Saturday, March 22, 2008

Friend of Friends

So after a rather exasperating wait, we finally have a new prime minister in Pakistan. The dude is Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani. He is 55, a Saraiki [ethnic group from South-eastern Pakistan, especially in and around the area of the former princely state of Bahawalpur; Saraikis produce most of Pakistan’s wheat and cotton]-Punjabi from Multan and a pretty influential player in Pakistan’s power equation. An ex-speaker of the Pakistan parliament, Syed sahib was jailed for five long years for misusing his authority while he was the speaker.

Mr Gillani’s rise to fame is largely due to his closeness to Asif Zardari. Asif is a much flamboyant character and is known for throwing legendary social parties and lavishly hosting his close pals. So he eventually cherry picked Syed sahib [an ex-Nawaz guy] over PPP icons like Makhdoom Fahim and Aitzaz Ahsan.

Asif’s friends vouch for his famed friendship. When Gillani was being sentenced to six years of imprisonment, Asif who was present in the Rawalpindi court room [in connection with one of his own corruption cases, all of which have now been dropped] suddenly got up and remarked in his characteristic rhetorical style,’ My Lord you are putting behind bars the future president of Pakistan.

It looks like Asif finally kept his word. In doing so, he chose a relative new-comer to the coveted post. The new PM Gillani is ironically a product of the Martial Law under General Zia-ul-Haq. The dictator made him a member of the Majlis-e-Shoora [Council of Advisors]. A heavy weight politician, he soon became part of the PML. Raza joined PPP in 1988. He has a Master’s in journalism from Punjab University and wrote a book 'Chahe-Yusuf-Se-sada' [Reflections from Yusuf's Well] while in prison.

Before the announcement of Raza’s elevation, last week Asif nominated Dr Fehmida Mirza to the post of speaker of the Pakistan Parliament. Her husband, Zulfikar Mirza, was Zardari's classmate at the Petaro Cadet College and has been Asif’s best friend. During previous governments of Benazir Bhutto, Mirza was often accused of being Zardari's front-man in most of his shady deals. That was why Mirza, whose car registration Zulfi One, used to make waves in the federal capital during those days, disappeared from the scene after the dismissal of second Benazir government in 1996, as Dawn quotes.

The latest choice -- Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani -- has Iranian ancestry. He comes from a very reverend spiritual family in Multan. Interestingly, Geelani’s aunt’s [mom’s sister] hubby is the current Pir Pagaro [Chief of many turbans]. The present Pir [seventh spiritual head of the respected Hur Sufis] is Shah Mardan Shah II. That’s what makes it all the more amusing. Both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir had an aversion for the Hurs and hated them guts. The father-daughter duo persecuted the Hurs because they considered them as a big political challenge in Sindh. Now we have a Pir Pagaro kin, a Zia-find, carrying forward the Bhutto legacy.

Gillani’s appointment accentuates two important things. One, he may just keep the high profile seat of PM warm for Asif who may take over, let us say, six months down the line. Two, Asif remains a 'friend of friends' and very much a maverick.

Time for a drink.