifted when Benazir returned, promising to be all things to all people.
Mr Zardari’s main contribution could be the unprecedented freedom that Pakistanis have enjoyed from the oppressive jackboot, although Rawalpindi’s intrusive presence has never really faded as can be seen by the Army-scripted response in the interior and foreign ministries when its civilian ministers — vetted by the military — deal with Washington, Delhi and Kabul.
Giving the US a free run, while mouthing platitudes as drone strikes wipe out villages unconnected with the terror network is the obvious fallout of a Pakistan dependent on US largesse for its survival. But the biggest disappointment all around is Mr Zardari’s inability, or should that be unwillingness, to do the right thing by India.
Underlining Indian unease, the Chantilly talks in France last week under the benign eye of the US — between a virulently anti-India Taliban and a Kabul caught between Delhi and Islamabad — saw Pakistan use its Taliban proxies to pitch for the southern provinces to be ceded to ISI-Taliban control as of old, once US forces complete their drawdown in 2014.
Marry that with Islamabad’s continuing obfuscation and refusal to see Delhi’s point of view on bringing the 26/11 masterminds to book and you can see how India has come away with nothing concrete from this five-year spell of civilian rule in Pakistan. No further reminder needed of the Army dominating the political discourse on security matters, as it has always done, to India’s detriment.
Cricket match bonhomie is mere window-dressing on entrenched fears in Pakistan’s establishment that it must counter India’s so-called encirclement of Pakistan through Afghanistan and Balochistan.
India, despite Mr Zardari’s well-meaning pronouncements to the contrary, has never been a priority. Pakistan’s canny President’s sole concern is to ensure that his somewhat wayward 24-year-old firstborn, a year short of the 25-year cutoff that would have made him eligible to stand for office, will tap into a sympathy wave that will make people overlook the downside and propel the party to a second consecutive term in office.
A long shot. But if Mr Zardari manages to pull it off, he will make the record books for having led the first civilian government in Pakistan to ever complete its term of office. In taking a shy at a second consecutive term, Mr Zardari stands to make history twice over, particularly if elections are held on time. While there are rumblings that they will be called off as targeted killings mount in Karachi and KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), his choice of caretaker Prime Minister to oversee a general election will be key, as will the role of the all-powerful Army, if it chooses once again to watch from the sidelines.
Reports of a cosy arrangement are doing the rounds between Mr Zardari and Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani overseen by Washington which has been batting quietly on the side of the angels. But the manner in which former President Pervez Musharraf has been kept out of the country with threats of a Benazir-style assassination is one standout indicator of a backroom deal between the two key arms of government.
While that takes care of one rival — and Musharraf’s APML hasn’t really taken off given the yawning trust deficit between the former Army Chief and Washington — the manner in which Mr Zardari counters more powerful leaders like Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League(N), cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and now Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, promises to be far more interesting,
Mr Zardari has already floated the idea of a vivisection of the dominant province of Punjab to launch the new state of Bahawalpur, which helps consolidate his hold over the pro-PPP Seraiki belt from where PPP stalwarts like former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureishi (now with Mr Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) hail.
The President’s appointment of Makhdoom Ahmed Mahmood — Mr Gilani’s cousin — as the new governor of Punjab, is linked to his strategy to cut into Miansaab’s vote share. Mr Khan and Mr Qadri, put in play by the Army for the very same reason, although it is Mr Sharif, in talks with a Washington trying to brow-beat him into submission, who is the man to watch during this unprecedented civilian-to-civilian transfer of power.
While the trio are seen as sporting “pet mein daadhi” (nurturing a beard in the stomach), or, in other words, all closet mullahs and hugely popular in their strongholds, Mr Sharif whose party comes closest to challenging the PPP must be able to resurrect its pan-Pakistan footprint and capitalise on the all pervasive anti-US, anti-Zardari, anti-Kayani feeling to turn the tables on Mr Zardari. So much for the young Bilawal’s charm offensive! As for India, it matters little which civilian is propped up.