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Meet the new Asif Zardari

The Asif I remember was a jovial tease, informal, chatty, fond of the good life and determined not to be boring or even serious. I’m flabbergasted by the change in him, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Mar 21, 2008 13:31 IST

Most people, I believe, grow to fill the responsibility placed on them. Promotions are, therefore, an act of faith. But that said and done I’m flabbergasted by the change in Asif Zardari. He’s literally become a different person.

The Asif I remember was a jovial tease, informal, chatty, fond of the good life and determined not to be boring or even serious. We first meet the night after his wedding. “Benazir’s told me all about you,” he said with mock gravity. “I’m on my best behaviour!” He then spent the evening pulling my leg and, frequently, his wife’s too. <b1>

Weeks after Benazir first became prime minister we were together on her special flight from Islamabad to Karachi. It was an aged propeller plane which flew at a sedate speed. Sitting in the prime ministerial drawing room at the front, Asif looked at his watch. We’d been travelling for nearly two hours. “If you’d stuck to PIA not only would you have arrived but you’d be in the hotel pool by now!” I protested I wasn’t in a hurry. “Yeah? Let’s see if you return with us!” I didn’t.

The Asif I meet last week was very different. Now the adjectives I would use are measured, emollient and deliberately self-effacing. Of course, he’s still charming, chatty and can’t resist teasing but there’s a new gravitas, a consciousness of responsibility and a convincing sense of wisdom.

Consider two examples. I pointed out that Nawaz Sharif’s decision to keep his party out of the cabinet whilst welcoming the PML (Q) into its ranks was a sure sign he would keep the PPP-led government unstable. Benazir’s reply would have been defensive. Asif chose to turn my question on its head. “And I welcome that,” he said. “I need people to keep me in check.”

“You need to be kept in check?” I asked, puzzled.

“Power is a tricky thing,” he responded. “What better can I ask for than my own ally should check me?”

It was a winning answer but also utterly unexpected. How many politicians on the brink of power welcome the prospect of being kept uncertain and unstable? Even if he didn’t mean it, it was the perfect thing to say.

However it wasn’t just fluent cleverness that made Asif so engagingly different. He also showed vision and courage. When I asked about Kashmir and the role it has played separating India and Pakistan, Asif, in a simple heartfelt reply, reversed Pakistan’s stand. Let’s put Kashmir aside for a wiser generation to sort out, he said. Let’s not be hostage to the UN resolutions, he added. Let’s get on with the rest of the relationship and once we’ve learnt to live and love each other then tackle Kashmir.

Stunned, I made Asif repeat this three times. Not once did he use the opportunity to resile. Each time he re-affirmed what he’d said. Finally, I asked: “Can you carry your countrymen? Can you handle the backlash this would provoke?”

Asif’s reply was simple. There were no flourishes or braggadocio. “That’s the test of leadership,” and he left it at that.

I can’t predict what sort of government the PPP under Asif Zardari will give Pakistan. I can’t even state Asif won’t change his position. Politicians often do and Asif has faced flak from the Jamaat at home and the Hurriyat in Kashmir. But I do know that Asif did not get carried away. This was not indiscretion or impetuousness. He meant what he said and, what’s more, he meant to say it.

In fact, when I asked if Dr. Manmohan Singh chooses to invite the new PM what the response would be, Asif said not only would the prime minister come but so too Nawaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali Khan, Fazlur Rehman, Altaf Hussain and Asif himself. A new Pakistan would seek to befriend India.

I’m therefore full of hope. And whilst I accept hope can easily be dashed, I would say there’s need to encourage this one. That’s the challenge facing our government. How do we assist Asif Zardari without embarrassing or undermining him?