Cunning, devious, erratic.
These are the allegations increasingly being used about President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan inside the coalition formed by Benazir Bhutto before her assassination in order to fight for the restoration of democracy as well as inside his own Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Well-informed sources in the PPP say that ever since he took over as the President in September last year, he has sought to marginalise the loyalists of Benazir Bhutto and have them replaced by loyalists of the Zardari family. The Bhutto loyalists have been shocked by the disinterest allegedly shown by him in pursuing vigorously the investigation into the assassination of his wife. Instead of doing so, he has allegedly asked Rehman Malik, the Internal Security Adviser, to suspend any further investigation on the ground that the UN Secretary-General has already initiated action for the case to be investigated by a team appointed by him. It is alleged that anyone, who raises the question of the lack of progress in the investigation, incurs Zardari's wrath and is subjected to harassment by the police. A typical example is that of Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, of the Sindh National Front (SNF), who is a cousin of the late Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and a founding-father of the PPP. The police have allegedly been set after him and other members of the SNF after they raised the issue of the investigation in public.
These PPP sources claim that Bhutto loyalists have started raising doubts about the genuineness of the so-called political will of Benazir Bhutto on the basis of which Zardari took over the interim leadership of the PPP till their son Bilawal, designated in the so-called will as her ultimate successor, came of age to be able to take over the leadership. There has been no demand so far for an enquiry into the genuineness of the will, but there are increasing insinuations that the so-called will was the idea of Rehman Malik. Malik used to be in charge of co-ordinating physical security arrangements for Benazir Bhutto and many in the party accuse him of negligence which, according to them, contributed to her assassination. To the surprise of many, who were close to Benazir, not only no action was taken against him by Zardari, but he was appointed as the Internal Security Adviser with the rank of a Cabinet Minister and has emerged as a close personal adviser of Zardari. It is alleged in party circles that Malik, himself a retired police officer, has been misusing the police officers of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in which he had served during Benazir Bhutto's second tenure (1993-96) as the Prime Minister for monitoring the activities of the critics of Zardari.
Speculation about differences between Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani continue to gain currency despite repeated denials by both. These PPP sources say that Gilani is unhappy that important decisions are being taken by Zardari and his close group of advisers without consulting him or keeping him in the picture and instructions issued directly over his head to senior bureaucrats to have the decisions executed. Gilani was also excluded from the committee set up by Zardari for selecting Party candidates for the elections to fill up vacancies in the Senate, the upprer House of the Parliament.It is said that Gilani was taken by surprise by the press conference held by Rehman Malik at which he admitted that there was partial involvement by certain elements in Pakistan in the conspiracy for the Mumbai terrorist attack. Only a day before Malik's press conference, the Cabinet Committee on Defence had discussed the Indian allegations and it was reportedly decided that a set of questions should be sent to India and that Pakistan should await India's replies before deciding on the next step.
It is alleged that Zardari, who was under tremendous pressure from the US to co-operate with India, advised Malik to admit partial involvement without awaiting India's replies to the questions. The PPP sources claim that even Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), who was present at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee, was surprised by Malik's press conference.
During Benazir Bhutto's second tenure as the Prime Minister, many PPP workers known for their loyalty to Zardari had been recruited into Government Departments, including the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the FIA. After dismissing her in 1996, Farooq Leghari, the then President, had sacked all these people who had been recruited without following the civil service recruitment rules. It is said that Zardari has been keen to have these people re-taken into the jobs from which they were sacked by Leghari, but Gilani has been strongly resisting this.
Senior officials of the Foreign Office are mystified by Zardari's decision to visit Wuhan and Shanghai in China from February 20 to 24, 2009, without an official invitation from the Chinese Government. He did not visit Beijing. Nor did he meet any Chinese leaders. He only spoke to President Hu Jintao over phone from Shanghai before returning to Islamabad. The Chinese had reportedly told Zardari that since they would be busy in connection with the first visit of Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to China after assuming office, they would not be in a position to receive him in Beijing during February. In spite of this, he decided to go ahead with his visit and restrict his visit to Wuhan and Shanghai only. His advisers projected his decision as part of the plan announced by him after taking over as the President to visit different provinces of China once a quarter to learn from China's experience in economic development. Foreign Office officials have been saying that it is not in keeping with the dignity of the office of the President of Pakistan to keep travelling to other countries--even if it be to China-- without a formal invitation and without taking into account the convenience of the hosts.They project this as an indicator of what they allege as the erratic and flippant streak in him.
Zardari has also come in for strong criticism inside his own party as well as inside the ruling coalition for what they see as the lack of transparency in matters relating to co-operation with the US in its fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Reports carried by sections of the US media alleging that the increasing Predator air strikes on suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs in Pakistani territory are being carried out with the knowledge and tacit consent of Zardari have added to the suspicions that he has a huge debt to pay to the US for its role in persuading Gen. Pervez Musharraf, when he was the President, to issue the National Reconciliation Ordinance to withdraw the pending cases against him and Benazir to enable them to return to Pakistan from political exile and contest the elections.
His decision not to take any action against Musharraf for his repeated violations of the Constitution when he was in power and not to reinstate former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury, who was sacked by Musharraf, are also seen by many of his critics as motivated partly by his own interests and partly by US desires. It is alleged that Zardari is worried that if he reinstated the former Chief Justice, the latter might question the validity of the National Reconciliation Ordinance and order a retrial of the case relating to the alleged murder of Murtaza Ali Bhutto, the younger brother of Benazir, at Karachi in September 1996. Zardari was an accused in the case, which has since been closed. The US also feels uncomfortable with the former Chief Justice because of the interest taken by him in looking into the cases of a large number of Pakistanis, who were picked up by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and handed over to the US intelligence without following the due process of the law because the US suspected that they were involved with Al Qaeda. Many of them are reported to be in the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.
Nawaz Sharif is bitter with Zardari for the way he has gone back on every commitment made by him before the elections to the National Assembly in February last year. He first went back on the commitment made regarding the reinstatement of the former Chief Justice. He then took Nawaz Sharif by surprise by manipulating to have himself nominated and elected as the President and then went back on the commitment to do away with the various constitutional amendments introduced through decree by Musharraf to restore to the President the powers to dismiss the Prime Minister and dissolve the National Assembly. He also went back on the commitment to review the various aspects of co-operation with the US in its so-called war against terrorism in order to remove those aspects which were not in Pakistan's national interests.
When Nawaz Sharif announced his support for a fresh agitation by the lawyers to demand the reinstatement of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury, Zardari allegedly sent Rehman Malik to meet him and his brother Shabaz Sharif, till recently the Chief Minister of Punjab, to warn them that if Nawaz Sharif supported the fresh agitation by the lawyers, he (Zardari) would not oppose any ruling by a bench of the Supreme Court to disqualify Nawaz and his brother from contesting any election and holding any public office.
Whereas Zardari and Benazir were the accused in many criminal cases which had not ended in any conviction, Nawaz Sharif had been convicted on a charge of attempted hijacking of the aircraft in which Musharraf was travelling from Colombo to Karachi in October 1999, which provoked the coup against Nawaz. His brother was the accused in two criminal cases, but not a convict. While the US-supported National Reconciliation Ordinance led to the withdrawal of the cases against Benazir and Zardari, it did not affect the conviction of Nawaz and the cases against his brother.
Despite this, the Election Commission allowed Shabaz Sharif to contest the election. He became the Chief Minister of Punjab with the support of the PPP. Nawaz was not able to contest the election because of his conviction. He was hopeful that if Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury was reinstated as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court he would have his conviction reviewed and set aside. Zardari had reportedly promised Nawaz that the Government would take the initiative to have his conviction set aside, but he went back on the promise. Nawaz and his brother refused to appear before a bench consisting of Judges appointed by Musharraf to argue their case. The result: the bench's ruling on February 25,2009, declaring them as ineligible to contest elections and to hold any public office.Shabaz Sharif has resigned as the Chief Minister and Governor's rule has been proclaimed in the province for two months. The PPP hopes to form the provincial Government with the help of Musharraf loyalists in the PML ( Qaide Azam) and possible defectors from the PML of Nawaz.
Though Zardari's advisers have been strongly denying that he had anything to do with the ruling, Nawaz and Shabaz are convinced that the ruling was induced by Zardari. There has already been public agitation on this issue. Presuming that Zardari had a role in inducing this ruling by the bench of the Supreme Court, this could prove to be as unwise and as damaging as the decision of Musharraf in 2007 to have Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury sacked. Zardari is not Benazir. He is seen by many in his own party as a political upstart. His confrontation with Nawaz could set in motion a chain of events which may ultimately discredit once again the political class in Pakistan and prepare the ground for another spell of military rule.
The US has reasons to be concerned over the developments in Pakistan. There is a trust deficit between US and Nawaz. US continues to back Zardari who has shown himself to be as amenable to US wishes as Musharraf, if not even more. It continues to encourage Gen.Kayani to back Zardari. But Zardari's mishandling of the political situation could come in the way of the US operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban at a time when the Obama Administration is re-tooling its Afghan strategy.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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