FOR months, I have been putting a lid on my exuberance to highlight the real contribution of Asif Ali Zardari for the progress and long-term viability of the state of Pakistan. However, my innate fear of being rebuked by the multitudes, which have been brainwashed into believing that Mr. Zardari was the worst tragedy that ever befell the state, kept me in check. But with the election crescendo peaking and the sight of a charming, eloquent and energetic Bilawal touching the hears of millions around the country, I decided to throw my caution to the wind. I also like to admit that in the last general election, in a colossal misjudgment, I did not vote for the PPP, for which I feel deeply ashamed!
After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination when Sindh was seething with secessionist sentiment, he was the one who raised the slogan of “Pakistan Khappay”. He reached out to Nawaz Sharif and dissuaded him from boycotting the 2008 election. He was the one who after winning general election, practically stepped forward to form a national government by sharing key positions of federal ministers with the party that came in second in election. And yet, Mr. Zardari continues to be projected as Pakistan’s most maligned political figure. It is often conveniently forgotten that he bore a series of personal and political setbacks, as a consequence of his public service.
Hehas beena victim of an unparalleled smear campaign by the media, political opponents, and the ‘obvious’, spanning over three decades. Consequently, the masseshave been tricked into believing that he is the epitome of Pakistani politics’ tryst with corruption. This witch-hunt against Mr. Zardariwas run on the principle: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth”, a cardinal precept of propaganda attributed to Joseph Goebbels.
The reality istotally opposite to what the masseshave been indoctrinated to believe about him. After taking the helm in September 2008, Mr. Zardaripresided over a country with a fragile economy, growing militancy, turbulent relationship with the US, an uneasy relationship with the establishment and nationwide flooding. To make matters worse, the crude oil price during his tenure remained the highest ever in history; in 2010it hit the high level of $161.23,whereas on January 21, 2016, it was at the level of $29.25.
Hewas also facing a circular debt issue inherited from the previous government. The genesis of this deliberatefailure to adjustthe local energy and related prices lay in petty political considerations of unrepresentative government of the time. It was in this backdrop that he brought about significant changes in the country’s foreign policy, economic outlook and a paradigm shift in the approach towards the security policy. In the process, he proved his mettle by manifesting himself as a great leader, focusing on liberal values, good governance and commitment to progress.
In an environment of media frenzy, where he was branded Mr. 10% and fabricated stories such as ‘Ajab Corruption kiGhazabKahani’ were aired on a daily basis, he maintained his cool and promoted a culture of tolerance against this relentless character assassination. He never targeted or gotlegal/tax notices issued to browbeat journalists. Likewise, while dealing with a belligerent Supreme Court, he maintained an exemplary behavior. He demonstrated how to honor the rule of law and respect the verdicts by courts even in the face of well-founded concerns with respect to the conduct of proceedings and eventual decisions.
He is the only one who finally put an end to the culture of victimization of political opponents, of dragging them to courts on trumped-up charges and ordering midnight raids at people’s houses. He reached out to the PPP’s sworn enemies; the MQM and the Chaudhary family to remove political bitterness and consequently develop national harmony and cohesion. He made something happen that should have happened way back in 1951, a constitutional transfer of power from one civilian government to another as ‘elected representatives’ of the Pakistani people.
He demonstrated a broad vision for civil liberties. He halted the death penalty, and in spite of scathing criticism, he stood his ground. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, he appointed a woman as speaker of National Assembly, launched the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) for women’s empowerment and promoted women in politics in far-flung areas. He thus built up the conductive environment for socio-economic progress of the country that actually benefited the subsequent government.
He also sought to redress the grievances of smaller provinces. He was able to develop consensus on honouring the age-old wishes of the people of the frontier province to name their province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He also gave Pakistan’s Northern Areas a semi-provincial status by renaming the region as Gilgit-Baltistan, while granting it political representation. In 2011, the draconian Frontier Crime Regulation was amended to give the FATA people some basic civil rights and allow far greater political participation by allowing parties to operate there. This provided for a more wide-ranging reform for FATA that eventually followed. It is worth mentioning that as the head of state, he offered his apology to the people of Balochistan, considering it his duty.
His government also launched the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package in November 2009. By introducing the 7th National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, Zardari-led government seemingly put an end to the deadlock over revenue distribution among the constituents of the federation. In the7th NFC award, two major changes were introduced to end the longstanding deadlock. Firstly, reduction in the share of the federal government in the divisible pool by 10 percentage points and the introduction of a multiple indicator criteria (MIC) for the distribution of the divisible pool in place of the earlier criterion that was solely based on population.
Everyone, including his staunchest opponents, paya lip service to the concept of the right man for the right job. Asif Zardari was the only one who actually practiced it by appointing eminent professionals of integrity and stellar reputations in key institutions such as the State Bank, SECP, FBR, NADRA, Finance Ministry. Unfortunately, two controversial appointments were made during his term as president: the OGRA and NICL chairmen. The numerous merit-based appointments vs two wrong ones deserve more credit than was given. Moreover, when these people were removed, the government never supported them by hook and by crook as has been the hallmark of many other governments. He never interfered in the matters of bureaucracy and appointed career bureaucrats and eminent professionals of clean reputation such as Nargis Sethi, Dr Waqar Masud, Shaukat Tareen and Abdul Hafeez Sheikhin key positions. He never practiced blatant nepotism and cronyism, which have typified governance in Pakistan.
After a decade-long rule by unrepresentative governments, he introduced numerous key political and policy interventions. For instance, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution not only removed many of the Machiavellian interventions, but went far further, and for the first time in Pakistan’s history, genuine devolution in the form of more powers to provinces took place. This was a better and practical approach than the much hyped and idealistic devolution of power through district governments. The district offices neither had the governance/operating capacity nor the infrastructure to attend to vital civic matters in a professional manner. In addition, he shed his key powers under 58-2(b), of his own free volition, in a move to bolster parliamentary democracy.
On the foreign policy front, he improved relationship with the US and China simultaneously. His opponents criticized him for visiting China too often, but no one realized that his tilt towards China was to create a conducive environment for Pak-China economic integration. He is such a great person that he never tried to claim his credit for laying the actual foundation of CPEC. Furthermore, during his term, Pakistan’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries also improved significantly, resulting in a huge foreign currency gift to the state of Pakistan from Arab countries for its infrastructure development, which was publicized by subsequent government but the groundwork had in fact been completed during Mr. Zardari’s tenure.
Like a visionary leader, he shifted Pakistan’s traditional security paradigm and adopted a clear policy of distancing the state from TTP. He convinced the stakeholders that the old security policy had a heavy cost that could even make a superpower crumble under its economic burden. It was Mr Zardari who initiated military operation against TTP in Swat. In 2008, when the PPP came to power, the overall industrial losses of Pakistan were as high as Rs210 billion, representing 2% of GDP and caused mainly by load-shedding. Pakistan’s textile exports declined to $1 billion. It was estimated in the industrial sector power outages accounted for no less than 1,379 operational hours and displaced some 400,000 industrial workers during 2008. Seen in this backdrop the country could not wait for multi-purpose dams because such projects take eight to ten years to complete. Hydro/hydel projects are capital intensive and take 7-10 years to complete. Thermal can completed quickly but the cost if prohibitive on a long-term basis and some of these agreements followed subsequent to 2013 will continue to haunt economic managers for generations to come.
The only answer to this power crisis was the induction of rental power plants that had the potential of making up the gap between power generation and supply within weeks. For all practical purposes, RPPs were a temporary, but the quickest remedy to meet the power needs. Were the so-called “high-cost project” more expensive than what the people of Pakistan had lost in terms of industrial loss of Rs210 billion in one year or a trade deficit of $1 billion in 2008 alone? The answer is a big “NO”. Prime Minister Gillani’s cabinet had approved installation of RPPs to produce 2,250 MW. Unfortunately, this intelligent scheme provoked a virulent reaction that was aimed at letting the people believe that all investments in this context were detrimental to Pakistan. It ended up earning unprecedented notoriety.
Deceit, lies and a sustained subliminal mass manipulation through press, electronic and social media, turnedthe image of a well-intentioned, well-serving and charismatic leader into a purported enemy of the people. This is a tragedy of epic proportions. Whenhistory will be written 50 years from now, when all the cloak-and-dagger games would have vanished, the dust would have settled and Pakistan would finally be the land of the pure, Asif Ali Zardari will hopefully earn his due place as the Abraham Lincoln of Pakistan. The moot point, though is, can we, as a nation, rise to the occasion? Can we, against our ingrained prejudices and biases, orchestrated through an elaborate mirrors-and-smoke campaign lasting three decades, make the right call? Can we give him and his party an electoral victory that can bring down the toxic levels of bitterness, sensationalism and bigotry that define our political ethos today? For the sake of posterity, I hope, as a nation, we make the right call!
—The writer is a retired banker…