If I ever needed proof that luck was essential for a television interviewer this week, I got it in abundance. Two interviewees I have pursued with diligence, but not much success, accepted and granted interviews within 3 days of each other. It turned out to be the right time to talk to both.
The first thing that struck me about Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif is how different they are. On screen he comes across as genial, even friendly; she seems stern, often forbidding. At times he fumbles, his arguments meander and you feel he’s crafting his answers as he replies. She’s always assured, her flow unstoppable, her answers planned and when she does expand it’s to stop you interrupting.
Nawaz kept a large Pakistani flag by his side, Benazir a small photograph of her late father. His advisors and senior officials crammed into the room to witness the recording. She was on her own and when our cameraman told her staff they were in danger of creeping into the frame she asked them to leave.
<b1>She kept her head covered though her dupatta kept slipping off. In his case I felt he wanted to show off the new head of hair he’s acquired. Every now and then he would lovingly pat it, no doubt to reassure himself it was still there.
A stark difference was their attitude to Musharraf. Both referred to him as a dictator but thereafter the divergence was vast. Nawaz Sharif refused to accept anything Musharraf has done, including progress on the Kashmir front. Benazir made a point of saying she would not reverse good work even if done by a dictator. Nawaz said he would set up a Kargil Commission and it would be free to question, even try, Musharraf. “No one is above the law”, he added. Benazir, on the other hand, whilst accepting the need for such a commission forcefully added that it would not be “designed for revenge”.
More significant were the differences in their attitude to Kashmir. Both saw it as the core issue — but whilst Nawaz seemed to stick to the UN resolutions as the basis for a solution, Benazir insisted that a solution of the Kashmir issue should not hold up progress in other areas. More importantly, Benazir agrees with the way India and Pakistan are inching towards joint consultative mechanisms. Nawaz, I suspect, either hasn’t made up his mind or doesn’t like the idea because it’s identified with Musharraf.
On militant training camps, access to Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed and Masood Azhar and the extradition of Dawood Ibrahim I felt they answered with different audiences in mind. Nawaz, no doubt, condemned terrorism but saw it as “tit for tat”. Both sides need to stop it, he said. He insisted he wouldn’t comment on Sayeed or Azhar till he’s seen the facts and evaded the Dawood question on the grounds that he ought not to discuss specifics. The audience he was addressing seemed to be in Lahore.
Benazir had no hesitation being forthright. Training camps, if they exist, will be closed down; India’s case for access to Sayeed and Azhar would be sympathetically examined; and Dawood could be extradited. I can’t say there weren’t qualifying clauses in her answers but they were not the bits you remembered. Her message was clear. And it was a message for Delhi.
There was, of course, one area of similarity — they dislike each other with a passion that is uncannily the same. If Nawaz feels let down by Benazir, “dismayed and disappointed” as he put it, chiding her for cutting a deal with a dictator, she’s contemptuous of him. “I’m more popular,” she interrupted when asked if Nawaz had stolen a march. Nawaz, she insisted, had lived in luxury after accepting exile whilst her husband, Asif, had spent 8 years in jail refusing similar leniency.
So what do I make of them? She’s tough and cold. He’s soft and waffly. If as a viewer you warm to him, equally, you will respect Benazir. It all depends on what you’re looking for — likeability or strength.