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Zardari’s real heartburn: he was never in power

Anyone familiar with the cinematic idiom of the subcontinent knows that when a character complains of chest pain, the storyline almost always calls for him to die – or fade away quietly into the night.

The political theatre in Pakistan oftentimes deals with more bizarre plots than any film scriptwriter with a lively imagination can rustle up. Therefore, when Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari complained of chest pain, sneaked out of Pakistan and checked into a Dubai hospital, rumours of his imminent exit began circulating — stage left — from his country’s political platform.

Foreign Policy magazine’s Cable blog, which scooped the story of Zardari’s heartburn, reported citing an unnamed former US government official that Zardari had suffered a “minor heart attack” and may resign on account of ill health. It quoted Shuja Nawaz, a policy wonk at the Atlantic Council, as saying that if this report was true, it represented a victory for the Pakistani military-ISI establishment’s campaign, which has gone on for months, to “get rid of Zardari”.

When Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari complained of chest pain, sneaked out of Pakistan and checked into a Dubai hospital, rumours of his imminent exit began circulating. Reuters

A day later, however, the US government officially dismissed rumours that Zardari was being eased out in a “silent coup”. Asked if the US was worried that a “quiet coup” was under way, State Department spokesman Mark Toner, said there were “no concerns and no reason to believe” such speculation.

Yet, the reality in Pakistan today is that a ‘silent coup’ has already happened – and for all the ceremony of a showcase civilian government, it is the military-ISI complex that calls the shots. In the context of the power balance in Pakistan, Zardari has — notwithstanding his recent heart ailments — been a dead man walking, for a long while now.

Zardari’s infirm grip on the presidency — and the fear of an imminent loss of power that haunted him like an old ghost — have been sufficiently well chronicled. From all accounts, Zardari knew he was only marking time as President, in which post he had landed owing to a dramatic quirk of circumstances after his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and a nominal civilian government took office.

Even as early as in October 2008, foreign diplomats who met Zardari and drew vivid pen portraits of him concluded that Zardari was not “running the country”. One British diplomat observed candidly that Zardari did not have “much sense of how to govern a country…. I fear he talks and talks but not much happens.”

Zardari, he added, "does not know what to do and is waiting for someone to provide him a solution." And although the embattled President had "made helpful political noises,” the diplomat noted trenchantly, “he's clearly a numbskull."

Representatives of the North Atlantic Council, who met Zardari in 2009, similarly, found him “theatrical” but “ill-prepared” for the meeting. The diplomats noted pointedly that Zardari was unable to engage them in a strategic-level discussion of the situation in South Asia. The man who had, during his wife Benazir Bhutto’s tenure in office, been derided as Mr Ten Percent owing to widespread allegations of his corruption, seemed only eager to press diplomats for financial aid whenever he met them. “I hold my hat out,” was a line he frequently invoked.

Zardari’s insecurities, which had only been the subject of much mirth on the diplomatic circuit, tumbled out of the closet when, in the wake of the Osama bin Laden assassination, he scrambled to get the US government to rein in the ISI. Fearing that he would be displaced in a coup by the military-ISI complex, which was seething with wounded pride after the bin Laden killing, Zardari unilaterally offered, through an intermediary (as revealed in the infamous Memogate episode), to help disband the S-wing of the ISI if the US would publicly back him.

Zardari always knew then that he was living on borrowed time and that his days in office – such as it is — were numbered. He found himself increasingly caught in the crossfire between the US government and the ISI-military establishment.

The US had, particularly since the bin Laden killing, woken up to the extent of Pakistani duplicity and was now turning on the heat. The ISI-military complex, on the other hand, was looking to regain strategic leverage in Afghanistan and against India — and over Pakistan’s own civilian government — by deploying its terrorist assets.

It is increasingly becoming clear that the recent NATO air attack in which over 20 Pakistani soldiers were killed was engineered with the intention of forcing the US on the defensive in its dealings with the ISI and the Pakistani military. And as the suicide bombing in Kabul shows, the ISI-military complex retains the capacity to inflict terrorist pain at will.

The action in Pakistan is leading up to a dramatic climax. With the ISI having regained the strategic leverage it had lose immediately after the bin Laden killing, it is no longer content to be the power behind the throne. It is now stepping up front and centre.

Which is why , even if Zardari doesn’t resign rightaway, his time on the political stage is well and truly up. The script calls for him to fade away quietly into the night.

When the director calls ‘cut’, it will be time for him to exit stage left.