I have to admit, I’ve never come across someone like Pervez Musharraf. This is not necessarily a compliment. It’s simply a statement of fact. But think about it — he’s a former dictator who revels in free speech much like a dedicated democrat; he’s a general who is, amazingly enough, also a gripping orator; he’s a stern disciplinarian but he has a winning sense of humour; he projects a tough commando exterior but his clothes reveal a sharp sense of sartorial elegance. Indeed, he’s a man of so many apparent paradoxes, he’s impossible to define.
Last Saturday, as he held the India Today Conclave spell bound for over two-and-a-half hours, my mind jumped to our own politicians and I couldn’t help compare Musharraf to them. Would Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi or L.K. Advani and Prakash Karat willingly submit themselves to such hostile questioning from an Indian audience and emerge both unscathed and with their amour proper intact? The question answers itself. Yet Musharraf has done just that but with one critical difference. The audience – the lions’ den – he faced was not his compatriots but Indians, who could be more accurately described as his enemies.
In contrast, it’s not just impossible to picture Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi addressing 500 Pakistanis in the banquet hall of the Marriot in Islamabad; the fact of the matter is they are not even prepared to visit the country. And I would hate to think what could happen if they were questioned the way Musharraf was. Perish the thought.
However, the truth is Musharraf illustrates a deeper difference between India and Pakistan. Pakistanis make themselves accessible to us — be it phone-in interviews on television, formal addresses at conclaves and conferences or simply informal off-the-record chats. We, on the other hand, avoid such encounters like the plague.
It’s not simply that Pakistani politicians don’t hesitate to give Indians interviews. It’s also the sheer number of them. Musharraf, alone, probably gave half a dozen. Prannoy Roy and I got two each. Both he and Asif Zardari have addressed large gatherings in India by live satellite whilst in office and Benazir Bhutto was a frequent visitor and a favourite of our news channels. I don’t think there is even one she said no to. In fact, on one particular occasion she gave Aaj Tak two on the same day because the interviewer lost the tapes within minutes of obtaining the first.
In contrast, with the exception of Advani, I don’t think a single leading Indian politician has given the Pakistani media an interview. In fact, I’m prepared to bet that most would not even be prepared to meet them. Again, Advani is the exception.
However, Musharraf exemplifies a further quality our politicians would do well to emulate. He’s prepared to face up to his critics, take their hostile questions and spend hours defending his position whilst attempting to change theirs. We may not agree with his arguments and often we disapprove of his tough language but it’s impossible not to admire his courage and be impressed by his performance. You may walk away from a Musharraf encounter put off by his personality but, despite that, you also know you’ve just met a very special man. That’s why Musharraf has fans in India and not just foes.
Sadly, many of our politicians refuse to face their critics. Indeed, some can even run away from their friends! The problem is they’re not prepared to pit their arguments against challenges. So rarely, if ever, do we see them under pressure, fighting to prove their point, fending off counter-arguments and winning respect for standing their ground.
Yet the paradox is politicians usually grow from such encounters. Musharraf did and still does. But if you shelter yourself from them you appear bonzai and shrunken. That’s why ours lose out.
Five weeks from a national election, I doubt if any of our politicians will heed this advice. But I’m prepared to wager that if one does he or she will win laurels. After all, fortune favours the brave.