Lightness of being Asif
By Beena Sarwar
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
"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
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
"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