December Issue 2007
Out of Favour
Generally, beginnings are different from endings. Not so with the military rule of General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf. He has wound up the military part of his rule on exactly the same note he started on. In October 1999, when he overthrew the Nawaz Sharif government, Musharraf was warning a weary nation of an impending national disaster, of the federation’s disintegration and economic meltdown. In December 2007, after having ruled the country for eight years at his whim and will, his chatter has not changed. He continues to talk in apocalyptic terms about Pakistan’s future without realising that if the country sits on the brink today, he has only himself to blame.
Musharraf, however, thinks otherwise. Those close to him say that, while lonely at the top, he truly believes that he is indispensable to the country’s survival. Said a former aide to the retired general: “He does not see any hope in the system other than his own role; any suggestion to the contrary is taken as a personal insult.” This obsession with his own centrality is not new: it is the sum total of the way the general has attempted to solidify his hold over the slippery levers of power. In that light, he contrasts sharply with his two other unillustrious predecessors, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. While both were egomaniacs, they still had a core set of advisors who connected them to the real world or provided them with timely reality checks.
In the case of General (retd.) Musharraf, total control has always been the first and last rule. “He tries to come across as a team leader, but make no mistake about it, he himself is the team. Even the advisors that he chooses to keep with him are those who abide by this principle. Otherwise you have no place in that charmed circle,” said the former aide to the general who was sidelined for being too vocal on the issue of military operations in the tribal belt. This ‘courtiers only, please’ entrance policy might have protected the general from suffering the agony of genuine dissent in his meetings, but this has not prepared him well for his arrival on the scene of a civilian presidency.
Even his own backers, the PML-Q, primarily see him as a fading phenomenon. In their private conversations about the general, the Leaguers make comparisons among the three dictators and draw interesting conclusions: ” Among those who rallied around him, Ayub evoked a lot of inspiration; Zia was genuinely respected in his sphere of friends; Musharraf has always been feared for being the Chief of Army Staff and the one who has the full support of the US,” said a top Muslim League leader. He also admitted that apart from a handful of politicians without “constituencies”, there are no takers for Musharraf as a leader.
“His only importance to us has been the political mileage that you get out of being close to him. He controlled the funds, the resources of the state, including the intelligence agencies and the army. He could do anything because there was no check on him. It was great to have him on your side,” said the League source.
But much to the general’s frustration, almost all of what made him useful to his own friends has shriveled to insignificance. He is no longer wearing the uniform, the ultimate source of his power. With the arrival of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, he no longer steals the limelight and headlines; more importantly he is no longer the only political actor dominating the stage. As international capitals increasingly talk about Pakistan in terms of elections, popularly mandated government and a transition to more certain political arrangements, the general’s relevance has greatly diminished.
A western diplomat explained the prevalent view of the man they once courted to a fault. “We are engaged with him because he has been the lynchpin of the war against terrorism in this region. He is important to this transition that has taken place. We understand that he is not going to disrupt this transition and he too realises that he is no longer the formidable force he used to be. For us the most important thing is that the army as an institution should stay on the course of counter-terrorism cooperation. We now have the assurance that General Ashfaq Kayani has assumed the command,” said the diplomat in a background interview with Newsline.
While the new Chief of Army Staff General Kayani has taken to his new assignment like a duck to water, Musharraf is feeling squeezed and pressured. His media managers are locked in a constant PR war for him but personal prestige remains an elusive goal. All they earn for him is publicity, but never stature. The religious right ostensibly abhors him for his thoughtless theories like enlightened moderation, the liberals detest his consistent assault on the core values of their belief system: rule of law, democracy and tolerance. Mainstream political forces see him as a hindrance in their path to power. Even PML-Q leaders, during their election campaigns, are avoiding using his pictures on posters.
“Why should I?” was the retort of one of the most frequent visitors to Musharraf’s office, when Newsline asked him about the absence of any reference to the retired general in his speeches before his constituents. “I am planning to win the election, not lose it,” was his sly answer. Evidence of such crass opportunism is spread far and wide; it is particularly striking now in the buildup to the elections. Not a single credible voice is heard saying anything substantive in his defence.
In this regard, he does not look much different from the constituency-less politicians like Shaukat Aziz, the former prime minister, who cut a pitiable figure out of office. The only difference is that while Aziz was reportedly ridiculed and belittled by Muslim League members for his audacity to apply for a ticket for the elections, an attempt that was blunted by unanimous opposition from the rank and file of the party, the general has retained the presidency that retains the warmth of power
But still, the dip in his prestige has been precipitous and sharp: if insulting text messages, offensive jokes and slighting slogans circulating throughout Pakistan’s urban areas can be taken as a measure of any leader’s social standing, the general would perhaps score the lowest points in the country’s history. Tragically for him, even his most trusted friends do no want to inherit his political legacy. As one of them puts it, “No one wants to own a trove of blood and tears,” a reference to the general’s crusade against terrorism — the only unenviable identity he seems to have developed in the last eight years.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.