March Issue 2008
In retrospect, General Musharraf should have chosen his words more carefully. Calling the February 18 polls the “mother of all elections” could have only put a curse on his grand hopes for the day of the elections. Musharraf misread the writing on the wall on account of over-confidence and sheer hubris. On top of it, there was bad intelligence and, of course, imbecile incantations foretelling victory for the PML-Q, that gave him the false reassurance of being home and dry.
The presidential camp’s miscalculation about the possible scenarios for the election now looks all the more striking, considering that the one factor that they were dismissive of, was present in all pre-election polls by foreign and local agencies. Almost every projection spoke of the surge that Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N was enjoying in the Punjab, which has more seats, both national and provincial, than the combined tally of the rest of the three provinces. Yet in their meetings at the president’s camp office, which virtually became the Q-League’s election office a few weeks before the elections, the Chaudharys of Gujrat shared the assessment that they would put up a good and winning fight and that Nawaz did not matter.
Some presidential advisers dispute the notion that there were few or no accurate forecasts available on the impending rout. According to one presidential source, “One tally of the maximum number of seats for the PML-Q was 38 — and this was the best-case scenario. The problem, however, was that Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi would always ridicule such analyses and attribute it to mala fide intentions.”
There were some signs that Musharraf did consider the possibility of an upset in the elections. Upon returning from a combined visit of Europe and the UK, Musharraf’s camp office got down to looking at the final assessments of the election position. In these meetings, the PML-Q was shown in trouble, but of the sort that Musharraf thought was manageable — an impression, again reinforced by the League’s Punjab leadership.
To secure an extra edge in the elections, the Intelligence Bureau’s Punjab chief was asked to work on the independents and even some of the PML-F candidates. The attempt was aimed at getting these candidates to withdraw in favour of the PML-Q or get commitments from them, that upon winning the election they would join the ‘Chaudhary camp.’
The PML-Q’s election campaign was given a new boost of resources and direction and was centrally organised from Lahore, where Governor Khalid Maqbool’s office became a sort of a clearing house for the now reinvigorated campaign.
Local nazims were again contacted in almost all districts and the local administration was issued strict orders to “move according to the plan.” The League leaders in Sindh and Balochistan were told to win as many seats as they could “in any circumstances” because the final tally had to touch the magical figure of 110.
There are reasons to believe that on the night prior to the elections, the presidential camp was reasonably assured of a hung parliament whose balance would be maintained by the Peoples Party and the Q- League, while independents and the MQM would form the decisive bloc of votes to tilt the balance in Musharraf’s favour. The Nawaz League was never a factor in these preparations of a “manageable upset.”
Intelligence officers admit that it was difficult to show Nawaz Sharif in any significant light before Musharraf. “He would get really upset whenever we gave any information about the rising fortunes of Nawaz Sharif. He does have a personal problem with him, and so does he [Nawaz] with him. This makes it difficult to reorient the standard line of ‘everything is under control, Sir’ that we have to parrot most of the times,” says a source from the intelligence.
But more than spineless advisers clipping information to suit a moody boss’ bias, it was the lack of understanding of the new dynamics at work in the streets of Pakistan. It did not require flies on the walls of public opinion to know which way the trend was going. Anyone watching the response Nawaz Sharif was getting in his public rallies would have known that he would sweep the Punjab and thus, defy all official scripts that described him as a non-factor.
Another thing that prevented appreciation of the positive combinations working for the opposition, was a foolish belief in the presidential circles that the system in place was too strong and — hold your breath — too popular to be dethroned just because the opponents were running a sedulous campaign. The tendency to see their own stance as perfect and that of the opponents as out-of-sync with reality, is well-entrenched in the presidency. The place is generally choking with a self-congratulatory view of the outside world, whose inhabitants are never credited with either intelligence or insight.
The tradition manifested itself during the days of the bungled attempt to oust the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry; it again came to light when ill-considered decisions were made to gag the media, and to lob out Nawaz Sharif when he tried to return home. The false air of infallibility continued into the final night of the elections.
An intelligence source confirms: “Somehow we were convinced of everything, except that the PML-N would do so well, while the PML-Q would do so poorly. The last we checked, the Q-League had the best candidates, the really unbeatable ones. But that was not how it turned out to be.” It sure didn’t. The presidency — another humbling lesson for minions pretending to be masters.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.