Faux Bhutto, naturalized Gandhi
No foreword to a blog on contemporary Pakistan can be complete without some mention of Asif Zardari, who promised to model himself after India’s Sonia Gandhi but fell to the lure of de jure power so assiduously shunned by Indira’s bahu.
The comparison is odious as in reality there’s little in common between Sonia and Zardari except, of course, their inheritance amid comparable tragedies, of legacies of renowned political families to which they weren’t born. Unlike the forever cautious and discreet Sonia— who has about her the Nehru-Gandhi mystique— Zardari is garrulous, compulsively glad eyed, even gawky by the Bhutto standards.
He can be charming but lacks the charisma of his late wife, Benazir, who, by his own admission, never credited him with much erudition or sophistication. Small wonder then that Zardari remains faux Bhutto and Sonia the acceptable Gandhi.
He’s barely clinging to office amid all round disdain— yes, disdain is the word—while she’s powerful, high in popular esteem and the unquestioned boss of her party without the trappings of a public office. South Asians love leaders who spurn formal power; Pakistan’s no exception if Nawaz Sharif’s rising stock at Zardari’ expense is any guide.
Sonia set her own high standards of renouncing power the other day by projecting Dr Manmohan Singh as the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate. In the past, no outsider was so honored while the party’s leadership remained with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Sonia wasn’t in politics when Narasimha Rao, as incumbent Premier and party chief, became the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate in the 1996 polls it lost.
One doesn’t really know whether Zardari watched Sonia on TV screens—especially the moment she hid her picture to hold up Singh’s portrait on the cover of Congress’ election manifesto to emphasize his candidature. The occasion was memorable, even historic, because her gesture was in response to a question on son Rahul’s grooming for the top slot. If he has missed the footage, Zardari must call for a CD to learn first hand what king-making it all about? The option of de facto power he so quickly abandoned to become President helped Sonia address the dynasty charge without queering up the pitch for Rahul.
Unlike Sonia, Zardari became a power-seeker rather than remaining the keeper of his wife’s legacy until his son Bilawal came of age. As one who placed presidential powers above parental duty, he comes across as a failed leader and father.
Is there something about the Sonia model that’s typically Indian and not easily replicable?