Saturday, October 2, 2010

Musharraf on the comeback trail By Irfan Husain

They say old soldiers never die; they just fade away. This is certainly not true of Pervez Musharraf. This ageing warrior just refuses to slip quietly into graceful retirement, clearly preferring the limelight to the joys of playing with his grandchildren, and doing a bit of light gardening.

As if earning a fair bit of money on the lecture circuit to supplement his army pension wasn’t enough, he will have announced the launch of his political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), by the time you read this. Clearly, he feels there are not enough variations on the Muslim League theme already in existence.

Listening to him in the Intelligence Squared talk at the Kensington Town Hall in London the other night, I was struck by his apparent popularity among educated Brits. While there were many Pakistani-British citizens in the audience, there were a surprising number of locals in the large hall, and at £20 per ticket, Musharraf must have been pleased at the take.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of the event was the series of fluffy questions put to the former Pakistani general by the interviewer, Christopher Meyer. The British ex-diplomat was obsequious to the point of servility. Even when Musharraf was obviously stretching the truth, Meyer refused to pin him down. In encouraging Musharraf to perpetuate the myth of the necessity of military intervention, Meyer displayed his own ignorance, as well as his contempt for democratic principles.

In his lengthy replies to the cringe-making questions, Musharraf not only justified his own coup, but seemed to signal encouragement for his successor to put pressure on this government. As he said, army commanders were forced to intervene because “people kept urging us to do something to save Pakistan”.

Obviously, he was referring to out-of-power politicians who have so often served as cheerleaders to dictators. The follow-up question Meyer ought to have asked is why should army generals encourage such opportunists to come to them in the first place.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked Musharraf about the UN report on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The commission had clearly identified gaping security flaws, and strongly accused the Musharraf government of neglecting the most basic safeguards despite the dangers posed to the ex-prime minister. Her security arrangements were far less stringent than the measures provided for him.

My question and Musharraf’s waffling response have been reported in the Guardian which quotes him repeating the old line that she was killed because she stood up in her vehicle. He said nothing about why the crowd was allowed to approach her car in the first place, and nor why the spot was hosed down immediately to prevent a forensic examination of the crime scene. As we were not permitted any follow-up questions, Musharraf was allowed to get away with his untruthful version.

Musharraf’s half-baked effort to return to power by forming his own political party has relevance only in the light of certain recent events and statements. First, Altaf Hussain’s bizarre exhortation to “patriotic generals to take martial law-like steps” to intervene. Next, the New York Times has reported on the recent meeting between the army chief, the prime minister and the president, suggesting strongly that the message given by Kayani to his nominal political masters is that they had better get their act together.

These are not isolated reports. Pakistani TV channels have been full of highly speculative stories and comments about imminent changes. Against this background of spin and character assassination, the formation of the APML takes on some significance. Should mid-term elections be called, the MQM will almost certainly jump on board Musharraf’s bandwagon, as will all the Muslim League factions not in Nawaz Sharif’s camp. And once the independents, opportunistic lotas and Islamic parties see which way the wind is blowing, they too will cast their lot with Musharraf. Waverers will no doubt be persuaded to sign up by our politically astute intelligence agencies.

In this scenario, a new dispensation that can form a government without either the PPP or the PML-N will emerge with the tacit support of the army and the Americans. Both these elements are clearly fed up with this government, but are reluctant to see yet another round of martial law.

For the Americans, a strong, stable government is required if they are to succeed in implementing a workable exit strategy from Afghanistan. Our army is bogged down in a difficult campaign against the extremists, and must coordinate the endgame in Afghanistan with Washington. The last thing it needs presently is the distraction of having to run the government. Our generals have all the powers and the independence they require without the flak and the hassle of having to stage a coup.

Both the major political parties have only themselves to blame for the mess we are in. By refusing to cooperate, they risk being out in the cold yet again, just as they were during Musharraf’s nine years in power. I can see that Nawaz Sharif has little to gain by supporting this government. Clearly, his calculation is that by the time it finishes its term, the PPP will be so discredited that it will be a spent political force for the foreseeable future.

Had the situation been normal, this would have been a perfectly sensible political decision. However, in Pakistan, we hardly ever have the luxury of normality. Although Asif Zardari appears to have signalled his refusal to leave quietly, pressure seems to be building up for quasi-constitutional change. Once this happens, and the powerful establishment swings into action, any mid-term elections will not reflect the popular will. Charges of rigging will be largely ignored, and hey, presto! Musharraf will be back in the saddle.

As opinion polls indicate, this government has done little to endear itself to us, so few tears will be shed over its demise. One way of saving the system is for Nawaz Sharif to accept the PPP’s long-standing offer to enter into a coalition with it. This would send out a powerful signal to all those who seek to hijack power. Indeed, a strong coalition might also improve governance.

Both parties have a vested interest in blocking the ongoing moves to sideline them, and in a rational world, they would join hands to save democracy. But as we know to our cost, common sense is a most uncommon commodity in Pakistan.

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