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(First published on December 22, 2018)

Mr President, it’s about time we release him. He’ll prove more damaging to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) outside jail than inside.” This reportedly was the advice given to General Pervez Musharraf by one of his colleagues about Asif Ali Zardari, the then incarcerated husband of former premier Benazir Bhutto. It was in February 2007, barely months before her return and assassination, that a piece titled ‘The End of The Affair’ written by a noted Pakistani journalist was carried by an Indian newspaper. The story quoted a ‘prominent Pakistani close to both Zardari and Benazir’ stating, “The marriage is over. Both have decided to get on with life and live in countries of their own choosing. There has even been a distribution of assets; that’s why her statement last year to the Swiss court.”

When he was released from prison in 2004, the former first gentleman must not have even imagined that a lengthy and influential political career lay before him. He immediately flew to reunite with his family abroad. The above-mentioned article then claimed that within years, the relationship soured to such an extent that it had become an empty shell of a marriage. The reporter further claimed: “For one, Benazir lives in Dubai, Zardari in a New York apartment with his dogs… Influential expat Pakistanis say Benazir did not stay with her husband when she visited the Big Apple, choosing instead to reside with a friend there.”

Reports also emerged that a prominent journalist, who has chosen to settle abroad, even advised her to divorce him for he had become a massive liability for her and her party. We do not have any means to confirm the veracity of these claims now owing to the tragic end of her life and nobody would have the nerve to ask her grieving husband about it. But that is not the point of mentioning the article here which is still available online. The purpose is to point out that only shortly after he was all but written off by the media and the pundits a tragedy thrust him into political limelight and brought him to the apogee of power. He first became the party’s co-chairman and then the president of Pakistan.

History has a curious way of using ordinary mortals to get extraordinary, sometimes exceptional, sometimes great results. That is how it marches. But the cruel thing about this arrangement is that once a vessel has fulfilled its purpose, it is abandoned. The said man or woman can then look in the mirror, take stock of the situation, know own limitations and bow out. But then there are those, who once surrounded by sycophants, refuse to read the writing on the wall and end up losing whatever goodwill and legacy they had built. Leave gracefully or lose everything. That is the choice. They choose the latter.

When he assumed the co-chairmanship of his party along with his young son and got himself elected as the president of the country, to a party worker it made perfect sense. Bilawal was very young and inexperienced. It was widely believed that there was an effort to hijack the party with the help of now late party leader Makhdoom Amin Faheem. He had to ensure that the party stayed intact until Bilawal had aged enough to have a fighting chance. That since his party had a wafer-thin majority in a hung parliament, the best way for him was to get elected as prime minister. So, there was no dearth of people who want to normalise him and tolerate his old bad repute. It was all for the greater good, for democracy. But then there was a little class, as there always is, that wanted to rise rapidly in his good books. It pulled all stops in sycophancy.

From a man derogatorily called Mr 10 per cent (implying the percentage of cut as a bribe in every project) to being referred to a PhD in Politics (a title meant to throw people off the scent of his woefully-limited education for the man was not even a simple graduate), it was his shortest journey. Within months he had arrived here. To think that the system was remarkably gracious to him is no exaggeration. But he threw all away. There were four obstacles during his rule, Nawaz Sharif; the then chief justice; the then army chief and a media group. Had he chosen to win over the first three, his party’s government would have been far more successful. But his chose petty jailhouse knife fights which he always lost. The government was dead in waters and yet was permitted to survive for five years. When his first PM was sacked, it was on his explicit orders to fall on own sword. The man had grown too big for one’s britches. When the election came, his party shrank. He had single-handedly obliterated Benazir’s legacy of sacrifice.

But his true test came when during the following government, he publicly criticised the then army chief, in the middle of an ongoing existential fight against terrorism. The idea was that Nawaz Sharif would stand with him. But the then premier had already thrown himself under the bus in protecting Zardari against corruption investigations and could not be asked to do more. When as promised the former president could not shake the moorings of the state, he tried to reconcile with the establishment against Sharif. Or so he claimed. But in truth, his distinctly reductionist worldview meant he continued with knife fights within the party. He sabotaged his party’s nominee for the chairman Senate who happened to be the architect of the 18th amendment. Again, something about size and boots. It was singular feat of snatching defeat from the jaws an almost certain victory.

He continued to sabotage his would-be allies. Hey, what was the point in standing with Nawaz Sharif. The man is so simple that one whistle and he would be standing behind Zardari again, he privately claimed.

But by not listening to reason and not stepping aside in time to make room for his son who had matured enough and had gained considerable traction, he once again destroyed his party’s chances of revival. And dashed the dreams of those moderates and liberals who wanted to witness a break from a current system where the two leading parties are from the centre-right. What are the plausible explanations for his antics now that he has come full circle and stares at the distinct possibility of being jailed for corruption with evidence? None. Some PhD in politics.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 22, 2018.

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