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March 5, 2018
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Zigzagging Zardari & surrounded Sharifs

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March 5, 2018

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Pakistani politics is a mindboggling mélange of power, privilege and pelf. The Saturday election to refill half of the retiring Senate has thrown up many interesting scenarios for politics that politicians are finding painfully hard to commandeer away from the proverbial juggernaut.

At least they say it in private. Many pundits regularly claim that the country’s political chessboard is still laid out by Rawalpindi where “kings” and “queens” are only as powerful as the players handling them. Others portray lead politicians as rustlers continuously involved in horse-trading in the name of democracy. Interesting aspect remains that those benefiting from the game do not mind at all if they are touted as mere pawns or equine of sorts.

If we forget about the proverbial “establishment” for a moment, the election/selection for Senate has once again made it clear as to who the players are and who are the poor pawns. Like it or not, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif have established themselves as the “players” of Pakistani politics. Imran, introduced as a possible Carthusian stud is, however, proving to be a mere mustang, not ready to be tamed for the craft called politics but good enough to be a mule, potent to carry the burden of a hotchpotch party that may be needed again to scare the caravan at regular intervals of losing it all.

Observing the routine shenanigans of Pakistani politics reminds one of ancient Indian adage that mythological sages used to narrate to their women in family way so that they bear a “bhaagwant” child – one blessed with the best destiny, rather than a “gulwant” – one who works hard and creates wonders for oneself. “We saw philosophers and intellectuals standing or rushing to serve idiot kings”, they would explain when inquisitively challenged by expectant fathers.

Retired bureaucrats in Islamabad and ex-soldiers in suburbia regularly recount stories of how “blatantly corrupt” and “exceedingly inept” the leaders of Pakistan’s two largest political parties are. “They have plundered, looted and squandered Pakistan’s finances to fill their offshore accounts and buy mansions in Europe and the United States”, is the usual refrain. They would, however, find it uneasy to explain how the two “marauders” did it without the ready help and willingness of state functionaries.

Conspiracy theories aside, Asif Zardari was described by commentators as someone untrained, unsure, unready or even ill-equipped to run the party let alone the country when Ms Bhutto was assassinated in 2007. People said he was not a politician but was only married to one. He confounded all by completing a full term after Pervez Musharraf was elbowed out of Islamabad. It is immaterial now how Zardari rode into Islamabad on his destiny steed following his betrothal and subsequent matrimony to late Benazir Bhutto.

Similarly, it is good for academic debate how General Zia’s spy chief who was out to find urban leaders to challenge the political “threat” that remained after the hanging of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto picked up Nawaz Sharif. Sharif, no doubt was catapulted into power corridors by his martial minders but once ensconced as Punjab’s chief minister, he started throwing his root into popular political arena – something that was not liked by the generals who believed that Sharif had picked up a habit of unnecessarily locking horns with the army’s top brass.

Now, let’s put aside what happened to Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif so far. The Senate elections have pitched both of them against each other. While Nawaz Sharif is fighting battles on many fronts, Zardari has to pull down the only other wrestler in the ring. Well for now. And he seems more than willing to do that. He has waited anxiously for this moment. A moment that many believed might not come ever since mid-2015 when Zardari astonished all and sundry by challenging the military leaders by saying generals come and go but political leaders remain for good. He had to run after that and seek refuge in Dubai for months.

His time-off from the humdrum of daily political drama allowed him the needed time and space to think ways to zigzag back to the fast lane of Pakistani politics. He allowed Imran to hound Nawaz Sharif from one crisis to another while he offered overt and covert support to the sitting government for “the sake of democracy” till the time when Sharif successfully managed to corner himself.

As Panama pandemonium panned out solely for Sharif, Zardari relished by closely observing how Sharif’s grip loosened on power and government. He pounced on the first chance offered by circumstances in Balochistan and allegedly played the lead role in toppling PML-N’s non-performing setup.

Criticism on the course and conduct of the election would be a moot point for weeks. But the way Zardari & Co managed success in Karachi and KP reflects how future politics may progress. With Sharif surrounded from all directions, Zardari can create short-term understanding with PTI, JUI-F and independent winners from Balochistan and Fata to claim Senate leadership.

Ditching Sharif may deliver dividends for Zardari for now. His challenge remains in the weak nature of Pakistani polity. Political parties have historically been a barren largely devoid of critical proficiency. To expect Andalusian stallions among them is asking for miracles. But every now and then a mule shows signs of independence and courage. Creating a winning combination to regain Senate chairmanship can help boost PPP’s chances for short term. Zardari has a reputation of political machinations of buying loyalties. He has allegedly deep enough pockets to fund such an adventure too.

But more importantly, Zardari knows Sharifs are pitted against the most potent institutions in the country. In his desire to reclaim the government in Islamabad in 2018, he can create alliances that could return to haunt him. Even an ordinary student of Pakistani politics can predict that democratic dispensation in Pakistan could only work if both Punjab and Sindh act together to keep the challenges at bay. If Sharif failed to complete his third term with over 180 seats in the National Assembly, Zardari would be an easy target even if he musters 100 in the forthcoming elections.

There are national, regional and international forces that want to see Pakistan hobbling from one crisis to another with a weak, dysfunctional government at the Centre. Zardari may win Senate chairmanship for his party in the next a few days and then go on to win enough seats to create a loose government. But the question would remain – if Sharifs can’t be spared by powerful forces at work in Pakistani politics despite them being their darling once, will Zardari last long enough to leave a remarkable mark.

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