ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A year ago, Asif Ali Zardari was a political footnote. He was best known as the corruption-tainted, polo-loving husband of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic former Pakistani prime minister who appeared poised to make a dramatic return to power.
Now Zardari, 53, who took over leadership of Bhutto's party after she was assassinated Dec. 27 and became president three months ago, finds himself head of state at a time of extraordinary turmoil, even by Pakistani standards.
Stung by Indian accusations that Pakistani militants played a leading role in the Mumbai attacks, the country has responded with an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment. For the moment, that sense of affront is uniting Pakistanis of all political persuasions, but many analysts believe it could eventually backfire on Zardari.
To please a domestic audience, he has taken a tough stance toward India, refusing to hand over suspects sought by New Delhi and expressing skepticism that the attacks emanated from Pakistani soil, despite mounting evidence from Indian investigators and Western intelligence.
But at the same time, Zardari is under intense pressure from Washington, his main patron, to crack down on militants suspected of being behind the attacks, although that could provoke a violent backlash from insurgents and their supporters. Pakistani cities and towns have already suffered a campaign of suicide blasts.
Zardari was overwhelmingly elected president by Pakistani lawmakers in September, after leading his wife's political party to victory in parliamentary elections six weeks after her death.
The assassination brought a wave of sympathy for Zardari, who had long been derided as "Mr. 10%" for kickbacks he allegedly demanded on government contracts when his wife was prime minister in the 1990s. But many Pakistanis, particularly among the elite, fear Zardari is simply not up to the task of governance.
" 'Naive' is the word I would use," said Zafarullah Khan, director of the Center for Civic Education in Islamabad. "He really became president only by accident."
Many believe that Zardari falls far short intellectually of his late wife. At a recent luncheon in Islamabad of former lawmakers and diplomats, an elegant woman delivered what was taken as a devastating verdict: "His English is worse than George Bush's!"
Since the Mumbai crisis erupted, Zardari and his aides have made a series of embarrassing missteps. During the siege, the Pakistani civilian government promised to send spy chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha to help with the investigation -- only to be forced to rescind the pledge when the military would have none of it.
The Dawn newspaper reported that Zardari's aides were also tricked by a caller who claimed to be India's foreign minister. When the caller made threats of military action to Zardari, the air force spent nearly 24 hours on highest alert before it was found that it was a hoax.
On Tuesday, Zardari told "Larry King Live" that he doubted that the sole captured suspected gunman was a Pakistani national, as India has asserted. On Sunday, Britain's Observer newspaper said it had confirmed the suspect's identity by checking voter registration rolls in his home village, obtaining the national identity card numbers of his parents and conducting interviews with villagers -- steps it would seem easy for Pakistani authorities to have taken.
Even if the India crisis defuses, Zardari is facing what could become a massive wave of discontent with the implementation of fiscal austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund -- which moved last month to rescue Pakistan as it hovered on the brink of financial collapse. Moreover, he appears intimidated by his nation's intelligence apparatus and still lacks a coherent policy for confronting militants.
Some observers, though, believe that given Pakistan's array of long-standing problems, any leader would be struggling to stay afloat.
"It's not so easy," said Shaukat Qadir, a political analyst and retired general. "What he has to do is stand up for Pakistan, but let India know he understands we have to coexist."