In its recently published commentary, “Asif Ali Zardari’s arrest aimed at reinforcing the supremacy of the Pakistani military establishment”, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) comments on how after first neutralizing the more ominous challenge of former PM Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani military establishment turned its guns this week on another political heavyweight, former President Asif Ali Zardari. The weapon employed was Pakistan's anti-graft body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). While Zardari’s case was originally registered with the Federal Investigation Agency and was filed before a banking court in Karachi, the NAB later transferred it to its Rawalpindi directorate.
EFSAS describes how the NAB submitted eight grounds for Zardari's arrest, including legitimizing illegal income through transactions in fake bank accounts and use of front men for money laundering. In September 2018, Pakistan's Supreme Court had established a commission to investigate the case and found that at least $400 million had passed through “thousands of false accounts”. The NAB claimed that its investigations pointed to Zardari’s involvement, but he has maintained all along that he had no connection with these accounts. Terming the government as an instrument of the military establishment, and PM Imran Khan as its “blue-eyed boy”, Zardari insisted that he was being unfairly hounded by them for political reasons.
In its commentary EFSAS also explains that although former President Asif Ali Zardari has been a controversial figure in Pakistani politics and has earlier served about a decade of incarceration for alleged financial impropriety and murder, Zardari had never been convicted. An emergency consultative meeting of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which Zardari co-chairs along with his son Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, was held to discuss Zardari’s legal options. Bilawal, who over the last few years has emerged as a capable politician in his own right and has been highly critical of the Imran Khan led government for its dictatorial tendencies, incompetence, and inability to keep inflation under check, termed his father’s arrest as an act of “political victimization” by the government.
EFSAS examined also Zardari’s arrest that came at a time when the economy was spiralling downwards and discontent was simmering in the country following repeated devaluations of the rupee, soaring inflation, and rising utility prices. Therefore, it is believed that Zardari’s arrest was a reaction to the protests that the PPP had planned against the government on these issues. Zardari had been vocal in demanding the removal of Imran Khan’s government, and much to the consternation of the government he had also initiated moves to forge opposition unity.
In addition, it is pertinent to mention that the NAB is also investigating several politicians of the ruling coalition, but none of them have actually been arrested. This reinforces the claim by the PPP and the PML-N that the NAB is essentially operating as an arm of the government that is used to achieve political objectives.
Corruption, therefore, does not appear to be at the heart of Zardari’s arrest. After all, corruption has over the decades been endemic in Pakistan. The main issue in the country presently is the desire of the military establishment to undermine an already weakened and floundering political set up, and to drive in and cement its own unbridled supremacy.
EFSAS concludes by explaining that the reality is that the Pakistani military hogs the bulk of the country's budget and is not answerable to the civilian government over its expenditures. Had it not been for the impunity enjoyed by establishment-linked corrupt politicians and military officers alike, the arrest of Zardari would have been welcomed more heartily by the Pakistani populatio