What next for Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP?

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force

The writer is a defence analyst who retired as an air vice-marshal in the Pakistan Air Force


Asif Zardari has survived. Given his, by now famous quip, “maulay noon Maula na maray te maula nahin marda”, is a sad reflection of someone consumed by a singular fear of being eliminated by one of the numerous enemies perceived by him. This fear practically paralysed him into inaction and gave him that fortress mentality that never let him truly venture beyond the safety of his four presidential walls. Being concurrently both the administrative and operational head of his party, the functioning of the PPP government suffered inexorably since the mind leading it seemed numbed into stagnation.

There were bright spots nonetheless, in particular, resurrecting the 1973 Constitution to as close to its intended character as possible, though the credit must also be given to other parties and to Raza Rabbani, as well. That too much was expected of Raza Rabbani, when he was also made to head the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), became apparent when the recommendations by the committee failed to find resonance within the government itself, while being seen as overzealously interventionist in government affairs. Neither did any good to the image of the PPP in power and to the PPP as a political player.

Foreign policy under the PPP found traction later in the party’s tenure and much credit for that rests with the confidence that the young foreign minister in Hina Rabbani Khar seemed to exude. She proved to be a no-nonsense foreign minister and remains the hope for a resurrected PPP to fall back on. It is sad that given the moribund nature of our politics, Mian Nawaz Sharif cannot call on her to fill in when the PML-N is desperately short of talent in the area of foreign policy. A thought, worthy of consideration.

The last five years established a consummate politician in Asif Zardari’s person. To his credit, not only did his government complete five years, he did too. There were challenges galore to his personal character and integrity, and barbs, but he bore them all with characteristic grace without ever flinching to react impulsively or by resorting to petty vendetta. He carried a great sense of proportion when dealing with the military, which the PPP presumes caries a pervasive disaffection of the party; though he could be held liable for incentivising a subtle media campaign to sully the military’s image.

He was always mindful of not upsetting the applecart; if it also meant his own longevity, personal and as president, that was a useful windfall. His politics carried the day for him and for the political system of Pakistan, but he and his party failed miserably at the altar of what politics is meant to do — deliver services to people and prosperity to the nation. He and his party remained devoid of any creative sense of either recovering the economy or of instituting social cohesion and improvement. The leadership was largely absent and his two protégés in the prime ministerial slots were an apology of a choice. They could only add to the reams of tales on corruption as individuals and through their extended families, to mar the already sad image of their party.

As president, the last five years were more likely a sobering experience for Asif Zardari. He is certain to have learnt about his limitations. Being suave and sophisticated in local political dynamics was no replacement for the required intellect in global politics. Asif Zardari sadly lacks that. Not well read, he can make do with some off-the-cuff clever parrying on what is discussed with him by his far more informed and culturally imbibed international interlocutors, but to develop an extended line of argument that might deliver to his nation a position of advantage, in line with a clear vision of strategic national interests, in a very challenging global environment, is beyond his pale. Global economics and the trends therein may, too, have seemed beyond his reach. If at all, the sense is very native and primitive. Being street-smart can afford you only so much opportunity at the global level.

Yet, Asif Zardari is perhaps the only man who can rescue the PPP from the abyss it currently finds itself in and resurrect it to its older glory. Since such a rise from the ashes is dependent on the support of an electorate which is still very archaic and primitively sensitive to emotional affiliation, he can make the right noises in such a societal environment. Introducing Aseefa to politics is a hugely potent move. She carries the emotional flexibility to connect easily with people; unlike Bilawal who appears rigid in his movement and unassuring to his watchers — failing to elicit confidence, the key elixir of popular politics.

Asif Zardari is sensible enough to have declared that he seeks no further political office — remember his capacity constraints; he will thus need to first discover some intellectual skill in his party and then invest them with prominent responsibilities to reorganise, repopulate and redirect the party into a newer role relevant to 21st Century needs. The PPP’s major inadequacy is in the field of economy and its related aspects. Perhaps it can still do well in security and foreign affairs and in some sociopolitical domains of governance, but it desperately needs people with specialised qualifications in each of these disciplines. Politics as usual is not the politics that will go with today’s needs.

For the moment, and as evinced in their last stint, other than a chance discovery of Hina Khar, the plate was mostly quite empty of any visible and exercised intellect. While the usual bevy of ministers will still be some old names, there is a need to cast the net wider and bring in expertise at various levels in the hierarchy to conceive and implement policies and strategies that will propel Pakistan forward. With its current team, save an odd exception, stasis alone is what this party can deliver in its current composition.

Zardari’s expertise in basic political dynamics will need to change to incorporate a more global view and seek a greater inclusivity to populate the party with faces beyond his acquaintance. For that he will need to shed his inherent insecurities and inculcate in him and into his party a tradition of free thinking and innovative ideas. For that suitable human material is the first requirement.

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