The strobe lights have missed a sub-plot in Pakistan’s political pantomime. How and why did a formerly conformist Asif Zardari fast-track into an activist against President Pervez Musharraf? Zardari and Musharraf were practically arm-in-arm until the other day, carrying forward an alleged deal that helped Benazir Bhutto and Zardari himself return to Pakistan, insulated from the graft charges that made them flee Pakistan in the first place.
Zardari is clearly keen to live down the stigma of being in cahoots with the hugely unpopular president. His impeachment gamble is a rearguard move to salvage the coalition with Nawaz Sharif’s avowedly anti-Musharraf PML, and the political ground the PPP has lost to it since the February 18 polls. So high is Sharif’s political stock that he’d sweep to power on his own if another poll were held.
Even while joining forces with the PML to outflank the former General, Zardari has afforded him time and space to demit office or be persuaded to do so by the country’s super cabinet — the corps commanders led by Musharraf's one-time understudy Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. But the army too wants to distance itself from the president, for the same reasons that Zardari and the PPP do. For the chattering classes, Musharraf is a despot who muzzled the media and the judiciary. For the fundamentalist fringe, he’s the ‘satanic’ United State’s beachhead against Islam.
On which side does the US stand in President Musharraf's hour of reckoning? Musharraf without military powers is a burnt out case for the US. On the sidelines of SAARC’s Colombo Summit, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher sidestepped questions on Musharraf’s relatively better record in fighting terrorism. “Democratic base,” he reasoned, “is the best base to fight terror…”
Pakistani politicians also understand better now that they either hang together or be hanged separately by extra-democratic forces that benefited from a divided polity in the past. The writing indeed is on the wall for the embattled President.
That history isn’t about to repeat itself was evident from Sharif’s comments to a parliamentarian whom Musharraf tried convincing about early cracks in the PPP-PML coalition. “Tell him when you meet him next that we won't fight among ourselves. We’ll fight him together.”