Last week, for the first time in its 65-year history, a democratically elected civilian government in Pakistan completed its full term. In India that would be no big thing. It’s happened many times in our democratic past, 2009 being the most recent occasion. But for Pakistan it’s a landmark achievement.
What makes it all the more satisfying is no one expected this. In 2008, when this civilian government was sworn-in, the odds were heavily stacked against it lasting for five years.
To begin with, it was a coalition which even, at one point, included both the Bhutto-led People’s Party and the Nawaz Sharif-led Muslim League. That’s like the Congress and the BJP uniting to form a joint administration! Second, it faced a distrusting if not actually hostile army. A coup was often thought to be imminent. Third, was the outright opposition of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. He forced the resignation of the first prime minister and almost obtained that of his successor. He made no secret his target was President Zardari.
Many were the occasions when the demise of the government was both predicted and expected. The Long March from Lahore to Islamabad, which restored the Chief Justice, was the first. The Husain Haqqani controversy the second. Qadri’s siege of the capital the most recent. The continuing saga of Chief Justice Chaudhry’s campaign to investigate allegations of corruption against Asif Zardari the most persistent.
Yet all of this was not just survived but effectively handled without Benazir Bhutto at the helm. Her assassination left the PPP without its brightest leader.
Looking back on the 5 years that have ended, its clear much of the credit goes to Asif Zardari. He was under-rated when he succeeded his wife. Sneered at — including by our government — when he was sworn-in as President. And his political skills were either ignored or dismissed as negligible. How wrong his critics were.
Pakistanis are already reassessing the Zardari presidency. Slowly, perhaps reluctantly but, now, inevitably they have come to accept him as the great survivor. In due course they will acknowledge the skills that lie behind his longevity.
We, in India, have our own lessons to learn. There were at least three occasions when Zardari proffered his hand but we didn’t respond.
The first was in March 2008 when he said the Kashmir dispute should be handled like India’s border problem with China — place it on the back-burner for a later wiser generation to resolve whilst, in the interim, the two countries build confidence by boosting trade. Seven months later, at the Hindustan Times Conclave, he publicly said that Pakistan had given up the option of a first nuclear strike.
That was both a rebuff to his army and also a declaration of a critical policy change made first to an Indian audience. Two months later, in the immediate aftermath of 26/11, he said, echoing Kennedy, “today we are all Mumbaikars”.
I can’t say what might have happened if our government had responded to these overtures. Perhaps nothing at all. Or maybe something significant. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because we did nothing.
Did we lose an opportunity? My answer is a hesitant yes. More importantly, it left Zardari exposed to his critics and the Generals. Consequently, there was no fourth overture.
The past they say is another country. Undoubtedly we don’t want to revisit it. But ought we not to learn from it? That’s the challenge which faces us, both in India and Pakistan.
Views expressed by the author are personal.