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A general candour

What do dictators do when they retire? After they fall from the pinnacle of power, how do they adjust to ordinary life? These were among the first questions I asked when I met General Musharraf in London last week. Karan Thapar explores more...

india Updated: Jul 18, 2009 23:10 IST

What do dictators do when they retire? After they fall from the pinnacle of power, how do they adjust to ordinary life? These were among the first questions I asked when I met General Musharraf in London last week.

“They have a jolly good time!” he shot back, roaring with laughter. And he certainly looked as if that was the case. The General arrived for our interview in a bright blue linen jacket, corduroy slacks and an open-necked shirt. Gone was the sartorial formality of his presidential days. He seemed dressed for a party on the Riviera.

“How do you spend your time?” I asked, as the mike was fixed to his lapel and the lights adjusted. “Doing everything and nothing”, he replied. “I’m a stickler for exercise. I try to manage an hour-and-a-half a day. But after that I play bridge and socialise.”

I got the feeling he was making up for years of restraint. He’s been in London for six weeks and is likely to stay till October. But he emphatically denies this is exile. “I’ve got lecture commitments in America and Europe. So it’s easier to be in London. But I will be back in Pakistan in winter.”

During the interview I sensed I was talking to a different person as compared to the General I first met in 2000 and again in 2006. The toughness and belligerence has yielded to a smiling and, surprisingly, soft-spoken manner. The old Musharraf was outspoken, even a braggart at times. The new Musharraf sidesteps controversies. You have to push him to speak out. Circumstances have taught him to be careful and cautious. The commando recklessness which once characterised his style has been replaced by a more considered approach.

Hidden behind this change of manner is also a new truthfulness. I found the retired General saying things he would have never expressed while in office. Pakistan, he said, should be more positive and accommodating of India’s concern on terrorism. The problem, he admitted, is that some members of the establishment still sympathise with Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. This does not mean that the Pakistani government is protecting these groups, but that “individuals” are doing so.

It was when I spoke to him about his own fall from power that Musharraf’s candour shook me. “Did you step down voluntarily or were you pushed aside?” He heard me in silence and then, almost disarmingly, replied “both”. “The push came not from individuals but circumstances. It had become impossible to continue as president.”

This admission could not have been easy. Musharraf used to be a man who found it difficult to accept faults. Now I felt it was cathartic. He wanted to say it. To accept and move on.

“If Benazir Bhutto had lived and become prime minister would you be the president of Pakistan today?” It was the obvious next question. “Yes”, he replied. “We had an understanding.” But he would not be drawn into criticising her husband for reneging on their deal.

India, of course, can still provoke the old angularities. Kashmir remains ‘core’, suspicion on the ISI is unjustified and if the bilateral approach won’t deliver a solution, internationalising the issue cannot be ruled out. But the partisan passion of the former president is spent. Now he sounds more acceptable than offensive, more analytical than polemical. So is this a new Musharraf?