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Goodbye Musharraf

What surprises me the most is how little reaction there has been in India to Musharraf’s enforced exit. The change in mood in India has been quicker than we realise, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Aug 24, 2008 11:20 IST

Unlike many Indian journalists of my generation, I have never interviewed Pervez Musharraf — the man is an interview junkie — or met him at an informal meeting on a one-on-one level. My two strongest memories of him, therefore, will pale in comparison to the full-screen, technicolor recollections of my colleagues.

My one encounter with the General was at the now notorious breakfast meeting at the Agra Summit, to which I was dispatched by the senior staff of the HT, kicking and screaming. Despite the prevailing mood of euphoria about the Summit, I had been a vocal sceptic. I had rubbished the idea of inviting Musharraf, arguing in print, that a sudden about-turn in policy towards Pakistan (up to the moment when we announced the Summit, we had said that we were not talking to Islamabad) made no sense and had predicted that nothing would come of the meeting.

I was the odd man out at the breakfast, therefore, playing sullenly with my knife and fork, while the General went around the table inviting the great and the good of Indian journalism to tell him how wonderful he was. (Shamefully, too many of us complied.)

My own question came in the background of Kargil, then fresh in our minds. Given that Lahore, another peace initiative like Agra, had been followed by Kargil and given that the General was the architect of Kargil, why should we have any faith in this Summit? And why, in any case, should we trust him?

The General was not pleased (“This question should have been asked before I was invited here,” he said — which was roughly my view too). And many of my colleagues looked at me with disdain, as though I had spoilt the bonhomie or farted at a funeral.

That was my only real encounter with the General, one I’ve had to shamelessly milk over the years because I never met him again. But my second memory has to do with two separate UN General Assembly sessions. At one — Manmohan Singh’s first as PM — our Prime Minister met with the General, liked him and came out saying, “This is a man we can do business with.”

At the second session, things didn’t go so well. The Indian delegation got to New York, all bright-eyed and optimistic. The General then did the dirty on us by raising Kashmir in his speech to the General Assembly. A tense dinner followed during which Musharaf acted as though this reference was of no consequence while the Indian side moaned and groaned.

Both memories did nothing to rid me of my essential belief that the man was a shyster, the sort of fellow who didn’t really believe in anything but would say or do whatever was necessary in the advancement of his own interests. His real strength was his brazenness. Unlike our politicians who shy away from answering tough questions, duck the press and sulk when something unflattering about them appears, Musharraf really didn’t give a damn what anybody said. He did what he had to do (even if it completely contradicted what he had said he would do) and cheerfully faced the world, either blustering or lying his way out of any situation. No interviewer ever got the better of him. He walked tightropes (disowning the Taliban to support the US while simultaneously allowing the army and the ISI to offer covert assistance to the same Taliban) without any visible embarrassment.

When I read his autobiography, some of this made sense. He boasted that, in his youth, he was known for his ‘dadagiri’, and that this remained his defining characteristic. You always had the sense that he projected such an air of dominance and power that interviewers never really had the guts to tell him what a shameless fraud he was. So, most of his lies about his role in Kargil, in the so-called War on Terror, on terrorist violence in India etc usually went largely unchallenged and even if they were, they were never nailed.

What surprises me the most, though, is how little reaction there has been in India to his enforced exit. Is it because, like Pakistanis, Indians have begun to regard him as a nasty man, an opponent of democracy etc? Or is it a reflection of the state of India-Pakistan relations?

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I suspect it may be a bit of both. The sad truth is that when to comes to world leaders, people respect power. And as Musharraf became an increasingly embattled figure, the target of furious attacks in the Pakistani press and from the country’s newly-elected democratic leaders, we lost respect for him. It did Musharraf no good that even America seemed to have given up on him. Once, he was George W Bush’s pal, his ally in the War On Terror (that Bush actually believed this shows you how credulous the US President is — but that’s another story); now, he’s an embarrassment.

But some of it also has to do with the changing Indian public mood when it comes to Pakistan. Over the last decade, two things have happened. India has grown at a remarkable rate and become the global flavour of the century. At the same time, Pakistan has slid further and further into chaos as anarchy, terror and Islamic extremism have taken hold. Once the world clubbed India and Pakistan. Now, it’s India and China. Pakistan is clubbed with Afghanistan.

Consequently, we are not as obsessed with Pakistan as we once used to be. It matters less and less in our scheme of things. Moreover, it’s become difficult to take Pakistan seriously as a threat: this is a country already at war with itself — how is it going to fight a war with India?

Think back to the excitement that preceded the Lahore and Agra Summits, to the breathless coverage we accorded AB Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s meetings with General Musharraf. Do we really care that much about visiting Pakistani leaders now? If Nawaz Sharif came to meet Manmohan Singh, we would be interested, of course. But we would no longer act as though the future of India depended on the outcome of that meeting.

The change in mood has been quicker than we realise.

Only four years ago, we wondered: will Manmohan Singh and Musharraf be able to make peace? Or, we asked each other: will Manmohan Singh’s peace initiative safeguard India’s interests?

Now, we don’t care so much. Even the commentariat, the Delhi-based media elite that determines how the news is covered, has shifted focus. And the rest of India is moving on.

There’s only one way in which Pakistan remains a constant presence in the lives of most Indians — and that’s terrorism. Of course, Indian intelligence agencies vastly overplay the Pakistani dimension to domestic terrorism. But only a fool would deny that the ISI encourages, aids, finances and arms people to murder Indian civilians. There’s enough evidence of that — and of the involvement of shadowy jehadi groups which function out of Pakistan, often with the involvement of retired generals and officials. Even the US has concluded that the ISI was behind the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

If Indians found a Pakistani leader who could stop the terrorism, then we would care deeply about what happened in that country again. And we would care about that leader.

But the reality is that no matter how much affection we may have for Pakistanis as a people, we also recognise that it makes no difference who runs Pakistan — the terrorism continues anyway. The Kashmir militancy and the Taliban were both created during Benazir Bhutto’s reign. Terrorists struck in Indian cities when Nawaz Sharif was PM. And Musharraf was both part of the ‘War On Terror’ and sponsor of terrorism simultaneously.

Finally, that’s why we don’t care that the General has been frog-marched out of his presidential office. Not because he’s a charlatan, but because he did nothing to stop the terror. And because we know that no matter what his successors may say, the bombs will go off. And men, women and children will continue to die.