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Commentary/Rajiv Shukla

The debate in Pakistan is not whether Zardari is corrupt or not, but whether he made $4 billion or $6 billion

Asif Zardari, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto's husband, is arguably the most hated person in his country.

During my recent seven-day visit to Pakistan, I did not find a single person -- except Benazir -- who was ready to defend Zardari against the wide ranging allegations against him. Even the Pakistan People's Party leaders are criticising him in private. They do not have anything against bibi (Benazir); she is still a nice person. But Zardari, they say, is far from nice -- because of him bibi not only lost power, but her credibility too.

Earlier, Zardari was known as Mr Forty Per Cent. During her last rule his name changed to Mr Cent Per Cent as he was 'reputed' to take hundred per cent commission for any deals that came through. When I asked Benazir about this allegation, she answered, "Asif kabhi commission nahi leta tha. Us bechare ko jhooth ka badnam kiya (Asif does not take any commission. He is being defamed.)"

According to Benazir, her husband is a simple person who has a sympathetic ear for everyone. He used to recommend cases, true. But that was without any financial interests whatsoever. She had asked him many times to stop this practice, but he had not listened to her. As her phones were being tapped, these conversations were interpreted wrongly.

Benazir may claim her husband is not corrupt till she is blue in her face, but nobody is going to believe her. Today, the debate in Pakistan is not whether Zardari is corrupt or not, but whether he made $4 billion or $ 6 billion. If there is shortage of wheat flour in the country, the public perception and official explanation is the same -- shipments arrived late because Zardari was busy negotiating his commission. If rice was sold to Europe on cheaper rates, again, it was Zardari who was responsible. In fact, such is Zardari's reputation that his name figures in a dozen other deals besides these.

The grand lifestyle which Zardari and his wife enjoyed has provided much material for gossip. Benazir, it is said, spent Rs 60 million on mineral water alone during her last regime. Zardari spent millions of rupees from the public exchequer to construct a polo ground near the prime ministerial mansion. His horses enjoyed air conditioned stables and had milk, apple and dry fruits for fodder. Zardari's house in Islamabad is worth millions and his bungalow in Karachi has got a good many obscenely costly decorative pieces. People also talk about the couple's splendid Surrey mansion.

Zardari is now in jail, facing charges that he was part of the conspiracy to kill his brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto. Benazir alleges that Pakistan President Farooq Leghari hatched the 'conspiracy' to 'implicate' her husband. But the popular view is that Zardari and Murtaza were sworn enemies and Zardari was convinced that Murtaza would kill him one day.

Whether these allegations are true, one cannot say. But many Pakistanis consider Zardari the villain and want him prosecuted. They are not allergic to Benazir as yet; but they feel she cannot stage a comeback with Zardari's deadweight dragging her down.

Meanwhile, Benazir's one-point agenda is to get rid of the cases against Zardari. In a bid to soften Nawaz Sharief's stand on the matter, she has even withdrawn from the prime ministerial race, saying she would never ever like to hold that post again.

Unfortunately, people do not believe her.

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Rajiv Shukla

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