How confident is Asif Ali Zardari of Nawaz Sharif’s support and what sort of policies will their government pursue toward India? Thos are the issues Karan Thapar raised with Zardari, co-chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party, on Devil’s Advocate.
Karan Thapar: Are you confident that Nawaz Sharif will support your government for the full five years, or do you suspect that he might be tempted to pull the rug after a year or 18 months?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think by and large it depends on the larger party. We have got the large mandate; we have to show humility; we have to take him into your heart and build confidence.
Karan Thapar: Yours is absolutely the right attitude, but the problem is that Nawaz Sharif has already announced that he would welcome back into the PML(N) all those who are today in the PML(Q). If that were to happen suddenly his numbers would swell beyond yours and he would become the larger party.
Asif Ali Zardari: I think the problems faced by Pakistan today are beyond number games—beyond immediate politics. So I think more we get down to business and more we get into governance we will realise that. When that dawns on everybody we will all stand in line and start delivering.
Karan Thapar: Except Nawaz Sharif has already said that his party won’t be actually in the Cabinet you form and many people suspect that he is keeping open the option of withdrawing support without any cost to himself?
Asif Ali Zardari: Then we shall face the position when we are faced with it. Why should I apprehend—why should I go into the fear factor. I shouldn’t—I should stand in the positive factor and positivity and take it from there.
Karan Thapar: Let us concentrate on some of the important differences between you. To begin with Nawaz Sharif has said he wants immediate impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf.
You have said to the ‘Wall Street Journal’ that you don’t have the numbers. Makhdoom Amin Fahim (PPP leader) has said this wouldn’t be wise and that it would rock the boat, but Nawaz isn’t satisfied with those answers. You have got a problem there, haven’t you?
Asif Ali Zardari: I don’t think it’s a problem. I think it is a perception. He realises and we realise that we have to mature as a democracy and the parliament is the replacement to the system. There is a system of governance today; the world is comfortable with it—we have to gain the world’s confidence; we have to gain the people’s confidence; we have to gain the establishment’s confidence.
We can run the show and the parliament can shoulder the difficulties, the problems and world issues and once we have done that I don’t think there any other issues.
Karan Thapar: You are absolutely right when you say that you have to gain people’s confidence and prove to them that you can run the government. The problem is that Nawaz Sharif, in an interview, said to me that he is considering taking Musharraf to court for deposing an elected Prime Minister and abrogating the constitution. That would lose the confidence of the military establishment from day one.
Asif Ali Zardari: Like I said before he goes there he will have to consult his friends.
Karan Thapar: Are you confident he will consult you?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think he should and he will. Why would I expect anything less of him? He is my ally, we fought the elections nearly together and I intend to take him with me on every issue that is facing Pakistan
Karan Thapar: Except that he wants vengeance for being thrown out power by Musharraf. He has a personal animus, which in a sense you don’t have against Musharraf.
Asif Ali Zardari: I think if there is anybody aggrieved in this whole situation it is the PPP.
Karan Thapar: So if you can be restrained so should he?
Asif Ali Zardari: You said it, I didn’t.
Karan Thapar: A second problem is his stand on the restoration of the judiciary. Sharif has said he wants the new government on day one to restore the judiciary. Is it possible; is it acceptable?
Asif Ali Zardari: I look at it in a larger concept. I am the person against whom the law has been applied more. How do you know law? Either you read law or you experience law. I have experienced law, and the kind of law which they accept is tailor-made. So in all these scenarios I think the nation has grown up—we have all travelled a great deal. Let us sit down and do something permanent, rather than looking for immediate excuses.
Karan Thapar: Except that you are prepared to be patient and to take it step by step but Nawaz Sharif is impatient. When he says that he is demanding restoration on day one, he is putting a test—almost a challenge—in front of his ally.
Asif Ali Zardari: No we can always agree upon that position—it is just a methodology. We are not in the business of not taking public opinion with us. We are susceptible to public opinion. The public opinion today says the judiciary must be restored. So I meet them, speak to them and find a way out of an issue.
Karan Thapar: Let me put another problem to you. The restoration of the judiciary would almost inevitably lead to the unraveling of the National Reconciliation Ordinance. All the cases you were confronted with and now which have been set aside would suddenly come back.
Asif Ali Zardari: That has never been an issue. The people who initiated the cases—my friends and allies now—have apologised to us. By way of apology they have admitted that they were political cases. The Cabinet has passed an NRO and admitted they were politically motivated cases.
So far as I am concerned it is history and those cases, if they had any matter in them, they would have been able to sentence me in the eight years I was there (in prison).
Karan Thapar: Nonetheless, the old judiciary struck down the NRO and if it was to be restored it would once again strike down the NRO.
Asif Ali Zardari: But then there will be a package where the judges will be free then those cases won’t matter, because as it is everybody know that those are political cases.
Karan Thapar: So you are hoping that when the judges are restored they will view this whole issue a little differently?
Asif Ali Zardari: Not that I am hoping, I know the package I am talking about will give the judiciary the first chance to be really comfortable with themselves. The people have been working under strain, restraint—ordinances, laws created, laws nominated.
Karan Thapar: So in that scenario, NRO won’t be a problem?
Asif Ali Zardari: That has never been a problem one way or the other.
Karan Thapar: What about something else? Today any government that you form in Islamabad unless you take the support of the PML(Q)—which you said you won’t—is critically dependent on the PML(N). But in Lahore Nawaz Sharif has the numbers to form the government without you.
In other words you are dependent on him but he doesn’t need you. Doesn’t that give him an advantage that he could use to keep your government uncertain, weak and unstable?
Asif Ali Zardari: Maybe he can use it keep me in check. I do want to be kept in check.
Karan Thapar: You are happy for Nawaz to keep you in check?
Asif Ali Zardari: I am very happy for everybody, including the media, the judges, Nawaz, to keep me in check. Fine, so let’s work from there.
Karan Thapar: Do you think you need to be kept in check?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think that power is something that Caesar always said ‘behold, you are a man.’
Karan Thapar: You mean power corrupts.
Asif Ali Zardari: No, it doesn’t corrupt but it makes you lack direction sometimes.
Karan Thapar: And this is why you want Nawaz Sharif to keep you in check.
Asif Ali Zardari: No, I want everybody to be observant so everyone shares responsibility. If something is happening and I by default or by silence let it happen I think I am as such responsible as the person who is doing it.
Karan Thapar: And this is where Nawaz Sharif is keeping you in check—keeping a certain uncertainty and keeping a certain apprehensiveness is a good thing?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think challenges are always good. They keep everybody on their position. People are seeing too much into the fact—he is my ally…the press is watching, public, opinion is watching.
Karan Thapar: You have enunciated something that will take most people completely by surprise. Never before have politicians have said I would like an ally to keep me in check. You have said the unusual—many will be very pleased to hear this. When your new government is formed, what will your role be?
Asif Ali Zardari: I will take a leaf out of your politics and do something like talking to the allied parties, making democracy come alive.
Karan Thapar: You mean you are going to be the Sonia Gandhi of Pakistan?
Asif Ali Zardari: She is too great—for me to be Sonia.
Karan Thapar: But that is the sort of role you see for yourself? Above the government, liaising with the parties and ensuring the government follows the directions?
Asif Ali Zardari: I won’t put it that way. I don’t want to be above the government. I want to be with the government, supporting the government. Mind you, we had a giant of 21st century with us—she is still with us spiritually. She is with us in her political acumen, but she is not with us today. So I have to go back to the basics and re-develop the party.
Karan Thapar: So you are going to re-develop the party, make sure that it overcomes its falls and at the some time you are going to be a liaison with the government and other political parties?
Asif Ali Zardari: Something to that effect.
Karan Thapar: Which is in a sense the Sonia Gandhi role?
Asif Ali Zardari: Is it? You tell me.
Karan Thapar: Who will be your Manmohan Singh?
Asif Ali Zardari: The search is on.
Karan Thapar: When Benazir Bhutto, your late wife, was assassinated it was announced that Makhdoom Amin Fahim would be the prime ministerial candidate? Why is the search still on?
Asif Ali Zardari: Makhdoom Amin Fahim is a very senior person in our party and we respect him tremendously. But the challenge we were looking at that time—of getting a two-third majority—and we thought in the party that we are going to make it. But somehow something happened—something which we haven’t been able to put a finger on and I have called it selective rigging.
Karan Thapar: So now you need a different person perhaps?
Asif Ali Zardari: No, it’s not that I need a different person. In the party we are rethinking the position. Fahim is of course the first runner, we are just seeing how are we are going to get out of this absolute challenge that we have been faced with: allies not being there to check us, judges’ issue coming over.
Karan Thapar: Is it causing a rift in your party? Is it causing differences, as the press in Pakistan suggest?
Asif Ali Zardari: We haven’t really even come the position when we have started to select…
Karan Thapar: So the choice of Prime Minister is still some days away?
Asif Ali Zardari: A few days away.
Karan Thapar: And it is still an open matter?
Asif Ali Zardari: Yeah, sure.
Karan Thapar: Does it need to be someone from Sindh?
Asif Ali Zardari: Pakistan People’s Party is a federal party.
Karan Thapar: So it could be a Punjabi?
Asif Ali Zardari: It could be a Baluchi, it could be a Pathan.
Karan Thapar: In other words it is wide upon at the moment.
Asif Ali Zardari: In other words it could be.
Karan Thapar: Let us turn to the sort of relationship your government would have with India. For the last four years under Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh the two countries believe they have had the best relationship ever. How can you ensure that momentum continues?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think you may probably find the best understanding ever. The kind of relationship I look at, Pakistan People’s Party wants, hasn’t really happened.
Karan Thapar: You mean you are determined to take it to a yet higher stage.
Asif Ali Zardari: I want to take it to a stage of such confidence building that the fear factor diminishes from both angles.
Karan Thapar: How will you do this?
Asif Ali Zardari: People to people contact should be improved and then trade—inter-dependence of trade. If Indian energy, Indian industry depends on Pakistan energy and I depend on Indian market for my product to be sold, then we are both inter-dependent financially, integrated industry-wise. That is people to people contact.
Karan Thapar: So you want to link the two countries together. First, at the level of trade and create inter-dependency.
Asif Ali Zardari: Yes, the idea is India needs to be a superpower. Economic superpower. It cannot go without energy. The energy corridors are with me.
Karan Thapar: And you will guarantee India security of energy if they were to develop the pipeline idea, so that a pipeline goes from Iran via Pakistan to India.
Asif Ali Zardari: By the way, that pipeline is PPP-conceived idea.
Karan Thapar: And you are committed to it?
Asif Ali Zardari: We are committed to it but we have gas otherwise and we have the capacity to build power plants on our coal before India can.
Karan Thapar: So trade barriers and the mindsets that actually discourage people to trade between each other, you are determined to break those.
Asif Ali Zardari: That is the idea.
Karan Thapar: One of the problems that you face is many people in India believe that the Kashmir issue can best be sorted out when there is army rule in Islamabad. How do you convince them to the contrary?
Asif Ali Zardari: Well, we have had army rule for eight years. Have they solved it? I don’t need to convince, it talks for itself.
Karan Thapar: One of the problems that you face is that in July 2006 the PPP and PML(N) signed a charter of democracy committing themselves to sorting out Kashmir in line with the UN resolutions.
Since 2004 Musharraf has moved away from that position and as a result a whole new attitude and approach to Kashmir has started between the two countries. Are you not winding the clock back?
Asif Ali Zardari: No, I am not winding or de-winding clocks. I am not getting hostage to that issue. The idea is we feel for Kashmir, PPP has always felt for Kashmir, we have a strong Kashmir policy and we always had one. But having said that we don’t want to be hostage to that situation. That is a situation we can agree to disagree (on). Countries do, we have positions, you have positions. We can agree to disagree on everything.
Karan Thapar: So the UN resolution needn’t be a breaking point, you can agree to disagree on it?
Asif Ali Zardari: We can agree to disagree on (the UN resolution). We can wait. We can be patient till everybody grows up further. Maybe the coming generation grows up even further and then let’s interact as human beings and come to a position of love.
Karan Thapar: You have said something that I think is very important. You are saying we can agree to disagree, we can be patient, we can wait till people grow up.
Are you suggesting that it’s bit like India and China where they have a border dispute. India and Pakistan can also agree: we have a dispute, we disagree over it but let’s put it aside for a while and let the rest of our relationship develop?
Asif Ali Zardari: Exactly.
Karan Thapar: So that when the relationship improves then we can come back and with the benefit of an improved relationship tackle this problem.
Asif Ali Zardari: Tackle the bottom problem. Today there are fixed notions—when dependency increases, we are matured enough, we got trust between us then nobody has fixed issues.
Karan Thapar: In other words leave the border issue for a wiser generation and a better time, let us get on with our relationship, let us become friends and then we will tackle our problems.
Asif Ali Zardari: As it is going to be a no-border world in the end.
Karan Thapar: Do you think you will find the support of your allies right across the Pakistani political establishment for this very novel attitude, very brave attitude to Kashmir?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think the economical dependency that I'm talking about, nobody has really made the Pakistanis aware what position they are (in) and what they can gain.
Karan Thapar: And when they realise they can gain from trade with India there resistance will disappear?
Asif Ali Zardari: When they realise that they can change, the world will change. Economically, it’s a thousand per cent leap we'll get into and the benefit of the thousand per cent leap is going to (have an) effect across the board.
Karan Thapar: You are talking about a complete change in the manner in which India and Pakistan relate to each other and therefore a change in the relationship itself.
To set the ball rolling, do you think it would be a good idea for the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, whoever she or he maybe, to pay an early visit (to India) to get to know Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi and perhaps to know politicians of other parties as well so that a personal initiative is started as early as possible to bring about the change you want.
Asif Ali Zardari: I think we should go further than that. Just not visiting and meeting—let’s hit the road running, let’s meet with concrete steps, let’s talk about SAARC, let’s talk modern technology. What is the worry? The worry is that we might send some scoops here, you might send some scoops there—something like that. Let’s take modern technology and use is as practical.
Karan Thapar: So if Manmohan Singh is hearing this interview and says I think I am going to invite the new Prime Minister to Delhi quickly to get to know him, you think the new Prime Minister of Pakistan is likely to accept?
Asif Ali Zardari: I think the new Prime Minister of Pakistan will not only visit India, he will visit India with the political parties’ leaders following him. When he gets down, he’ll be first (with) me, Nawaz Sharif, Asfandyar Wali Khan (of ANP), hopefully Maulana Fazlur Rehman (of MMA), hopefully Altaf (Hussain)'s party—we should all walk behind him, greeting India.
Karan Thapar: So this in fact would be the new Pakistan led by the new Prime Minister but all the political leaders with him to tell the Indians we are united in putting our hand forward for friendship, shake hands with us and let us move together.
Asif Ali Zardari: Exactly.
Karan Thapar: You said something revolutionary, I should say that to you, it will attract a lot of attention in India. Are you worried you could face a backlash in your country?
Asif Ali Zardari: That is what leadership is all about, that’s what popularity is all about—the fact that I do something with the will of the people is my plus not my minus.
Karan Thapar: Asif Zardari, a pleasure talking to you on Devil’s Advocate.