Are you looking to buy a property in London? A two-bed flat perhaps, minutes away from a post-office, school, numerous shisha cafes and Tony and Cherie Blair’s home? If you had just under a million pounds (R7 crore) to spare, you could move in next week. A few floors up, you could call at a famous neighbour — General Pervez Musharraf, the former President of Pakistan, now cooling his heels in London after the chaos of his last days in Pakistan, and plotting a return to politics.
I dropped by at his place the other day. We can’t discuss his address here for reasons of security — the bit about the Blairs is public knowledge, as is the fact that he lives off Edgware Road in a crowded west-central neighbourhood much favoured by tourists and expats from the Middle East.
It may be worth noting, though, that this road, begun by the Romans, is home to a tall building where British police ‘interrogate’ suspected terrorists. And that Tony and Cherie’s house is close to the gallows of Tyburn, an execution site for London’s criminals for 507 years until the mid-18th century.
But it’s a sunny day. We should expel dark thoughts. The General’s lair, note, is an apartment in a nondescript mud-brown building that was bought for him by his US-based son and an unnamed friend. Others who live here include the chairman of a Saudi bank and diplomats.
The apartment has a luxurious feel, and it is swathed in a white and golden sheen. (The paintings aren’t classy. But don’t be picky: no one said ex-generals are meant to be art connoisseurs).
Led into an office space, I am prepared for a frisk — the General has both private-hire ex-commandoes and Scotland Yard to provide him security. But I see no one, and no one approaches me. (“They were around,” an aide said later. “Scotland Yard is very discreet, you know.”)
Now I am in a large living room, dining area to the left as I enter. Staff and some men who look like hangers-on do the vanishing act, leaving only the General’s urbane PR man and a hefty ex-army aide to sit in on our interview. The General is wearing a smart jacket, open collar, no tie.
There’s a striking symmetry about the way the grey hair on his temples straddles a black mass. In his glasses, he could almost be a retired civil servant.
Remember Kargil? You were in fatigue all those many years ago, when you attacked from your war room (come off it, those chaps didn’t just spring up from nowhere).
And now it’s the hour of the Resurrection? As a man of peace in civvies. It’s a funny old world. We should sit.
The General is a sharp man — very sharp. There is almost nothing that he says to a journalist that he has not said before in some form or the other. You need to watch for inflexions, omissions and detail.
He has a message, possibly rehearsed, and it is rolls out smoothly. Sometimes there’s a hint of strain, as when he defends his record in office: “In every field of activity there was progress. My downfall was not because of failure of governance, failure of development of the state or welfare of the people. It was basically political. And circumstantial — Benazir Bhutto got assassinated, which contributed to the turmoil.”
Now he’s talking India-Pak-Siachen, Sir Creek, Kashmir. I don’t hear the words “core dispute.” Is there a sequence in his mind?
Yes: “one could easily go one by one.” But why should India trust you, General, after all that you’ve said about Pakistani governments turning a blind eye to Kashmir militants? The short answer: it wasn’t him — all of this happened in 1989-99 and then apparently stopped.
He has this funny way of hooking his thumbs under his belt, even when he is seated — like a sheriff from the Wild West. Very Bush n’ Blair, very War on Terror.
Say you are prime minister, I ask, what would you do to help India resolve the problem in Kashmir?
Musharraf stops and fumbles his reply, ending up sounding all fauji: “I don’t know… we’ll need to address the issue and come to some parameters of a solution and then draft the solution, and sign it.”
I am partly convinced by the General’s account of his own history, less so about his future.