LAHORE - A new controversy has started after a statement attributed to former president Asif Zardari following his meeting with party leaders on Monday, and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s response thereto on Tuesday.

Both statements are very important and reflective of the kind of ties the leaders of both the major parties had had after the Musharraf era, especially when the PML-N returned to power after the 2013 election.

Zardari has been quoted as saying that he had spoken against the military establishment on being encouraged by Nawaz Sharif and that the PML-N leader had used the situation to shake hands with the establishment.

Zardari had warned the establishment not to overstep its mandate. “Don’t disturb us or we will also respond to a brick with a brick,” he had said, adding “there is a limit to everything. Do not interfere in matters where you have no authority.”

At his Monday meeting with party leaders, Zardari said “We used to think that Nawaz was very innocent, but he is far more cunning and opportunistic than we thought. We kept on agreeing over the network of democracy, constitution and civilian supremacy. While we were engaged in politics, Nawaz was busy in trading,” he said.

He also claimed that he wanted to impeach former president Pervez Musharraf but Nawaz Sharif (whose party’s support was needed for the purpose) backed out.

Mian Nawaz Sharif’s statement issued on Tuesday contradicted all claims of the former president and asked Mr Zardari if he was so innocent that he was deceived by the PML-N boss.

He claims that he (Nawaz) had disliked Zardari’s statement against the establishment. Differences with Gen Musharraf did not mean that his institution should be targeted, he said.

The PML-N supreme leader also claimed that Zardari wanted parliamentary indemnity for all steps taken by Gen Musharraf, an idea he had strongly opposed.

These statements have raised questions about the truthfulness and honesty of the two leaders. If one leader is to be trusted, the other has to be disbelieved.

Apparently, Mr Zardari’s statement can be likened to the confessions made by an accused in police custody. A mercenary’s claim that he committed a murder on being instigated by someone doesn’t lessen the gravity of the crime nor does it absolve him of responsibility. Such a person has to face justice. At most the alleged instigator can be taken as co-accused.

That the former president played in the hands of his political rival is a matter of serious concern for the nation. Such a person cannot be trusted for national secrets. Rivals miss no opportunity to exploit their opponents. There’s nothing new about it.

It is being speculated that Mr Zardari has spoken against Mr Sharif at this point in time to be able to get closer to the establishment. By doing so, he has added to the burden of the former prime minister the establishment reportedly wants to get rid of at any cost.

Everybody knows that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had signed the Charter of Democracy at a meeting in London when the latter was still living in exile. The PPP leader used the same accord to strengthen her bargaining position with the establishment and signed an NRO with Gen Musharraf, the then president.

The CoD did not permit the PPP leader to join hands with Musharraf, who had banished the PML-N leader. But she used the opportunity to reap political benefit from the situation. Under the NRO deal Musharraf would have been the president and Benazir Bhutto the prime minister.

The situation, however, changed because Benazir returned to Pakistan in violation of the agreement with the military leader and was assassinated.

History is replete with examples when the rivals were used for political benefits. Gen Zia had inducted the PNA ministers in his cabinet with the promise to hold general election. These ministers were still holding their posts – although they enjoyed no powers - when the military leader got ZAB hanged under a Supreme Court verdict. He used the presence of  ministers as a shelter against the PPP and to give an impression as if they supported the execution of the PPP founder.

Former defence minsister Khwaja Asif’s admission that the PML-N had helped Zardari take over the leadership of the PPP and get rid of Makhdoom Amin Faheem also establishes that Mr Sharif had helped his political opponent.

Truth should not be a casualty in the war of words going on between political opponents.