The Dawn News of Karachi reported as follows:
“President Asif Ali Zardari on Tuesday (December 6,2011) arrived in Dubai for a medical check-up. According to presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar, the President has traveled to Dubai along with his team of doctors for an extensive medical examination. He added that before his departure, President Zardari had separate meetings with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Chairman Senate Farooq H Naik, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik. The President was accompanied not only by his personal doctor Colonel Salman and his medical team, but also by some members of the Assembly, said Mr Babar.”
A subsequent report claimed that Zardari has entered a Dubai hospital for a medical examination. Babar was quoted as having denied that Zardari had undergone a medical examination in Pakistan before he was flown to Dubai.
Zardari frequently visits Dubai where he has considerable property and investments and where his daughters live. Rarely announcements are made about such private visits. This time, though, his spokesman has taken care to announce his departure for Dubai and to specify that it was for a medical check-up.
While no one has questioned that the visit could have been for genuine medical reasons, there has been some speculation as to whether Zardari’s medical condition requiring an urgent check-up might have been triggered by the considerable political pressure faced by him in relation to two current political controversies.
The first controversy relates to the so-called Memogate affair. It is about the claims made by Manzoor Ijaz, an American businessman of Pakistani origin, that his services as an intermediary were used by Hussain Haqqani, the then Pakistani Ambassador to the US, in May to pass on a memo to Admiral Mike Mullen, the then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, allegedly seeking the good offices of Mullen for exercising pressure on Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff, not to stage a coup against Zardari in the wake of the US commando raid in Abbottabad on the night of May 2 to kill Osama bin Laden.
Neither Ijaz’s version of the Memogate affair nor Hussain Haqqani’s denial of Ijaz’s claims has carried conviction so far. The matter is under enquiry by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif has sought a judicial enquiry into the claims of Ijaz by the Supreme court. If the Supreme Court agrees to it and initiates an enquiry, it could have the effect of suspending the ISI enquiry into the matter.
Zardari himself, who will be as uncomfortable with the prospects of an enquiry by the Supreme Court as with the ISI enquiry, had indicated that he would be addressing a joint session of the two Houses of the Parliament on the controversy after the Muharrum observance was over on December 6. It is not clear whether he would still go ahead with his proposed address or whether would use his medical condition as an excuse for postponing it indefinitely.
The resignation of Hussain Haqqani and his replacement by Ms Sherry Rehman, who enjoys the confidence of Zardari and is not distrusted by Kayani, as the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington DC has not ended the controversy. The Army as well as the PML of Nawaz Sharif are insisting for a thorough enquiry—each for its own reason. The PML wants to exploit it politically for further weakening Zardari and the Army wants to ensure that Zardari, whom it suspects of being soft to the US, will no longer indulge in such alleged conspiracies against the Army with the complicity of anti-Army and anti-ISI elements in US policy-making circles.
The second controversy relates to the recent death of 24 Pakistani military personnel in US air strikes on Pakistani military posts in the Mohmand agency of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The air strikes have caused considerable anger in the barracks which has been sought to be exploited by the Hizbut Tehrir, which has some following at the lower and middle levels of the Army, for creating disaffection not only against the US, but also against the senior leadership of the Pakistan Army.
Considerations of pride and reports of anti-US anger in the public and the subordinate ranks of the Army have made the Army and its senior officers take a seemingly inflexible anti-US stand . There has been suspicion that Zardari does not share the depth of the anti-US sentiments and might be prepared to let bygones be bygones and to let the matter rest after the condolences personally conveyed by President Barack Obama.
As a result of these developments, the political situation has become increasingly uncomfortable for Zardari giving rise to speculation that the Army might not be satisfied with the head of Hussain Haqqani and might want in addition that of Zardari whose credibility is low in the eyes of the Army. Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani still enjoys the confidence of Gen.Kayani, but he has very little following in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in which support for Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto, who is head of the party, remains strong.
The situation has reached a stage where a full-fledged coup might not be validated post facto by the judiciary and the strong backing still enjoyed by Zardari in the PPP would make his being eased out a difficult option. It is generally believed that Zardari’s visit to Dubai at this stage ostensibly for medical reasons might have the additional purpose of seeking the continued support of the ruling families of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to enable him overcome the difficult political situation back home.
It is interesting to note that Zardari has left behind in Pakistan Bilawal Bhutto and Rehman Malik, his trusted Interior Minister— apparently to keep a watch on the goings-on in the PPP and to ensure that no attempt is made to further undermine his position
Will Zardari manage to salvage his position and continue in power or will he quit on medical grounds after having inducted his son as the President? This is a million dollar question to which no answers are available. Bilawal is only 23 years old. Inducting him is going to be difficult. If Zardari decides to quit under the increasing pressure caused by the two controversies, the support presently enjoyed by Zardari and Bilawal in PPP—particularly in Punjab—might evaporate, thereby strengthening the position of Gilani.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.