Asif Ali Zardari, the co-Chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party and the leader of the ruling coalition, which came into existence after the elections of February
18, 2008, can be as tricky and as insincere as Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as the President on August 18,2008, in order to avoid humiliating impeachment proceedings against him by the Parliament.
There is no other way of interpreting his going back on the solemn commitments in writing made by him to Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), within a few hours of his signing those commitments. The first of these commitments related to the reinstatement of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury and other judges sacked by Musharraf within 24 hours of the resignation of Musharraf through an executive order. The second commiment related to choosing a non-political candidate in consulatation with the PML (N) to succeed Musharraf as the President and to work for the removal of the powers of the President to dismiss the elected Prime Minister and dissolve the National Assembly.
After forcing Musharraf to resign by mounting pressure on him with the co-operation of the PML (N), Zardari has gone back on his commitment once again and has been dragging his feet on the reinstatement of the sacked Chief Justice due to a fear that, if reinstated, he may set aside the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) under which all criminal cases pending against him and Benazir Bhutto were withdrawn by Musharraf.
Zardari has also gone back on his commitment to choose a non-political candidate through consensus for the post of President and decided to contest the post himself, ostensibly under pressure from his party and its electoral allies. After having announced his decision to seek office as the President, he has started dragging his feet on his commitment to work for the abolition of the powers of the President to dismiss the Prime Minister and dissolve the National Assembly. It is also apparent that he wants to chair the powerful National Security Council (NSC) set up by Musharraf. Thus, Zardari has made clear his intention--kept concealed so far-- to be the successor to Muasharraf with the same powers as Musharraf.
What has shocked the PML (N) is not only his shamelessly going back on his solemn commitments, but also justifying it with the cynical argument that agreements are not holy like the Holy Koran and hence subject to change depending on the change in trhe circumstances. The shocked PML (N) has decided to withdraw from the ruling coalition and sit in the opposition. It has also decided to nominate former Chief justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, who refused to take a fresh oath after Musharraf seized power in October,1999, and resigned office, as its candidate for President. The PML (Qaide Azam) headed by Shujjat Hussain, which was created by Musharraf in 2002 and which has remained loyal to him, has decided to nominate its own candidate ( Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed). Even if such a three-cornered contest materialises, Zardari should have no difficulty in getting elected with the support of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of Altaf Hussain, living in exile in the UK, the Awami National Party (ANP) of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Jamiat-ul-Islam Pakistan of Maulana Fazlur Rahman and pro-PPP Independents.
The US and Musharraf, in their own ways, have been trying to ensure that Zardari is elected and Nawaz is marginalised. Like Zardari, the US does not want the reinstatement of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury since he was keen to enquire into the cases of missing Pakistanis, many of whom were informally and illegally handed over by Musharraf to the US intelligence on suspicion that they were having contacts with Al Qaeda. The US feels uncomfortable with Nawaz for the reason that he has been calling for major changes in the policy of co-operation with the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban followed by
Even though the US does not rate highly Zardari's leadership qualities, it prefers him to Nawaz because of his willingness to maintain Musharraf's policy of co-operation with the US in its so-called war against terrorism in Afghanistan and his perceived amenability to pressure by the US because of its role in persuading Musharraf, when he was the President, to issue the NRO. The US is also hopeful that, unlike Nawaz, Zardari will avoid any humiliation of Musharraf and will let him continue to live in Pakistan without fearing any harassment by the Government.
Musharraf has not been inactive since his resignation. According to well-informed MQM sources, he played a role in persuading Altaf Hussain to support Zardari as the President. Musharraf has similarly been trying to persuade the PML (QA) to withdraw its candidate and support Zardari.
Well-informed PPP sources say that the entire scenario has been proceeding according to a tacit understanding reached with US officials during the visit of Yousef Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister, and Rehman Malik, his Advisor on Internal Security, to Washington DC, in the last week of July,2008. According to these sources, this understanding provided for: launching of a special land-cum-air operation by the Pakistan military against Al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in the Bajaur Agency, permission to be accorded by the Gilani Government for continuing unmanned Predator strikes by the US intelligence agencies on terrorist hide-outs in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and US pressure on Musharraf to resign thus paving the way for the election of Zardari. The object of the entire exercise was to keep Nawaz out of power, marginalise him and keep up the present level of US-Pakistan co-operation against terrorism.
If Zardari gets elected as the President, how sincere will he be in keeping up his commitment to extend full co-operation to the US in the war against terrorism? As proof of his good intention, he has already got banned the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on August 25, 2008.This is a move meant to placate the US and convince it that Zardari is as keen to fight against terrorism as Musharraf was. The ban itself will make no difference to the activities of the TTP just as the bans imposed by Musharraf on the Lashkar-e-Toiba and other organisations on January 15, 2002, did not make any difference They just changed their names and started operating under different names. The TTP would not even change its name. Musharraf in the past and Zardari now try to create an impression of co-operating with the US without actually doing so. They try to create a cosmetic effect through seemingly bold statements, formal bans etc. If they are really sincere about their co-operation, their sincerity has to be reflected in the action taken by them on the ground against the TTP through measures such as locating and arresting or killing their leaders, destroying their training infrastructure etc. One sees very little sign of such action.
After 9/11, the US tried to project Musharraf as its frontline ally in the war against terrorism. He did co-operate, but not whole-heartedly. It is now hoping that if elected as the President, Zardari will co-operate with it without reservations. Zardari is giving the impression that he will. It is most likely that he will turn out to be as insincere as Musharraf. He will give the impression of co-operating while avoiding it in effect.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.