Asif Ali Zardari is back in the prison that he has called his “second home”. The noose had been tightening around him for long and it was just a matter of time before he would be nabbed. He has been there before but the circumstances of his latest ordeal are markedly different. The spectacle of an old man walking with support was in sharp contrast to the bravado he had exhibited during detention in the past. For a man who spent 11 years of his political life in prison, it would not be like “home” this time around — both politics and age are against him. It is not that the charges Zardari faced in the past were less serious, but the time and situation appear less favourable for the crafty politician.
Although Zardari had never been convicted in the past, it seems harder for him to come out unscathed from the multiple graft cases against him this time. He is in hot water yet again with a damning charge against him in a money-laundering case. There are several other cases of corruption under investigation against him and his family. He has been accused of running dubious financial and business networks worth billions of rupees through front men.
Zardari epitomises the perpetual ironies of Pakistani politics. For the past three decades, he alternated between prison and power. Arguably the most maligned politician in Pakistan, he even managed to reach the highest pedestal of power. He spent three years in prison facing trial on a litany of corruption charges after the overthrow of Benazir Bhutto’s first government in what is described as a “military-backed constitutional coup” in 1990. He was elected as a member of the National Assembly from prison. It was an unforgettable moment in Pakistan’s political history when Zardari was released from prison and sworn in as a federal minister in the interim government formed after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1993 by the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan who was also responsible for his imprisonment. Zardari was a prominent member of his wife’s second government. But, after the fall of the PPP government, he was back in prison in 1996 on similar corruption charges. This time he spent almost eight ye
ars in prison before being released in 2004 as the Musharraf government sought reconciliation with the PPP. Interestingly, all the graft cases against Zardari were filed under Nawaz Sharif’s two governments in the 1990s.
In the years following his release in 2004, he got himself elected as the country’s President. An accidental leader as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, not only did Zardari become the first democratically elected President in the country to have completed his full term, he also left office with a guard of honour. He is also rightly credited for the enactment of the 18th Constitutional Amendment that granted greater autonomy to the provinces.
But that may not be the reason alone for which Zardari will be remembered. There is indeed a ring of truth to the widespread perception of his government being one of the most incompetent and corrupt in Pakistan’s recent history. As a result, the PPP was dealt a humiliating defeat in the 2013 elections, limiting to Sindh the writ of the once most powerful political force in the country.
Will history repeat itself yet again for the country’s most controversial leader? The charges against Zardari are indeed serious; yet, given the unpredictability of Pakistani politics, nothing is impossible. But whether or not Zardari is convicted, the possibility of his return to the political centre-stage remains limited. He had already taken a backseat in the party leadership, allowing Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to take charge.
By arrangement with Dawn...