The Unbearable Lightness of being Asif
By Beena Sarwar

Corruption," pronounces Asif Ali Zardari, "is a state of mind. A corrupt person wouldn't have taken on the establishment, wouldn't have sacrificed eight years of his life in prison. I could have accepted a deal and got out, and kept them happy -- that's what would have benefited me most." No, no, no, there's been no deal, he repeats. But he is confident that the government will have to call for early elections, and that BB (whom he refers to as his 'leader') will be back, "INSHALLAH!" We're at Bilawal House -- or Bilawal Fortress, as some call it -- in Karachi (the one in Lahore is a rented premises), a few days before his departure to Dubai.

There is an air of expectancy about the place, which is buzzing with men, outside the gates, in the courtyards, under a shamiana, in the living room next to the book-lined study where we meet him. Wondering if it's always like this, one learns that yes, it was like this even when he was in prison -- having an easy time of it, one heard, air-conditioned rooms, all kinds of visitors, nudge, nudge, wink, wink... And yet, it could not have been that easy. Even if he was given preferential treatment, he was still a prisoner, deprived of home and family. And yes, there were some pretty rough moments, including solitary confinement, denial bail, and worse (remember the tongue incident?). Any luxuries would have been countered by such moments -- and rides in the back of rickety police vans charging along from Karachi to Lahore for court hearings.

A reporter later mentions that he developed spondalitis because of this mode of transport -- he could either sit on the hard wooden bench, or stand all the way. This is why he has to walk with a cane and undergo physiotherapy. He comes into the room briskly, despite the cane. We're expecting an informal meeting, but the seating arrangement -- he sits behind the large wooden desk facing the four of us -- implies an interview. During the ensuing discussion one thing becomes clear: Zardari isn't going to complain about his prison stint or political and personal adversities. Instead, he repeats what appears to be his mantra: positive thinking (reflected in that wide, somewhat cheeky grin, flashed along with a V-sign in every newspaper photograph or television shot taken during his prison days) -- "Convert weaknesses and adversity into strength."

"There is an unrepresentative, undemocratic government, and the West will eventually have to stand with the democratic forces. That process has started. Musharraf can't step out of the umbrella of democracy. PPP is not in a rush to get into governance, and we believe that a martial thought process is not the answer -- the strength it provides is temporary. We can't wish away those who believe in a militant approach, but the real strength comes from the people, and we have to educate them against the prevalent defeatist attitude, we must be positive, we must assert our thought process. Civil liberties are never given voluntarily; we have to demand them. And we must each do what we can. I am doing what I can; I have chosen politics. I didn't need to." This was a 'considered decision'.

The only regret is not being able to see his children grow up -- the eldest, Bilawal, was just eight when Zardari was imprisoned by the Nawaz Sharif government. But this is not a complaint. "I did it for the sake of democracy, for the people, for all our children. I could have taken the easy way out, but I didn't. I knew that one day I would win. I didn't know how long it would take. I am fighting and I will continue to fight." He dismisses the allegations of corruption. "They haven't proved one case against me. You know how it started? It was Gen. Mujibur Rehman's brainchild (information minister during Gen. Zia's martial law), to use the old trick: give the dog a bad name and hang him. So they created this image of me, as an Achilles heel of PPP. I couldn't counter it because I didn't have a political image.

I did have a personal political history, my family has always been in politics that people chose to ignore, but prison was a new experience for me." And then, some unexpected philosophy: "History will redeem me. What am I? I am just a bleep in the universal picture. So I might as well try and shine." There were times when no one would come to see him, but he never lost faith. "Nawaz Sharif left. My graph went up. The only people I'd see would be the court reporters, and the people who were looking after me -- I learnt a lot from interacting with these downtrodden people. So I wasn't entirely isolated. I've spent these eight years thinking, dreaming about how we can change Pakistan's destiny for the better."

The answer, he believes, is utilizing what is considered Pakistan's weakness -- its burgeoning population -- and converting this into strength. "We must invest in manpower, instead of 'toys for boys'. Invest a billion dollars in our people instead of planes." Then he makes a startling revelation: "We are working to export nurses; I believe that women are twice as hardworking as men. We will monitor everything with modern technology. The emancipation of women is the future of Pakistan. If we give land to anyone, we will ensure it is given only to women. The trouble is that we train our sons but not our girls." His own children are treated equally, he says. Bilawal and Bakhtawar are both karate black belts, and if Bilawal is learning to shoot, so does his younger sister. What about Benazir Bhutto, will they (the establishment) let her return? "They? Who are they to stop her? She has chosen to stay away because the world has gone mad. She is working nine hours a day, to change world opinion about us, about Pakistan."

He disagrees that she is arrogant and unapproachable. "A person with an arrogant mindset wouldn't work so hard. Look, people here are hypersensitive. She has a thousand things on her mind. But you know how people are -- they'll want to ask something, but the preamble is so long. So sometimes she may be a bit short, and that could be seen as arrogance." What about the contention that the Peoples Party should have sat in Opposition in 1988, instead of coming into power with their hands tied? "The circumstances then were such that that seemed the only choice," he answers. "Perhaps it was not, but we are saying that with hindsight." So if there were fresh elections and a similar situation developed, would his party accept power with similar compromises? Zardari refuses to say.

"She's the leader. Her wisdom is more than mine. Whatever decision she makes will be correct and we will abide by it." But speaking for himself, what he would like to be if in power again, is environment minister. "That's my passion. I can't believe that the people responsible for that oil spill near Clifton beach are still around, that the environmentalists have not picketed KPT and so on. There is so much apathy. I'd like to change that." But he has full faith in the people. "We are portrayed as a lawless society, but it's not true. The average person is hardworking and honest and law abiding. Who are the people who indulge in crime? Who supports them?" His minders finally prevail upon him to leave for his next appointment, and as he exits the room, that wide grin reminds one of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, who every now and then would slowly vanish, its grin being the last thing to fade out. Asif Ali Zardari's grin lingers on too. And you wonder who will have the last laugh... (Courtesy The News)

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