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He still doesn't get it

He still doesn't get it

Author: Shekhar Gupta
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 23, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/276187._.html

Introduction: It is funny how even such experienced American politicians still see international politics and diplomacy in such overly personalised terms when it comes to Pakistan. Or, rather, to a nation they see as a client state. In the case of Pakistan it is a mistake thrice over. To begin with, Pakistan, despite the imperfections of its political system, is a country where public opinion matters and, as this election has shown, there is no support for being an American client state.

One of the most remarkable reactions to the Pakistani election result came, predictably, from Pervez Musharraf. All parties, he said, should accept defeat gracefully. You would have thought, for a moment, that it was a misquote, or that some TV headline writer had perhaps abbreviated much too brutally what was perhaps a more nuanced statement. But it seems that it wasn't so. In any case, it was in keeping with the general's way of thinking: since nobody had won a victory, everybody had lost, and so he had to again shoulder that onerous responsibility of putting a government together, of keeping his restless country on an even keel. Maybe, subsequently, the coming together (at least for now) of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, in spite of the inspired leaks on the latter's Swiss bank funds, dampened the general's enthusiasm a bit. But he knows better than anybody else that this split verdict has given him a wonderful opportunity to play the third umpire and more, once again.

His American friends are obviously more than willing accomplices in this, and it was evident even in the public statements of the three very senior senators - John Kerry, Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel - who were in Pakistan to oversee the elections. It is funny how even such experienced American politicians still see international politics and diplomacy in such overly personalised terms when it comes to Pakistan. Or, rather, to a nation they see as a client state. In the case of Pakistan it is a mistake thrice over. To begin with, Pakistan, despite the imperfections of its political system, is a country where public opinion matters and, as this election has shown, there is no support for being an American client state. And if the Americans still push on nearly 15 crore people a leader who is seen even more as their hit-man than before, they are doing serious damage to their prospects in that region. Second, they err gravely in believing that, even if they personalise their approach, there are only one and a half individuals who matter in Pakistan (Zardari being the half, for better or worse). Their suspicion of Nawaz Sharif, their lack of familiarity with him and their fear of his party's more openly stated anti-Americanism are blinding their judgment. And third, even if they were to personalise, as is their wont, they have possibly chosen the wrong guy in Musharraf. For, whatever spin he puts on nobody having won this election, the fact is that he has been trounced.

What makes him an even bigger liability for his international friends, particularly those in Washington, is that his intrinsic, passionate contempt for the political class would make it nearly impossible for him to either concoct a reasonably friendly coalition, or to co-exist with one.

Many of us had our first exposure to him at that infamous breakfast with Indian editors during the Agra summit and among the most memorable things he said on that heady morning was why he wasn't present to greet and salute Vajpayee when he arrived in Lahore on that bus at Nawaz's invitation. Was it because, as the Pakistani media then said, he refused to salute the head of an enemy state? His answer, which he repeated in subsequent meetings with more colour and delight, had us in splits. He said that he told his people, what is the point of my going there, the place will be full of political types, dust, muck and so on. So what sense did it make for poor soldiers to get into that mess? He preferred, instead, to meet and greet him separately, in a more orderly setting. The underlying tone was the contempt for the politician. In fact, it is amazing how many prominent Indians, as he repeated this explanation in several such meetings later, not only enjoyed his disdain for the political class but also envied the Pakistanis for having such a "smart guy".

And if you thought anything would have changed with him after nearly nine years in power, either by way of smoothening of edges or mellowing, another similar encounter with him in Davos this year proved that nothing had changed. At his customary breakfast with international media, he talked at length of what a basket case, a failed, defaulting state Pakistan was when he took over. And then, breathtakingly, he pointed at Shaukat Aziz , sitting in the front row, and said: "I head-hunted this man to be my prime minister...."

Now you can go around the world and talk to the many dictators who still survive. Chances are nobody would have used an expression like "head-hunted" for his prime minister. But for Musharraf, that was just another appointment. The problem is, that is how he is likely to approach the formation of his new government as well. His arrogance will persuade him to make that blunder again and the sad fact is that he is not the only one who will pay.

This election does not bring the change Pakistan has been waiting for. This does not put a strong, elected government in power, this does not remove Musharraf or even render him irrelevant. It condemns an uneasy coalition of former enemies to run a government under a chief executive whose contempt for them is only matched by their people's distrust of him. He may be out of his uniform, but he is going to probe at the faultlines between the coalition partners not just with the swagger stick, but also with his commando knife. The installation of this government, therefore, will mark the beginning of another round of political bloodletting.

It is for this reason that this election is at best a semi-final in Pakistan's march towards finding a new winner. At a time when the whole world is talking of change, the hopes of the Pakistanis have been answered with a situation that brings change, but no change. Politics abhors such unnatural arrangements and therefore they will act again, in parliament and probably even on the streets. Musharraf will again turn to Washington with the 'after me, the jehadis' appeal, but by then the situation may have got too complicated for him as well as his American mentors to control. It will be further complicated by the fact that, whatever happens, the army, as an institution, will continue to back him. They cannot let him be removed in humiliation as they will still see it as an institutional rebuke they can't afford since it would challenge their pre-eminence in the Pakistani political and social structure.

The only way out now is for Musharraf's friends to start working on an honourable exit, a negotiated handing over of power backed by a generous pension plan. Chances are, they will do no such thing and this imperfect, but significant verdict will lead to one final battle, hopefully in the ballot boxes rather than on the streets.

Postscript: One more memorable moment from that breakfast at Davos last month: Ikram Sehgal, the host who runs an NGO, writes newspaper columns and was one year Musharraf's junior at the military academy, was showering praises on him in his introduction. "I can even write against him and it does not mean he would go out and shoot me," he said. Musharraf, his face lit up like a child's, grabbed his arm to interrupt, turned to the audience, and said: "But that doesn't mean, ladies and gentlemen, that I do not know how to shoot." This guy hasn't changed one bit, remarked the chairman of a reputed international think tank sitting next to me.


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