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Updated: January 5, 2011 14:03 IST

Salman Taseer - Principled politician with many friends and enemies

Guardian
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Salman Taseer
AP Salman Taseer

Salman Taseer was never one to apologise for who he was or where he came from. Rising from modest beginnings to become a business tycoon, his brash style served him well. But in Pakistan’s dangerous game of politics, it led to his death.

Two months ago, in defiance of the prevailing political winds, Taseer paid a visit to Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under the country’s harsh blasphemy law.

Other politicians shunned Bibi, fearing the religious backlash; Taseer insisted on being photographed with her. Then he took his campaign to Twitter.

“Unimpressed by mullah rightest [sic] madrasa demo yesterday,” he wrote on 1 January. “No general support.” It was a typically principled stand from a born—again politician with an abundance of enemies and admirers who thrived in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most turbulent political hothouse.

The 56—year—old Lahore native had long—standing ties to the Bhutto—led Pakistan Peoples party, and did stretches in the torture cells of the military dictator General Zia—ul—Haq during the 1980s. His ardour for politics dimmed in the 1990s after several failed attempts to get elected and he turned to making money, where he did better.

Taseer built a small empire including accountancy and management firms, a television station, a newspaper and a telecommunications company. But he was drawn back to politics in 2008 when Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, appointed him governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and wealthiest province.

Taseer quickly carved out a role as Zardari’s attack dog against the Sharif family, which is also based in Lahore. He developed a taste for Twitter, using it to launch pithy, and often witty, barbs against opponents. Taseer also injected glamour into the job.

The wedding of a son on the lawns of the sweeping governor’s residence in central Lahore was celebrated with lavish photo spreads in Good Times, Pakistan’s version of Hello! magazine — which Taseer happened to own. His children came in for less welcome attention when leaked Facebook pictures of his daughters in swimsuits spread across the internet.

Taseer’s death deprives Pakistan of a colourful politician with unusual reserves of pluck. More significantly, it signals a worrying reduction in the public space for public figures, who cannot even count on their own police to protect them. The country’s liberals have not felt so isolated since the dark years of the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s.

In one of his last tweets, Taseer wrote: “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.” It was a darkly prophetic comment.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2011

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