October Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

“The dream of Pakistan should never be allowed to die.” That’s how Sartaj Aziz concludes his book Between Dreams and Realities. Aziz has always been an optimist and perhaps that is the reason he has smiled through the toughest of times while serving different governments. I remember that while introducing him at a roundtable conference organised by Economist Conferences, I said, “An ever-smiling finance minister gives you the confidence that the economy is not doing as badly as the media pundits say.”

His optimism in this book is based on the ‘silver-lining’ he marks in the epilogue of the book. He believes in his ‘dream of Pakistan,’ even in these bad times, for a number of reasons: the fact that the army under General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has distanced itself from politics; the lawyers and civil society movement “seeking not only to restore the judiciary to the position it occupied on November 2, 2007 but also to establish the supremacy of the rule of law in the country;” “the resolve of all political parties to work together for reconciliation and national consensus;” and that the multi-party democratic system with a free media “has a much better chance to create new vitality and to fight extremism and evolve a more tolerant society.” One really hopes that his boundless optimism can withstand the reality check of the prevailing conditions.

This political autobiography of Sartaj Aziz shows that his dream of Pakistan and his affiliation with the Muslim League is deep-rooted in his youth. He was only 15 when he arrived at Islamia College Lahore from Peshawar and soon became an active member of the Muslim Student Federation. He had an opportunity to meet the Quaid-e-Azam when he visited the Islamia College. Though he later joined the civil service and had the opportunity to go abroad and study at Harvard, he came back to his calling during General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, leaving a cushy job at the International Fund for Agriculture Development.

Aziz had written a well-acknowledged book, Rural Development: Learning from China, in 1978, and was often asked whether this model could work in Pakistan. His close friend Jamil Nishtar persuaded him to come back and join Zia’s cabinet when Fakhar Imam resigned after losing a district election and the position of rural development minister fell vacant. This was Aziz’s entry point into politics (though not in the position he wanted) in “search of meaningful alternatives for economic and social development.” Being a technocrat who had been away from the country, he did not take into account the perils of joining a military dictator’s regime and believed that he could make some positive contribution no matter which type of government he was called to serve. Personal ambition cannot be ruled out either.

Aziz can then be better categorised as a technocrat and not a politician, in spite of the fact that both Junejo and Nawaz Sharif did give him many political assignments, particularly preparing working papers. Interestingly, all political leaders in Pakistan have kept some intellectuals around to write policies and papers, but these are seldom read or implemented.

In his chapter ‘Controlled Democracy under Junejo,’ Aziz describes Mohammad Khan Junejo as “a decent, upright man and a respected and shrewd politician from Sindh.”

Aziz had warned Junejo about some negative policies of the government, who, he says, “agreed with my analysis but said, “… ‘you know Sartaj sahib, all the policies whose negative consequences you mentioned are not in my control. The Afghan policy is handled by the president and the ISI. Everyone knows why and how MQM was created; PML can easily win the next elections, if it can succeed in curtailing the role of the president and the armed forces in the political life of the country and, in the process, strengthen the role of the parliament.’”

Aziz has explained that Zia and Junejo’s differences sharpened on the Afghanistan issue. Zia wanted the mujahideen commanders to capture Kabul. Junejo, on the other hand, “was in favour of negotiated settlement.” But finally, “Zia-ul-Haq decided to act before the report on the Ojhri Camp disaster could surface in the National Assembly. On May 29, 1988, he dissolved the parliament.”

Aziz has been careful not to go into great detail on Zia-ul-Haq’s death in a plane crash. However, he has disclosed that, 13 days before his death, Zia observed that the geo-political circumstances surrounding Pakistan were grave and complicated and beyond the comprehension of most political leaders.

Talking about his leader, Nawaz Sharif, Aziz is candid: “He is very impulsive by nature and therefore thrives on dramatic moves rather than well-considered decisions … He, therefore, ran the government on his terms through a system of personalised decisions made without adequate consultations or participation of cabinet colleagues … ” This management style and struggle with then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan for political space, resulted in the dismissal of yet another elected government. This time, the final decision to sack the Nawaz Sharif government, according to Aziz, was taken by GIK when “he discovered that Nawaz Sharif did not want him to be re-elected as president in November 1993.”

Aziz has dealt in detail with the economic reforms that led to deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation and helped in creating a favourable business environment in the country. He takes pride in steering these policies, which undoubtedly helped in stimulating investment in the country.

He has rightly titled the chapter on Nawaz Sharif’s second coming to power as “The Perils of a Heavy Mandate (1997-1999).” Aziz sounds personally hurt that Sharif did not make him the president because he wanted “a low profile and totally loyal president, who would never question a decision or proposal made by the prime minister.” Aziz did express this feeling to Sharif: “… regret that I could not win your trust after everything I have done for the party.”

On the crucial issue of the nuclear tests, Aziz has made it clear that “even a substantial package of economic and conventional military assistance would not address our long-term security concerns.” The cabinet members, he says, were divided between the hawks and doves, but finally they left the decision to the prime minister. One of the decisions which shattered the credibility of the government and whose reverberations are felt even today was the freezing of the foreign exchange currency accounts of resident and non-resident Pakistanis. Sartaj Aziz has not shied away from this by passing the buck and accepted the responsibility for this decision. He has, however, said that the initial proposal which was presented to the prime minister, “namely compulsory conversion of the FCAs of resident Pakistanis and protecting the FCAs of non-resident Pakistanis, would have been a better option.”

As foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz had seen the whole Kargil adventure from close quarters and has devoted a whole chapter to this crisis. He has clearly put the blame on General Musharraf for not briefing the prime minister fully. He has revealed that in the second part of the briefing on Kashmir in March 1999, the impression given by Musharraf was “that the mujahideen’s” activities inside Kashmir were intensifying particularly in the Kargil-Dras sector and should have positive impact on the on-going negotiations on Kashmir … There was no mention, during the briefing, of the involvement of the Pakistan Army or paramilitary personnel or any plan to cross the LoC to occupy positions previously occupied by India. They only highlighted intensification of the mujahideen’s activity in the Kargil sector, and a plan to provide them with Stringer missiles” as mentioned. The Stringer missiles proposal, he says, was shot down by General Majid Malik, the minister for Kashmir affairs. He has also confirmed that Nawaz Sharif had gone to US President Bill Clinton to bail out the military adventurists with the consent of Musharraf.

On the Musharraf coup against Nawaz Sharif, Aziz has confirmed the perception that the military was already planning the removal of the Nawaz Sharif government in September 1999. All the signs of a coup were visible and in spite of Sharif’s attempt to appease Musharraf by also making him Chairman Joint Chief of Staff, this spectre was haunting the prime minister. That is the reason why he tried to remove Musharraf during his absence.

The overall tone of the book is sober and not out of character of the writer, who has been a quick reformer trying to achieve small dreams, in spite of the challenging and harsh political realities. It’s good that he has retired from politics and joined academics now.