General Apathy: Why nobody salutes Pervez Musharraf
The old warrior says he has one last battle to fight. But in today's Pakistani polity, the space for his Second Coming is fairly limited, reinforcing his irrelevance.
Given the oddball mix of players in Pakistan’s political field, it was always just one patient short of a full asylum.
It had, for instance, a President who is quaking in his salwar and fears for his life, a prime minister who knows he has overstayed his welcome, a playboy politician who reckons his time has come, a wild-eyed bunch of crazy jihadists itching to lay their fingers on the nuclear button, and an Islamist-indoctrinated military and ISI establishment that knows it is truly in charge.
With former President Pervez Musharraf’s promise to return to Pakistan later this month to prepare for an election that in the end won’t count for anything, the cast of characters for the Theatre of the Absurd has been finalised.
Why any man who is living a plush post-retirement life on the high-paying lecture circuit and has, by some estimates up to 10 offshore accounts in Dubai and London with over a billion dollars, will want to return to his motherland, where he faces imminent arrest on charges relating to the 2008 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, is more than one can fathom.
In a recent interview to the Jewish newspaper Haaretz, intended to project a moderate face to the “Jewish lobby” which has (in his own reckoning) the power to influence Washington, Musharraf gave the rationale for his planned return from exile. Pakistan, he said, “is where I belong… A stage comes when you have seen so much in life and God has been kind and you know there are things more important than oneself.”
In Pakistan, there is, he said, a “vacuum… of trustworthy leaders, which is being filled by others. To exploit this vacuum, I have to be back now.”
On Sunday, he addressed, via video from Dubai, a rally of his supporters in Karachi. But from media accounts, going by the sparse turnout of about 7,000 or so, the political vacuum remains unfilled.
The problem for Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, and steered Pakistan into a tactical embrace with the US following the 9/11 attacks, is that he is yesterday’s hero who refuses to fade away like a good General.
For all his efforts to project himself as the tough General and a doer who brought stability to Pakistan during a particularly challenging period and revived the economy from the brink of bankruptcy, Musharraf continues to be reviled by the mad mullah brigade for having aligned Pakistan, post-9/11, into a “war on terror” in Afghanistan, which frequently spills over into its side of the border. In his time in office, Musharraf survived three assassination attempts.
But Musharraf is also Pakistan’s ultimate deus ex machina, the man without a mass base, who survived in power solely on the strength of the Army’s backing and the blessings of governments in West Asia and the US administration, to whom he presented a moderate face – and the promise that he would deliver.
Today’s colossal failure of governance in Pakistan, one would expect, should have triggered nostalgia for the Musharraf era. But the appetite for direct military rule runs thin today, which is perhaps why the Asif Ali Zardari government, which the Army-ISI establishment would have in the good old days dislodged in a trice, is being only subjected to a “slow-motion coup”.
Musharraf’s latest effort to re-enter the Pakistani political space faces several other challenges as well. The ISI-military establishment appears to have identified its next “deus ex machina” in Imran Khan, whose radical views on telling the US where it gets off with its war on terror are more closely aligned with the military establishment’s.
In his video speech from Dubai, Musharraf addressed the challenge posed by Imran Khan by invoking a cricketing metaphor. He said: “During my innings, I have scored a century. I know how to run this country more than anyone… Then there are those who have not even played their innings. I want to tell them that they should think twice before confronting me.”
In his interview to the Jewish newspaper, and in other media interactions, Musharraf has been throwing curve balls, evidently to channel to leaders in the West and in West Asia that they should bet on him again. Indicatively, he said that Pakistan, an Islamic Republic, should establish diplomatic relations with Israel, as a strategic gambit to limit India’s influence in the region (as otherwise Israel is dependent excessively on India for a foothold in the region).
Whether his other comments on the “roots of terror” will sufficiently convey the message of him as a non-ideological pragmatist with whom you can do business is not clear. But back home, criticism of his pandering to Israeli sentiments is already losing him support.
The Nation newspaper noted witheringly in an editorial that Musharraf’s “favouring the recognition of Israel shows that his agenda remains delusionally separated from the wishes of the Pakistani people.” His statement, it added, shows that he retains “the same viewpoint that characterised his disastrous years as President/Military Dictator.”
Rather than worry about Israel, Musharraf should worry about himself – and the very real prospect that he will reduce Pakistan to a laughing stock when its former president is arrested, the editorial advised.
Cannons are firing away to his left and right, and the old General says he wants to wage one last battle. But everything about his planned second coming is only reinforcing the utter irrelevance of Pervez Musharraf in a Pakistan that has moved on from valorising yesterday’s heroes.
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