Sarkozy or Putin?

Why couldn’t we see our president like Nicolas Sarkozy as someone who was well meaning despite his scandalous behaviour he asked. More recently a Russian friend asked me why Mr Zardari could not be like Vladimir Putin — using an authoritative style of governance to control the ‘mafia’. So who is our president like — Sarkozy or Putin?

If Sarkozy is to be judged based on his propensity to raise eyebrows on account of his social behaviour then yes Mr Zardari is someone with a similar style. He had warmed up to the then vice presidential nominee in a style that most Pakistanis objected to but perhaps that was his manner. However the French president has other serious matters on his agenda as well.

So what about Vladimir Putin who is considered authoritarian eager to silence all other voices around him and keen to remain in power against all democratic norms. Given his long association with KGB the Soviet spy agency the Russian prime minister’s style does not come as a surprise. He was trained as a member of a coercive organisation in the communist Soviet Union. Nonetheless there is a major difference between the two men. While using authority which makes him popular with the rest of the world Putin does not seem too keen to destroy the Russian bureaucracy that was the linchpin of communist power. In fact the concern to save some state institutions is one of the reasons behind attempts to bring powerful segments of the mafia under control. This is considered critical to the survival of the Russian state.

Is Pakistan’s head of state honouring the integrity of institutions? There are times when one gets glimpses of a plan to build a new political system not dominated by forces traditionally powerful in Pakistan. This is not a bad idea. However the approach adopted has so far not proved supportive of the aspiration to break old power centres. In fact there is a risk that these may be strengthened. For instance the military more than any other institution benefited from the president’s recent conflict with segments of civil society and the lawyers’ movement.

Unlike Putin or Sarkozy who do not weaken themselves or their institutional support base Mr Zardari’s primary dependence has been on external powers. His calculation seems to be that as long as he delivers on some counts such as issues relating to military security he can continue to have the support of outside players. Since the world will not tolerate a military takeover they have an interest in strengthening a civilian regime in Pakistan even at the cost of tolerating its political inadequacies. Sources also say there was hope at the top of receiving approximately $40bn in foreign aid that would help improve the presidential image and be a strong antidote to all arguments condemning Mr Zardari as a failed leader.

One wonders if there is any realisation in Pakistan that the US will not be able to offer anything more than $7bn spread over five years and that too attached to certain conditions. In addition there is also a possibility that weary of the political turmoil in Pakistan the international community feels too dejected with the present government and is thus less inclined to support it.

Considering the fact that the US and UK (as disclosed by a former British diplomat) were keen to support the PPP government over other opposition parties especially the PML N before the 2008 elections the possibility of the aforementioned thinking within the present government is not surprising. Since a lot of people in Pakistan including my milkman hairdresser maid and chowkidar also believe that Pakistan’s policies are made in Washington the political and military leadership cannot be blamed for getting excited by promises of cooperation from western capitals.

After all even western powers don’t understand that stability in Third World countries does not grow on trees or cannot be brought about through tactical political manoeuvres. Like its predecessors the present PPP government cannot survive at least not in the form it started out with unless it shows an interest in building and strengthening national institutions.

However the American emphasis is always on finding short term solutions to complex problems by routing US regional policies through individuals who can carry out one window operations. So when Gen Musharraf who was perceived as a staunch ally for a long time couldn’t deliver others were allowed to throw him away. The general’s predecessor Gen Zia was also a US favourite until Washington and Rawalpindi parted ways.

The fondness for the current Pakistani leadership may not be any different. There is also no guarantee that the US will continue to look down on the PML N leadership. The situation is bound to get trickier with changes in the larger geo political environment. Once the cash strapped West finds greater challenges to its existence in Afghanistan and the South Asian region the probability of encouraging other local partners increases. At that time if Mr Zardari’s behaviour appears as frustrating as it is now it won’t take long for Washington to reconsider its options.

The patronage system be it local or international is highly destabilising for players that don’t fully appreciate the rules of the game. Under the circumstances Asif Zardari’s survival depends on building institutions rather than killing them. Even if he loves authority the rules of the game would build his strength as much through institutions as cronies. Perhaps if he really seriously thought about becoming Putin he could survive.

Note: This article originally published here.