Friday, December 18, 2009

Why I Don't Really Care About The NRO And Zardari

In short, he's yesterday's news. And that is an eminently good thing. Let me explain.

While I deplore his corruption, it is not really a big deal for me, because almost all public figures in Pakistan are corrupt. The military has property and business interests that would be laughable in most other countries but are taken as a necessary evil in ours. Politicians take kickbacks as a birthright. Private sector forces don't exactly follow the rules either. Students devise clever and innovative ways to cheat on exams. The culture of corruption is so entrenched in our society that a minister from the PPP was recently caught in a television interview being flabbergasted at the notion that time in power should not equate to graft and amassing personal wealth. The sense of entitlement, while disgusting, is par for the course. It is like complaining about pollution in industrial towns; it might make you feel better, but there's not much point to it.

No, my opinion of Zardari is based more upon his qualities as a leader than his personal and business dealings. And on this, the record is clear: I believe he is incompetent, a bad strategist, and unable to get a firm grasp on the many problems facing the country.

So why do I care so little about the reversal of the NRO by the Supreme Court, which opens up the possibility for prosecuting all those granted amnesty by Musharraf? Well, for one thing, Zardari still enjoys immunity from prosecution, simply by virtue of being President. But more importantly, he is no longer an important figure as far as Pakistan's transition to a full-borne democracy is concerned. That man is Yousuf Raza Gilani, and the switch, insofar as we can identify one, took place over the last six months.

There have been both formal and subtle shifts in policy and tone that would suggest this to be the case. In a symbolic move last month, Zardari handed over control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to Gilani -- as it should be in a parliamentary system of government. There have also been noises coming out of the President's office that Article 58 2 (b), which allows the executive to dissolve the parliament on a whim, will be repealed (though this is one of those "I'll believe it when I see it" pronouncements). Moreover, Gilani has been the adroit leader of the PPP in the last year, not Zardari. He is the one who cleaned up Zardari's mistakes on the judges, on the relationship with Nawaz Sharif, and with the Army. He is the one who has stepped up in meetings with American military and civilian leaders. In short, he has subtly but unmistakably taken charge of the reins of government, as Zardari becomes increasingly toothless.

And it is crucial to note: this is what our government is meant to look like. The Prime Minister is meant to control policy direction; the President is supposed to be a figurehead. And whether by design or coercion or lack of choice, Zardari seems to have realized that himself. He has ceded control to Gilani, who in contrast to his former boss, is a career politician who has paid his dues, who rose through the ranks the way one should, who went to jail on trumped up charges, who maintained his self-respect and dignity throughout his political career, and who has proven to exceed the expectations that I, among others, had of him.

So, back to the NRO. Generally speaking, I look at political developments in Pakistan through four prisms (which are sometimes at odds with one another, but bear with me). In no particular order, they are:

1. Does political development X make the everyday lives of Pakistanis easier? A signal free corridor helps people to get to work faster, so that's a plus. The expansions of highways and cell phone networks literally and metaphorically brings people closer together, so that's a plus. The price of flour and sugar going through the roof, conversely, makes lives harder.

2. Does political development X make Pakistanis safer? This is obviously concerned with our war against the Taliban, and security interests in general.

3. Does political development X make Pakistan more likely to be a stable democracy? Expanding business interests and housing developments for military families obviously does not. Bringing the ISI under the control of the civilian set up -- if it has succeeded -- obviously would. And so on.

4. Does political development X impinge upon basic rights and freedoms? Self-explanatory, really.

Given these questions -- and again, they're just for me; others will have vastly different lenses through which they view politics -- I just don't see how the NRO reversal matters. It makes the personal lives of a few important people harder. But I don't really care about them.

And remember, the democratic transition will only be complete if and when an elected government is allowed to complete a term in office. But since Zardari's future is no longer one and the same as the future of democracy in our country, the former becomes irrelevant as far as I am concerned.

Yes, the NRO reversal shines a light on the vast corruption undertaken by our politicians, thus giving rise to the convenient military narrative that the "bloody civies" are no good, and only uniformed men are capable of playing savior. To that extent, I concede that this is damaging to democracy. But that damage is more than balanced out by the fact that the judiciary, for better or worse, is an independent player on our political scene. I have often made the point on this blog that ultimately, the concept of democracy is reducible to limits on power. That is exactly the direction this decision takes us in.

Perhaps, then, it would be more accurate to say that the NRO reversal does matter, but not for the reasons people think it does. The dominant line of argument presented in the last couple of days has been to analyze this with respect to Zardari's future in power. By contrast, I choose to focus on how this impacts the state of Pakistan in general. My basic inclination is that the crises of governance in Pakistan in the last three years -- stretching back to the spring of 2007 -- have taken place primarily because leaders are concerned with their political future, not the well-being of the country. When you are excessively worried about your role in government, and your strength vis-a-vis your political opponents, you stop worrying about the things that really matter: the price of food, the safety of ordinary Pakistanis, the provision of electricity, and so on, and start plotting your next move of retrenchment. It would strike no one as coincidental the the wheels fell off the Musharraf government when he took on the Chief Justice; up till that point, his performance in government was satisfactory. Similarly, since his ascension to power, Zardari has constantly had to ward off challenges to his rule, and as such, has been able to focus less energy on where it should be focused. By contrast, when a leader is relatively secure they should, in theory, be more focused on doing right by the people.

With Gilani firmly at the helm, I am hopeful that that change takes place. He is respected by most within his party, and frankly by many without. He did not become a government official solely on the basis of who he married. He seems to be more keenly aware of what is at stake in these next few years. And so if the NRO reversal does matter, it matters because it delivers the coup de grace to Zardari's short and quite pointless time at the top. It formally opens up opportunities for Gilani, who will, let's face it, rub fewer people the wrong way, and therefore, we are more likely -- not certain, but more likely -- to see better governance.

I wonder if that's why this guy is so happy. Only in Pakistan do lawyers in black suits do the bhangra in public. Good times.

AFP/Arif Ali


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with this article. It was vague and confusing. Maybe sometimes you are wrong with your perspectives.

Nabeel said...

"Yes, the NRO reversal shines a light on the vast corruption undertaken by our politicians, thus giving rise to the convenient military narrative that the "bloody civies" are no good, and only uniformed men are capable of playing savior."

Wait,was there no corruption when the military was in power? The army hasn't been corrupt? Really?

For some reason the NRO hasn't given rise to any feelings of hope in me - I don't see anything happening. Some compromise will be worked out and a few scapegoats will emerge, methinks. Kind of hard to see more than a handful of politicians (and any major politicians) really getting punished.

i don't agree with your statement that a transition to democracy will be complete once a full term is completed. it's going to take several terms, several elections to be more precise, and a more wide-ranging and representative vote for democracy to really happen. like you said, it's about limits on power, which don't exist in our current democracy and which will never exist until people can stop 'owning' villages and ordering them who to vote for, until a) people are free to vote as they please and b)most of the population from all five provinces votes.

if the judiciary is truly a powerful and independent player,then i'd like to see some laws enacted by this government survive two more terms (with different governments in power).

Pak-is-Tan said...

You remind me of Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan Jatoi, in the first paragraph. This is the attitude that will sink this issue to the depths of oblivion.

and can you imagine these people actually hired a Dholwala .. haha

Ahsan said...


Ok, maybe I am, but it would help if you spell out some of the problems you have with the piece.


Couple of points. First, I don't understand the military corruption thing. I mention in my second para that they're as corrupt as anyone else. My point was only to highlight THEIR narrative and how it's often played out in the media (as it has been for the last two months).

Second, yes I agree that the full transition to democracy will require more than one completed term. I should've been more careful in my wording; something along the lines of "the first and biggest step" or some such, rather than "complete".

Khizzy said...

while i don't think i have enough of a grasp on political analysis (apart from being aware of what all is happening) to actually comment on your piece, i am thankful for the following bit:

"When you are excessively worried about your role in government, and your strength vis-a-vis your political opponents, you stop worrying about the things that really matter: the price of food, the safety of ordinary Pakistanis, the provision of electricity, and so on, and start plotting your next move of retrenchment. It would strike no one as coincidental the the wheels fell off the Musharraf government when he took on the Chief Justice; up till that point, his performance in government was satisfactory. Similarly, since his ascension to power, Zardari has constantly had to ward off challenges to his rule, and as such, has been able to focus less energy on where it should be focused. By contrast, when a leader is relatively secure they should, in theory, be more focused on doing right by the people."

my heavily punju family is pro-sharifs, especially nawaz and think he's our savior. i vaguely remember repeating the above to them several times over the course of his return. he's done nothing but fight for power with zardari after helping him become president.
(i might not have my facts straight, but i just had to rant)

Umair Javed said...

My biggest issue is with this obsession with corruption that everyone seems to have in our society. They make it appear as if its an alien entity, a cancer of some sorts thats eating away at our otherwise pristine state. In my opinion, corruption is just part of the larger logic of patronage that our society uses as its modus operandi. Its developed over time under colonial and pre-colonial influences and continues to dictate the day-to-day functioning of the state. Frankly speaking, anything aimed at reforming the state can never help the people in general primarily because the state itself by nature (and theory) is extractive. Its sole aim has been to perpetuate its own autonomy and the autonomy of the middle/upper classes and at times the political class.

I feel that if nothing else, the NRO might provide the party with a much needed make-over of sorts, even if its the kind that the dulha has before his baraat (the superficial kind). They're taking a few steps in the positive direction and its very important to let them continue without threatening the stability of parliament at this cruicial juncture. Imran Khan (the politician and not the singer) needs to shut up about mid-term polls and realize any polls held anywhere at anytime will never see him come into government EVER.

AKS said...

Excellent piece, Ahsan. I think the NRO decision is extremely important, as was the one on the PCO judges, but not for the reasons most people think. The true impact of these judgments will be felt in the years to come as the two judgments limit the powers of the legislature and the executive. For far two long, our superior courts have aided the executive in extending its powers and decisions that reverse that trend are hugely important.

But will the NRO make much of a difference? It could, but only if Zardari does something monumentally stupid like dissolving the parliament. Now that scares me.

And while I agree most of what you say I disagree with your assessment of Yusuf Raza Gillani (YRG). First of all, anyone who before becoming PM was most famous for groping a fellow party member should not be referred to as a person "who [has] maintained his self-respect and dignity throughout his political career."

Moreover because YRG superseded a number of party elders because Zardari wanted someone 1) who was from Punjab; and 2) who was seen as politically non-threatening, the resentment that was once directed at Zardari by those within the party is now being directed at him. YRG's rather insolent behaviour (he hardly ever pays respect to elders in the party or pays tribute to the memory of the Bhuttos) hasn't helped things either. There is a deep fissure running through the PPP and YRG doesn't seem capable of, or interested in, preventing the party from rupturing.

Lastly, YRG is grotesquely corrupt and not very smart about it either. YRG and his family members think that we're still living in the 90s and that they wont get caught as they zoom around the streets of Multan in an unregistered Rolls Royce Phantom or purchase luxury apartments in London (what is it with London and corrupt foreign leaders?).

AKS said...

Oh also, the retard talking about how corruption is a politician's right (Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan Jatoi), isn't some minor party worker, he's the Minister for Defence Production.

And this isn't the first time he's done something stupid on camera, in 2008 the Rt. Hon. parliamentarian was filmed being arrested from the infamous Islamabad brothel Cat Club. Here's the video:

You can also check out his website, where you'll find the Minister speaking about how Pakistan's defense capabilities are better than India's.


Rabia said...

Not sure what Gillani has done to earn your respect. Since the first crisis (when the govt. tried to bring the ISI under the interior ministry) he's basically been batting for the army. The minute he asserts his independence (once Zardari is gone) he's going to be in the same pants-down situation as Zardari and you're going to be writing posts about his incompetence and unimpressiveness a leader!

Asfandyar said...

oh my.

greywolf said...

i agree partially with ahsan here, and partially with some of the other comments. firstly, it is certainly a reality now that AAZ is becoming increasingly isolated, and that is a good thing. but it is also true that he is becoming more of a cornered cat, and should be choose to do something out of spite, there are strong chances of a backlash. further, relying on yousaf raza gilani as some sort of a civilian administrator mastermind is naive. has anyone ever seen this gentlemen at a news conference or in a foreign interview? a good PM for pakistan has to be able to eloquently state pakistans positions on the world stage. he has been and continues to be unable to do that. for that alone for me he gets negative points. his government has not initiated any solid economic reforms or made strides in trying to improve the socio-economic condition of the country. this is now almost 3 years after elections. what happens to asif zardari remains to be seen, and i agree with ahsan that the reversal of the NRO benefits a select few, many of whom no one here really cares about. what really matters is what has the government done for the people. for any of the mistakes that people throw on president musharrafs door, he and his government did a lot for the people. this is documented and well known.

it is certainly true that gilani has started to assert himself. the big question in my mind is will he remain in control should zardari pull the rug from under his feet, or will he get Army backing in the almost inevitable showdown between the PM and president?

Raza said...

The ruling IS kind of a big deal though. It sets a precedent that for politicans, it's not ONLY the military that will come kick their asses for corruption--the media and more pertinently, the courts, are awake to it. In fact, not only politicans, but EVERYONE now will think twice about taking 5 bucks off the top, including people like tax collectors and the police, those whose corruption does most harm to the public.

Butterscotch said...

I have argued on Kalsoom’s page I am going to ask you too.
Do you find this SC judgement genuinely important in terms of defining future course of this country or perhaps attribute it to the security establishment flexing its muscle proving once again they are powerful, not to be messed with, well and truly above the system?
I agree Zardari was a bad choice but one after another he went through different crises deliberately created cunningly cultivated by establishment and its media backers. Not to forget Zardari and PPP’s own inept performance brought them to the brink of disaster. PML-N too sided with anti-PPP elements (directly/indirectly) conveniently forgetting they once too were badly bitten by the establishment and democracy would not strengthen if you don’t allow them to complete full term. And we are talking many full terms here.
PPP is the only anti-establishment party in Pakistan and traditionally a victim of establishment’s wrath. Back in ’88, BB was given only 20 months, the likes of Aslam Beg, Brig Bill and Major Aamir had been involved in destabilising PPP govt. Operation midnight jackal if you remember. What were the charges thn….corruption, bad governance..was country bankrupt? No….were there any militants around? I believe none….was economy as bad as it is now ?.no again …Were those charges strong enough to topple a genuinely elected democratic govt? Only 20 months followed by the most rigged election in the history of Pakistan. Zardari was alleged thn, and remains the prime culprit even now. We witnessed similar events in ’97, the only difference being Leghari playing in the hands of agencies again. Was establishment justified in screwing BB thn?
The point I am trying to make here is regardless of efficient or inept performance by PPP, they are bound to be troubled by military establishment backed by the ever vicious media. I repeat good governance wont matter one iota, sooner or later some kind of crises will be created leading to some kind of confrontation effectively exploited by the agency backed media. How many unbiased TV channels, newspapers, senior columnists can you possibly think of, almost none. They all play their part ably.
Military in this country simply considers itself above constitution, judiciary above any system whatsoever. It would never desire a strong democracy backed by a strong parliament as it simply goes against their ‘bloody civilian’ philosophy. Our corrupt incompetent inefficient political parties simply help their cause. When you are corrupt to the core and on the top of that just the way you mentioned ‘excessively worried about your role in government, worried about your political opponents, worried about an excessively biased negative media, next ploy of all powerful men in uniform, you are going to focus less on good governance providing basic necessities to the suffering public. The focus on individual survival, constant struggle to control power distracts you from addressing mass concerns. I am not defending PPP merely trying to convey the thought process of our real power brokers.
Coming back to my original question, what of those retired military generals, brigs, navy officers who have stashed billions, will there ever be any accountability for them, will they be a part of ECL (like ever). Has anyone even thought of holding them liable for their kickbacks, their stake in defence deals, will this biased media ever highlight them
What of those politicians having strong links with establishment, men like Ejaz ul haq, humayun Akhar, Jehangir Tareen, their wealth exceeds that of any politician, how come they get ignored by media, judiciary, supreme court, chaudry iftikhars etc etc
Isn’t justice is meant to serve everyone?

Nabeel said...

ahsan,i wasn't criticizing your highlight of the military narrative - i was agreeing with you! unfortunately the media has mostly encouraged the notion that democracy=corruption.

um, greywolf, not even two years have passed since the elections. feb 08-dec 09.

raza,i don't know if it sets any precedent. i hope it does. but not many laws have survived more than a few governments. i'm praying for some consistency.

Ahsan said...

Whew, lots of reactions there. One by one then.


No, not really. Jatoi is excusing and condoning corruption. By contrast, I am saying that even if corruption is bad, I can't judge Asif Zardari for being corrupt because he's not the only one. So yes, in a vacuum, I can say, "look, Zardari is corrupt, and that is bad" but when you compare him to the rest of our political bigwigs and the military, is he really that much worse? Nope. That was my point. I certainly did not mean to imply that I think corruption is okay or anything like that.


I think from a personal perspective, Nawaz has played his cards perfectly. From a national interest perspective, not so much. You're right, he's spent way too much time attacking the PPP and not enough time being the loyal opposition in a time of great strife.

Umair Javed:

I agree with everything you say. Corruption is a social ill, to be sure, but it's not one of those things that can be tackled directly (as opposed to, say, the need for a sewage system, where you just build one). The building of institutions and accountability as a practice, over time, will hopefully ensure less corruption, but these politically motivated NABs and NRO-reversals won't do much, I don't think.


To be honest, I hadn't considered the PPP-rupturing angle closely. I remember reading something to the effect of what you just said, but never seeing it elsewhere, so I sort of dismissed it. Do you think it's a major issue? If yes, then my analysis will definitely have to change, because it rests on the assertion that YRG is fairly popular within the PPP, and enjoys more support than Zardari ever could.

Ahsan said...


Thank you for telling me what I'm going to be writing in the future. But on a more substantive note, do you have real evidence for your claim that YRG has been batting for the Army and nothing else?

And to answer your question of what has garnered my respect, I think he was dealt a very difficult hand in that he was meant to be a loyal underling of Zardari, and yet the point man for parliament, and I think he's managed that well. His shift away from Zardari slowly but surely, without overtly threatening him has also been smart. And finally, contrary to your views, I think he has stood up for the supremacy for parliament in a way that no one else in the PPP really has. Is he perfect? Hell no. But I would rather have him as the face of the civilian government than Zardari.


That, of course, remains the ultimate worry. But call it a hunch, but I don't think Zardari will attempt anything too crazy here. I hope.

Also, minor correction, it's been two years since the elections, not three.


Yes, that is one of the things I tried to convey in my post, but perhaps unsuccessfully: the idea that with the judiciary as an independent player (in political terms, not legal terms), bigwigs will be on notice.


Some really excellent points. I agree that in an unwitting way, the judiciary has done the military's bidding for it (I even mention this in my 4th last para).

I don't think you can say this was the security establishment flexing its muscles, because if there's one actor that's NOT going to do the military's bidding in an overt way, it's the Chaudhary-led SC.

I agree with a lot of what you say about the media and the establishment incessantly picking on the PPP, especially in the last few months re: the "minus one" formula, Brig Imtiaz etc.

Where I am not as pessimistic as you is on the effects of good governance. You basically say it makes no difference how you perform, at the end, the media and establishment will fuck you. I think that may have been true in the early 90s, I don't think it's true anymore, mainly because there's more awareness about the military's role (thanks, paradoxically, TO the media). Maybe I'm being naive though, who knows.

I agree wholeheartedly with you that there is no institutional check on the military's excesses in terms of corruption and graft. But in terms of the military, I don't think you can tackle corruption/graft directly; instead, we must ensure a gradual retreat from the political sphere (if you try to do it too quickly, you ensure a backlash, like Zardari did) which will take care of the corruption bit on its own.

Butterscotch said...

Taking AKS point forward on YRG, his scenario is somewhat complicated at the moment. Complicated for the PPP bigwigs. Although we have agreed corruption may not be the biggest issue here but still like to add that YRG too, is following the timeless Pakistani tradition of looting and laundering with 700 million loan already considered bad debt by banks, 3 bungalows in Lahore DHA (mind you he had only one before PM) and Begum Gilani losing hefty £50K in a London casino in two nights (we happen to know the family in person), he is no different, less arrogant, more accessible, less prone to confrontation, clear headed but no different.
As for the popularity, I am assuming it probably has a lot to do with Zardari elevating himself to the presidential position (a very very damaging move in the first place), earning public/media/political opposition backlash with Gilani automatically gaining a more favourable position in public eyes. And yes it would be completely unfair to not give some credit to YRG for his generally non-confrontational, slowly distancing himself-from –Zardari approach and how he has managed to deal with the security establishment, PML-N, MQM , Baloch leaders, also playing decent on international front. But a major credit still goes to Zardari for being a truly bad leader which led to YRG gaining more political clout, more credibility..besides good governance its good fate too:)
I am very curios to find out the stance of senior PPP men provided there both men are on the course of a collision. Zardari still serving as president, still the symbolic/ideological figurehead, patriarch (whatever you like consider it) of PPP, may have some final cards.
Next few weeks are important!!

History said...

The reinstatement the CJ will have every future leader of Pakistan think at least twice before taking on the judiciary.

In similar fashion, those who have been corrupt or are predisposed to thinking that political office and/or civil service is to be taken as a 5 years mad graft fest...will think twice.

At least twice.

And that's all that matters. That impact is immeasurable.

takhalus said...

Ahsan: I think CJ Ifti is playing with fire, he may not be playing to the army's tune intentionally but he could have easily struck down the NRO and left it at that..why direct all the people involved she be back on the ECL for example? Why not half the PML-Q and Mushy?

It's a cop out and will not go down well in sindh either, most of the beneficiaries of the NRO are from Sindh.

at the very least a bit of focus on his home province would have helped? unfortunately the feedback i have gotten from friends in the lawyer forum about ifti is not good..if you ask me this is more a case of political grandstanding ..

As far as YRG goes I think he maybe asserting himself more than most would expect but that's because of zardaris weakness. I don't think YRG will fall for the establishments line..bigger people then him have tried to implode the PPP from within and failed (a la Jatoi and Leghari). The PPP's worst nemesis is usually it's own dynastic's best friend is usually the establishment by virtue of it's endless obsession of trying to destroy it..

YS_1 said...

@ Takhalus

I agree with you about the Sindhi thing. I had an uneasy feeling that some kind of unfairness was being done by focussing on the NRO. And I will agree. That unfairness is that Sindh's corrupt politico's are being manhandled.

I also wondered why I never really had much of a hard-on for the Lawyer's movement way back in 2007. I would observe the sudden zeal that had overtaken my Lahori cousins for "justice" and "moving against the military dictatorship" and was struck by how shallow this whole "Justice" and "Don't hurt the Jihadi Brothers" thing was. I'm from Karachi; lived during the MQM counter operation and felt that if Karachi could be brutalised for stepping out of line; why not another region or a stupid judge.

Anyway; my bitterness as a Karachi-ite is showing and in assesment I have to say "Meh, why not?" at the humourous idea of our corrupt politico's running around with their heads in a bag from being called before courts for things they though they got away with.

Then the little voice in the back of my head says Punjabi's are not being called to court, Balochi's are reaching a point of no return and half of NWFP is still on fire.

Not good.

salman said...

Newly unleashed judiciary – got a nod from establishment to break the DEAL Mr. Chaudhry had entered in, brokered by army, for getting reinstated in March 2009. It is interesting to note here, that NRO came under attack in Nov – Dec 2009, despite the fact that it was in force since Oct 2007, precisely the point when PML-N stalwarts were too anxious to join hands with same Zardari lead PPP. He still was a "NRO laundered" president when Mr. Nawaz Sharif was trying to make up with him and meeting him under carefully created media hype. But it was not about time yet, I think. Mr. Sharif was still trying his luck with Zardari to get his share. All he was interested in was, laying off of 58-2(b) and 17th amendment (that would allow him to be a third time prime minister, without a president carrying a sword on his head). He did not intend to "derail the democratic system", since it involves money and resources to fight an unncessary mid-term election. The short cut seemed, getting it done through chopping off the third time PM bar and 58-2(b). So, if necessary, he could always make a move towards contesting an election and getting on the band wagon, with an unpredictably pro-establishment MQM and the comrades in waiting under the flag of PML-Q.

Rabia said...

1. the controversy over the mehmood durrani dismissal right after mumbai
2. YRG's weirdly conclusive claim that Baitullah mehsud was responsible for BB's death in london

Khalid said...

Ahsan, now that Yousaf Raza Gillani has managed to earn a bit of your respect I think the poor guy should be rewarded by removing the post 'Yousuf Raza Gillani's first impressions in Washington' as your top post 'From The Archives' ;-)

Sohaib said...

Ugh. Yar, cynicism is so passe.