It is easy to feel admiration and not a little respect for Pakistan's president Asif Zardari, who turns 57 on Thursday, July 26.
Like our Manmohan Singh he rarely allows himself to be interviewed by his own media, because journalism on the subcontinent is quite poor. And so while there is much reported about him, and rightly, his defense is rarely taken up.
Let’s look at Pakistan’s leader as he enters the most difficult period of his tenure.
Zardari’s official website says that after school he “further pursued his education in London where he studied Business.”
This is sub-continental code for “attended some sort of institution but couldn’t get a degree”, so clearly he didn’t pursue it well.
There’s no shame in this and it doesn’t preclude a successful career in our politics.
Not a single member of the Nehru Gandhi family was able to graduate from college between Jawaharlal Nehru (who passed from Trinity College in 1910) and Rahul Gandhi in 1994. In these eight decades, two generations of the dynasty studied and flunked. Indira failed in Oxford and Rajiv failed in Cambridge. Child prodigy Sanjay could not even clear high school. Widows Sonia and Maneka passed school, but married early and never attended college. Priyanka graduated around the same time as Rahul.
Zardari may not have academic skills, or interests, but he is first rate at understanding problems.
Like all Indian prime ministers since 1991, he has been in power without a parliamentary majority for his party.
But he has been skilful at playing with a poor hand. He is like one of the later Mughals who had to use tact and guile rather than force, which was unavailable to them. Like those hapless royals, he heads a state with expenses far in excess of revenue and a military not entirely in his control.
Even so he has weathered more crises than any Pakistani leader. And it’s a long list: Army pressure over a memo on national security his ambassador was supposed to have written to the US, an ordinance (since struck down) which dismissed all cases against politicians, the anger over CIA agent Raymond Davis who killed two ISI stooges in Lahore, regular drone strikes in the frontier province that kill Taliban without Pakistani consent, a severe energy shortage, corruption in this Cabinet, an aggressive Supreme Court and an aggressive media.
And he has done this without losing his cool or exhibiting signs of distress.
With great skill he has kept the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People's Party together. He has united it in its anger at how the judiciary has behaved with it. Initially sulking leaders like Amin Fahim, who wanted to become prime minister after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, have stayed with it. Zardari continues to command the loyalty of men of the calibre of barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the smartest PPP leaders. As president he doesn’t have executive power, but there is no question that he is the undisputed leader of the PPP. His word is final.
The Sindhi fans of the PPP (called jiyalas) have unconditionally accepted him as the heir to the house of Bhutto. This has mainly to do with his marriage, but it helps that he is temperamentally a PPP man. Like Bhutto, he is a Sindhi-speaking Baloch, and like Bhutto he is Shia in a country of Sunnis.
Internationally, he's seen as moderate, more so than Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan. It is Zardari, more than his rivals, who is more aligned with what the rest of the world thinks on the war on terror.
As a politician, Zardari has no equal in Pakistan. He has kept his disparate coalition together and managed the difficult MQM brilliantly. He has coolly let go those partisans of his whose passions got the better of them and angered his coalition partners.
Zardari’s patient response to what many see as the excesses of the judiciary will eventually benefit him. His political goals are modest. Unlike Imran, who says he will transform Pakistan in three months of power, all Zardari wants to claim is heading an elected government that finished its term, a first for Pakistan. The reason why I said this was the most difficult part of his tenure is that though only six months are left for Parliament to complete its term, the Supreme Court is bent on sending it home earlier. It is insisting that the prime minister send a letter to the Swiss government to revive a corruption case against Zardari, or be jailed for contempt. Zardari rightly says that this is wrong in law because the constitution gives him immunity. But the court is obstinate and, having sent home one prime minister, is likely to do the same to another one day before Zardari’s birthday on Thursday.
Except for his unbending posture on this issue, Zardari is flexible and pragmatic he's the sort of leader Pakistan should have. If he had a freer hand he would have normalised with India by stomping down on militants. He says he hates them as much as we do because they murdered his wife, and he is right.
As a man he is personally courageous and there is no other example of a Pakistani leader who faced jailed with such stoicism. There was a BBC report which claimed Zardari attempted suicide in jail in the late 1990s, during Nawaz Sharif’s second term. If true, this was probably tactical more than out of frustration.
Zardari is not the sort of man who gives up because a few things are going against him and his years as president have shown us this. He looks ahead, and doesn’t wring his hands too much.
Happy birthday, Mr President.