A pilgrimage to power?

Asif Ali Zardari lacks Benazir Buttoo’s erudition and charisma. He cannot boast even a fraction of her mass support. The best tribute to her came from her worst adversaries, some of whom wept after her 2007 assassination, admitting that politics wouldn’t ever be the same in Pakistan.

That’s why Zardari, who became President after the PPP rode to power on popular outrage and sympathy over his wife’s killing, was viewed as a usurper by a wide section of party cadres.

What then made Zardari log a better record than his slain wife on the Indo-Pak front? Trade and Siachen aren’t anymore linked by Islamabad with progress on Kashmir. The emphasis on the ‘doable’ among pending issues is writ as much in New Delhi subtly de-linking other bilateral business from Pakistan’s poor record in going after the perpetrators of 26/11 attacks.

Compare this with Benazir’s stints in power. Relations between our two countries had hit the rock bottom, the PPP leader showing little vision, political will or risk taking ability to mend ties. Much of her time was spent living down the myth of being pro-India. Resident Indian journalists were refused visas. Bilateral dialogue was largely disabled amid shrill rhetoric over Kashmir.

It’s difficult to forget the disastrous Foreign Secretaries’ level meeting soon after Benazir returned to power in 1994. Hers was a Kashmir-centric scorched-earth policy. I probed her about it while she was in India in 2003. Conceding the point, she promised to take better care next time.

That never happened. Benazir fell to the assassin’s bullet four years down the line. She was brave but fortune didn’t favour her. It favoured her equally doughty but a whole lot craftier spouse.

From his standpoint, Zardari, who chose a seven-year (1996-2004) incarceration on graft charges over buying peace with his wife’s tormentors, has done exceptionally well to get so close to completing his term as President despite low popularity and the taint acquired during Benazir’s stints as premier.

In the initial phases of his presidency, Zardari came under intense flak from the status quoists for his offer of no-first-use of nuclear weapons against India, leaving the Kashmir issue for resolution by future generations and dispelling the notion that India was a threat to Pakistan. He spoke enthusiastically about promoting trade relations and encouraging Indian investments in his country.

All that hasn’t happened but the de-bracketing of trade from Kashmir is a broad acceptance of Zardari’s argument that the territorial dispute cannot be resolved anytime soon. A no mean achievement this for a man considered an outsider in the presidency by his own party colleagues.

Zardari’s visit to Ajmer was packaged as a pilgrimage. It was hard to miss however the political objective that drove him to the revered durgah in remembrance of Benazir, flaunting whose legacy the PPP has stalled probes into monies held in Swiss accounts in defiance of the top judiciary. The pretence: doing so would mean putting an engraved Benazir on trial. The reality: an honest probe could link the booty to the President.

Elections are due early next year in Pakistan. In all probability it will see Bilawal’s formal launch in electoral politics, the family having kept indoors in the February 2008 polls that followed Benazir’s death. Every inch his mother’s son, he couldn’t have thought of optics better than he got in India to reaffirm the Bhutto lineage his father lacks.

The political jigsaw would fall in place if one reads the father-son duo’s Ajmer sojourn with the Sindh card Zardari’s playing by equating the Punjabi establishment’s assaults on his presidency with Benazir’s killing and Zulfikar Bhutto’s “judicial murder.” The picture gets even clearer upon factoring in the PPP’s political stakes in Sindh and Punjab’s Seraiki belt where the Sufi tradition is under attack by radical Islamic groups.

The enduring image therefore of the visit is that of the handsome Bhutto heir in the background while Zardari and his host, the Indian Premier, briefly addressed the media. The question remains whether the people of Pakistan would favour the family at the hustings? Will the father step aside and the son step up?

The PPP regime is perhaps the most unpopular Pakistan has seen in recent times. It remains to be seen whether the party’s core supporters will ignore that to wager on Bilawal or stay home the way they did to ensure Benazir’s defeat in 1997.

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