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In The Line Of Hype

Pervez Musharraf's book, In The Line of Fire is clearly aimed at the American reader, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2006 10:13 IST

First, the explanation. I ended last week’s Counterpoint by complaining about the mind-space that Pakistan occupies among educated Indians. It was understandable, I said, for small Pakistan to be obsessed by big India. But there was no reason why a nation that was on the cusp of becoming a world power should focus unduly on a hostile neighbour. India had more important things to worry about.

Why, then, is this week’s Counterpoint about Pakistan-India relations again? Surely I should heed my own advice and focus on the more important things that I had recommended?

Fair point. But I am ignoring my own admonition for a good reason. I’ve just finished reading Pervez Musharraf’s autobiography, In The Line Of Fire. And though the book did not greatly alter my impression of the essential Musharraf — a swaggering, publicity-loving shyster — I reckon that it does reveal four interesting things about the General’s personality.

While these, by themselves, are not particularly fascinating (except perhaps to the General who comes across as the sort of chap who is endlessly fascinated by himself), they do offer us an insight. And, if I am reading them right, they provide some indication of how to handle him.

The first thing to be said about In The Line Of Fire is that it is surprisingly readable. Most Indian politicians write really bad books: pompous, turgid and packed with dated prose. (If you’ve managed to read all of Jaswant Singh’s memoir, for instance, then you probably deserve a gallantry award.) Musharraf clearly hasn’t written his own book but he’s had the sense to find a ghost-writer who knows how to come up with a page-turner. Moreover, the book has been edited by a professional. There are no incoherent passages, no sudden logical jumps and the English is clean and simple.

The book is clearly aimed at the American reader — it is the General’s case for canonisation for his role in the War Against Terror — and Musharraf has completely given himself over to the American publishing machine, submitting to editors and publicity-appearances.

That a South Asian head of state should agree to this is pretty remarkable and it tells us something about the General: he cares desperately about how the West sees him.

Secondly, the book makes it clear that the General has no interest in democracy; he may even have contempt for it. There are two sneering references on two consecutive pages to India as “the world’s largest democracy” (the inverted commas are his, not mine). And on Pakistan, he follows the practice, beloved of all despots, of redefining democracy so that it equals authoritarianism  (“Democracy has to be tailored in accordance with each nation’s peculiar environment...”).  Pakistan’s own experiments with democracy are dismissed. (“A functioning democracy is exactly what has eluded Pakistan ever since its birth.”) Pakistani democracy consists of “elections that have only empowered an elite class”.  Until the General took over, Pakistan had “eleven years of sham democracy”.  As for his original promise to cede authority to civilians within three years of taking charge, Musharraf is unapologetic: “I thought that removing my uniform would dilute my authority and command at a time when both were required most.”

Thirdly, the book makes it clear that the General’s swagger is real. This is not a man who has ever wrestled with the angel of self-doubt. (Wrestle? He would probably shoot it on the spot!) Early in the book he says proudly that in his youth he was “known as a dada geer — an untranslatable term that means, roughly, a tough guy you don’t mess with”. Clearly, this is how he still sees himself.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his lengthy description of the coup that brought him to power. The facts were as follows: Musharraf had just lost the Kargil war for Pakistan (though in his own mind, he had won). The Prime Minister claimed that he had failed to keep the civilian government fully informed. So, when Musharraf was on a flight back from Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sacked him and appointed a new army chief. At this, troops loyal to Musharraf revolted. The General landed in Karachi, staged a coup, arrested Sharif and became his country’s dictator.

In Musharraf’s retelling, however, Sharif staged the coup. How? Well, because he had the gall to sack the army chief. Thus the real coup was actually a “counter-coup” and Musharraf was a hero for locking up the legally-elected government of Pakistan, taking over on behalf of the army and announcing that there would be no elections for three years.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to twist facts so blatantly. But Musharraf is nothing if not confident.

And finally, beneath the swagger is the book’s weakest link: its internal contradictions.

Because the memoir is aimed at credulous Americans, a whole chunk is devoted to our hero’s role as a soldier in the War Against Terror. (Rather ruined by the mercenary claim, now retracted, that “we have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars”.)

According to the good General, the mujahideen, who were originally supported by Washington, turned into Al Qaeda when the US abandoned them after the Soviets left Afghanistan. They were then sheltered by the horrible Taliban. But now, Pakistan is rounding them up and sending them back to Uncle Sam at his vacation home in Guantanamo Bay.

Some of this is not entirely inaccurate but Pakistan’s hands are not as clean as the General pretends. Let’s take the mujahideen, who are now the Bad Boys of the book. At the Agra Summit, when I asked Musharraf how any Indian could trust him after Kargil, the General said that the operation had been run by the ‘mujahideen’.  (This was Pakistan’s official policy, then.)

In this book, however, the term ‘mujahideen’ only refers to Bad Afghans. The jehadis on our side of the border become “freedom fighters”. And — in a significant departure from past claims — Musharraf even admits that the Pakistan army helped  “freedom fighters” cross the Line of Control into India.

Does this count as helping the mujahideen to invade a foreign country? Musharraf skirts the issue.  But, of course, it does.

Then, there’s the business about the Taliban. In the book, Mullah Omar is a comic-opera villain, and the Taliban are Horrible People.

But who propped up the Horrible People? Who supported their reign of terror? Only two countries — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — recognised them. And they were a creation of the ISI.

Musharraf weaves and bobs to get around these inconvenient facts. “When we sided with the Taliban... there was nothing wrong with our intentions, except that we did not realize that once the Taliban had used us to get to power we would lose influence with them.”

As a defence of the decision to prop up ‘those international pariahs, the Taliban’  (his phrase, not mine), this is pretty weak stuff. And it shows us the skeletons in Musharraf’s cupboard even as he poses as a warrior against terror.

Then, there’s the shadow of IC-814. Among those released in return for the passengers of the plane (which was hijacked by Pakistanis) were two noted terrorists, Maulana Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh. They quickly found their way to Pakistan from Kandahar. And rather than hand them over, as any genuine anti-terrorist would have done, Musharraf allowed them to roam freely. Naturally, they resumed their terrorist activities.

Musharraf makes only an oblique reference to IC-814. But he treats Sheikh and Azhar as dreaded terrorists. He writes about Omar Sheikh’s role in the killing of Daniel Pearl and says that one of the men who tried to assassinate Musharraf himself was in touch with Sheikh. At another place he refers to Masood Azhar as a terrorist, involved also in plots against Musharraf.

All this is very well. But why did the General offer these two known terrorists, released from Indian jail as a result of a hijacking, a safe haven in Pakistan? Why didn’t he lock them up or send them back to India? Why did he start treating them as terrorists only after 9/11?

Most Indians know the answers to these questions. And we recognise that Musharraf sang a different tune till Washington leaned on him.

But now that the General is writing books to enhance his credibility with his American masters, his quest for legitimacy offers us an opportunity. Pakistan cannot afford another war with India nor will Washington allow one to take place. Equally, the General can no longer openly support terrorists as he once did.

The challenge before India is to use this window to our advantage. The surprise in the book is the chapter on Kashmir. Musharraf’s position is not as unreasonable as one might expect. Clearly, his masters have put him in a situation where he must pose as a man of peace.

We must now quickly exploit the General’s desire to appeal to the West as an anti-terror warrior. We must urge him to act against Pakistan-based terrorists. And we should push for progress on Kashmir given that even Musharraf says that there is no need to redraw boundaries.

My guess is that a swaggering, determined leader with no need to win electoral support may well be our best bet. And if we can tie Musharraf down while he is still performing for the West, then we may have caught him in a mood when we can — to use Manmohan Singh’s phrase — do business with him.

In any case, read his book. It always helps to understand the enemy.

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