March Issue 2015
Book Review: Power Failure
Imagine Benazir Bhutto and Syeda Abida Hussain engrossed in an intimate, nocturnal chat in a house in Dubai in October 2005. They may have been in a pensive mood as the conversation was held under the shadow of the massive Azad Kashmir earthquake. And suddenly, Benazir poses a question to Abida. Had her husband ever been unfaithful in their marriage? Abida accepts that she certainly had her moments of suspicion but there was nothing that could ever be seriously pinned on her husband, Syed Fakhar Imam.
Let Abida take over from this point: “Whereupon, Benazir said with ineffable sadness, that perhaps she had not been as fortunate, but she loved Asif very deeply, so she forgave him, even when he hurt her.”
This, of course, is a tiny vignette from Abida Hussain’s voluminous autobiography titled, Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani woman. What we have here is a very thoughtful account of an exceptional woman’s journey through Pakistan’s politics. Thankfully, Abida’s wanderings cover the entire landscape, allowing her account to rope in a lengthy cast of characters. Most of them, though, were featured as stars in the sordid spectacle of our politics.
During that eight-hour session in Dubai, Asif Zardari had figured in some detail. He was in New York at the time. Abida recalls: “Benazir told me that they had agreed that Asif would live in Dubai with the children and keep an eye on their schooling, while her time would be exclusively devoted to Pakistan. She went on to say that he had also promised to stop dabbling in business if they returned to power.”
While I do feel tempted to paint a mosaic of colourful anecdotes that are sprinkled across the book, I am restricted by the limited scope of a review. Besides, the juicy bits have already been reported in the media. In addition to the speeches made at the launching of the book, Abida has been interviewed on TV and columnists have made their own choices. Two unsavoury references to Nawaz Sharif were readily picked up.
In that sense, writing a review also becomes difficult. It has also been noted that this gripping memoir has not been edited with the care that it deserves. Bhutto’s rejection of the Polish resolution was not in the context of the 1965 war, as she suggests. A famous couplet of Mustafa Zaidi is attributed to Munir Niazi. The Ojhri Camp disaster occurred in April and not in May 1987. Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days is not a novel. It is a memoir like Abdia’s own book but it is very literary and impressionistic.
Still, Power Failure is a remarkable portrayal of Pakistan’s politics from the perspective of a woman politician who has some unique credentials. That she got married to a person of the stature of Syed Fakhar Imam has provided an additional depth to her story. After Benazir, Abida has been the most accomplished female politician of Pakistan — and both had their dynastic attributes. It is interesting that Abida has quoted Benazir as saying during that long encounter in Dubai that “I was lucky to have the best marriage in politics in our country and she envied me for it.”
Because it is Abida telling the story, we can be sure that it will have a bias. This is only natural, though Abida does emerge as an upright and credible chronicler of events in which she has participated. Her admiration for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the late sixties had lured her into the Pakistan People’s Party in the initial phase of her career and that is where she finally arrived to suffer the trauma of Benazir’s assassination. In between, she constantly remained in the political limelight, playing a leading role in different capacities. Now she confesses to have played her innings, “resigned to my retirement from active politics.”
There have been a number of memoirs by politicians, retired generals and bureaucrats who have all had a star billing in the saga of Pakistan. Abida’s is a formidable addition to this anthology of confessions. The pity of it is that while all of them have attempted a vindication of their own role, in a personal sense, the cumulative effect is that of betrayal and defeat. Pakistan has not been served well by those who have governed it, with whatever constraints and difficulties.
But Abida has been fairly candid in telling her story. We have revelations of how the military intelligence interfered in the country’s political affairs in situations where Abida herself was a participant or witness. There are instances of covert, conspiratorial meetings that led to a regime change or the formation of new alliances.
While the story is spread over decades, there are periods that stand out because of a rush of events. For instance, the 18 months that she spent as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States (from 1991 to 1993) provide some memorable glimpses of relations between our two countries in times of exceptional stress and diplomatic wrangling.
There is this episode of how she was flown to Texas with her air attache to meet the officials of General Dynamics after they had heard that Pakistan was thinking of terminating the F-16 deal. During the meeting, the air attache was invited to look at a complete jet and when Abida was alone, it was suggested to her that if she were to intercede with the prime minister on their behalf, “perhaps they could buy me a house in DC which could be rented out to cover the costs of the expensive Harvard fee I was paying for my two daughters studying there.” She responded curtly and also said that her family was not extravagant. “Our needs therefore are modest.” To this, the General Dynamics official replied that it was a pleasure for him, at last, to meet a Pakistani with modest needs.
When the Chief of Army Staff, General Asif Nawaz, was visiting Washington, the ambassador accompanied him to visit the Pentagon to meet Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney. After General Asif, according to the brief, had made his statement on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Cheney asked if he could have a word with the General alone. “General Asif Nawaz asked me in Urdu what we should do. I suggested that he should insist that his Ambassador shall remain with him, at which the General commented that it would seem that we were expressing mistrust, since the lady there to assist their top gun had departed. So, dragging my feet a bit, I walked out of the room.”
Abida could guess what Cheney had said to the army chief of Pakistan — and this was confirmed by General Asif Nawaz. It was suggested that if it made it easier for Pakistan to step back from the red lines on the nuclear programme, then a military takeover would be tolerated by the Americans.
There is a lot more on the lighter side. When she went to meet Senator Al Gore in his office with her Deputy Chief of Mission Sarwar Naqvi, the Senator got up and put his hand out to Sarwar, saying, “Ambassador, welcome to my office.” Abida writes: “Moving forward, I floored him by speaking up and saying, ‘Excuse me, Senator, I am Ambassador, Mr Naqvi is my Deputy Chief of Mission. My office did send your staff my profile but perhaps you did not have time to look at it.’”
Ah, but Al Gore repeated his gaffe when Abida met him with Fakhar Imam after the Democratic Convention in which Bill Clinton was nominated as the presidential candidate and he chose Al Gore as his running mate. There was a lunch for the diplomatic corps to meet the vice presidential nominee. In the line-up for presentation at the lunch, the chief of protocol of the State Department announced the Ambassador of Pakistan and Minister Imam.
“Fakhar and I were alongside each other. Senator Gore, straightening his tie, put his hand out to Fakhar, photo-op smile on his face, as he said ‘Ambassador, what a pleasure.’ Fakhar smiled back, while I spoke up, not smiling, ‘Senator, I cannot believe you have forgotten me.’ The Senator looked at me, smile still in place, and he said, a little nervously, making a quick recovery nonetheless, addressing me as Ambassador, that he could not believe he had done it again. He requested me not to tell the media; otherwise they would pound on him.”
Incredibly, a Congressman Abida had gone to see with her deputy Sarwar Naqvi, made a similar mistake but with a twist. The Congressman greeted them while Abida made some introductory remarks. He turned to Sarwar, addressing him as Ambassador, and told him he had a lovely wife, “but she talks too much.”
I am quoting these anecdotes simply to underline the readability of the book and its thematic structure. This is how memoirs need to be drafted. The title of the book is the heading of the first chapter that is more analytical and, so to say, sets the scope of the narrative. “I am a year older than Pakistan, one of midnight’s children, born to privilege and a contingent sense of entitlement,” she confesses. One reason she was sent to an international school for girls in Switzerland was that Ayub Khan’s son Tahir Ayub had fallen for her and a proper proposal was sent through the Nawab of Kalabagh. The proposal was refused by her father and it was considered wise to send her away for a few years.
In addition to attaining high positions and remaining at the centre of action in the corridors of power, Abida has figured prominently in the sectarian strife because she is from Jhang — the base of the rabid Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The story she tells sheds ample light on the dark crevices of our politics and almost all the leading lights of the power game are spotted in their natural habitat. What is exciting about this account is that it breeds a sense of drama in events that we are otherwise very familiar with. We see how loyalties are changed and how principles are compromised.
Abida herself makes a few detours on the road that she has taken. She has been remarkably successful in her public life, though her one regret is that she could not become chief minister of Punjab. I also detect some ambivalence in her relations with Benazir. She writes in detail about a visit to Moscow in the delegation of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto where Benazir also arrived and her portrayal is not very complimentary. In fact, Abida has shown the skill of a writer of fiction in making a subtle comparison between Benazir and Prime Minister Kosygin’s very friendly daughter.
When in April 1991 Princess Diana visited Pakistan, Abida was chosen to accompany her. Let me conclude with this paragraph from the book: “Careful to keep her voice low, the Princess said to me that she could confide in me, as I seemed to be a wise person, and certainly did not look like a cushion but appeared to be as comforting as one. I thanked her, assuring her that whatever she said would remain with me and it did in her lifetime. She said her in-laws were very difficult, and her husband did not love her. She adored her children, and wanted them always to be with her. Willy, she said, was a lot like his father, while Harry was more like her. She found it unbearable to be in a loveless marriage, asking me for advice as to what she should do. I thought for a moment about what I would do in her situation and responded.”
It might whet your appetite for the book to learn what advice was given to the Princess.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue under the headline “Honestly Speaking.”
Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.