Laughing and weeping politicians


By Hussain H Zaidi

Democritus and Heraclitus, two eminent figures in ancient Greek philosophy, are known respectively as the laughing philosopher and the weeping philosopher. A materialist, Democritus believed that man was helpless in the face of the powerful forces of nature. And that the only way man could salvage some pride was to cheerfully face up to the world and take on his chin all the vicissitudes of life. For Democritus, pleasure or cheerful living was the supreme good.

By contrast, Heraclitus believed in rational or non-materialistic foundations of the world in which opposing forces, such as good and evil, were constantly at war. He was a misanthrope and a melancholic, who had a peculiar disdain for the masses and believed that only an oligarchy of wise and uncorrupted persons was fit to rule. For Heraclitus, virtue consisted in a life of reason and purity.

The two present-day Pakistani politicians who approximate to the laughing and the weeping philosophers are Asif Zardari and Imran Khan, respectively. Zardari has seldom, if ever, pretended to be a revolutionary, or even a change-maker. It is difficult to recall that he ever presented himself as standing on a higher moral ground than his rivals, and he has seldom cast himself as one who bucks the system. Reconciliation, or even submission to, with anyone who matters has been his political motto. He believes in making the best out of difficult circumstances and has the knack of turning to a good account an apparently hopeless situation. Hence, from time to time he catches both his detractors and adulators by surprise.

Being the spouse of Benazir Bhutto, Zardari was destined to be in the limelight for reasons both good and bad. He remained a much-reviled figure when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister (1988-90 and 1993-96) for allegedly receiving kickbacks in lucrative government deals, and was given the sobriquet ‘Mr 10 percent.’ On both occasions, Ms Bhutto was dismissed on charges of corruption. Many believe Zardari must take the flak for the ‘bad’ governance during his wife’s tenures. Although he spent several years behind bars, arguably more than any other frontline politician, the corruption charges could not be substantiated in a court of law.

Zardari also didn’t have to build a party of his own. Rather the country’s largest and the most popular political party was bequeathed to him. It is very doubtful that, notwithstanding all his political acumen, if left to his own, Zardari would have carved out a prominent place for himself in Pakistani politics. Yes, he outmanoeuvred rival claimants, if any, to the party leadership. But, above all, he owes his exalted place in the country to his deceased wife and her illustrious father.

In the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Zardari led the PPP to victory in the 2008 elections. In a few months, he forced the incumbent General (r) Pervez Musharraf to step down and got himself elected to the highest office of the land. If that was a surprise, an even bigger surprise was in store for the nation. Both the then president Zardari and the PPP government completed their constitutional terms making a mockery of the predications of their premature exit. The feat could hardly have been accomplished without securing the trust of the powerful that had hitherto looked askance at PPP politics. After the PPP was trounced in the 2013 elections, Zardari was blamed for having reduced the party’s standing.

During the following five years, Zardari on the whole remained quiet. That, however, didn’t deter him from assiduously playing his cards on a few occasions, especially during the 2015 and 2018 Senate elections. Although the PPP finished third in the 2018 elections, it retained its absolute majority in Sindh and shored up its tally in the National Assembly. In a hung parliament, where the ruling party enjoys a razor-thin majority, the PPP is poised to emerge as a deal maker at some stage. At the moment, Zardari seems to be in hot waters over alleged corruption and money laundering. But many believe he still has several cards up his sleeve.

Imran Khan is as different from Zardari as chalk and cheese. To begin with, he is arguably the country’s most popular politician. He has a kind of charisma that perhaps no other present-day political leader can match. In particular, he is a darling of the youth, who see in him the only hope for a better future.

From the very outset, Imran Khan has made the nation look at Pakistan society and polity as representing the spectacle of an incessant strife between the forces of good and evil, honesty and corruption, and change and the status quo. In this conflict, he has cast himself as one – the only one – who is on the side of honesty and change. He has always presented himself, and is regarded by his tens of thousands of frantic followers and diehard supporters, as miles ahead of other frontline politicians of his generation on the moral scale. While both Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are accused of having plundered the nation – Sharif having been disqualified and convicted of amassing assets beyond his declared sources of income – Khan is projected honest and clean to the bone, someone who enjoys an impeccable record of public service. Logically, only he is deemed capable of cleaning the Augean stable of politics and putting in place a new Pakistan.

Until 2018, Khan failed to translate his tremendous popularity and mass appeal into an electoral victory. He put down his failure to corrupt political and electoral practices, for which he would take a dig at everyone who mattered in the land of the ‘impure’ – all institutions. However, the same ‘corrupt’ system enabled him to win the 2018 electoral race. The office of the prime minister, which had proved a pot of gold for him, was finally his.

Since the start of his political career, Khan has been passing opprobrious remarks against his opponents, and even against anyone who publicly differs with him. He has the knack of giving a free rein to his tongue while coming down hard on his rivals. Avowedly, he does so not for personal reasons but in the national interest and as a champion of good governance. As old habits die hard, even assumption of the reins of government has not watered down his anti-graft tirade; nor has it held in check his impulse to call a spade a spade. In his first speech after his election as prime minister, he shook his fist at the opposition and declared that sticky-fingered politicians would get the cane at all cost.

The maverick leader has so strong an aversion to this factor that even in his foreign visits he dwells on the corruption narrative and rants at previous governments for being a league of wide boys, who brought the economy and public institutions on the brink of collapse. Destiny has left it to him to set things right.

Despite being poles apart, Zardari and Khan made common cause in the 2018 Senate elections in which the PTI voted for the PPP nominee for the post of deputy chairman. Even today, one cannot rule out these two political leaders forming a coalition in the months to come. In a country remarkable for the fragility of its democratic institutions and uncertainty of its politics, the sword of Damocles always hangs on the ruler no matter how powerful he may appear to be. This in part accounts for marriages of convenience in the political realm. Perhaps Democritus was right: man is helpless before the higher powers.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.