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The General conundrum

It becomes an occasion to evaluate the person and ask if fate has been fair. This is precisely what I found myself doing as news of General Musharraf’s resignation came in, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2008 23:38 IST

It’s not unusual for death to make you think about the departed. What’s surprising is that disgrace can have the same effect. It becomes an occasion to evaluate the person and ask if fate has been fair. This is precisely what I found myself doing as news of General Musharraf’s resignation came in.

“I’m sorry to see him go like this”, my sister Kiran SMSed from Botswana. “I liked him”. How different that is to the sentiment which prevailed when Musharraf overthrew Nawaz Sharif in 1999. No doubt in Pakistan he was welcomed as a saviour but in Indian eyes he was an ogre. For us he was the aggressor of Kargil. We virtually hated him.

Nine years later, the situation has reversed. After his famous April 2005 visit, Musharraf transformed in Indian eyes. His willingness to put aside the UN resolutions on Kashmir and his out-of-the-box thoughts for a solution suggested a way forward. Omar Abdullah may have been the first, but he was by no means the only politician to say Musharraf offered India the best opportunity to sort out the Kashmir dispute. Alas, we let that window close, and now the valley is caught up in a fresh crisis which can only be tangentially blamed on Islamabad. We’re likely to look back on the General with wistful eyes and ‘if-only’ thoughts.

In Pakistan, the exact opposite has happened. Musharraf promised a lot when he took over as Chief Executive. Even the unusual title he gave himself suggested an uncommon man. And he began well. Despite a few aberrations, the development of private television channels is a testament to Musharraf’s leadership. The consistent 7 per cent growth of the economy is another. A third is the calm on the LoC after the November 2003 ceasefire, until his successors started the firing all over again.

Unfortunately, the good Musharraf did was overtaken by his need to continue in office. Pakistan swallowed the first election of 2001, but in 2007 it had no appetite for similar shortcuts. Starting with the dismissal of the Chief Justice, the emergency and then the wholesale sacking of judges, Musharraf convinced his countrymen he was out of step and the obstacle to their democratic dreams. By the time he stepped down they virtually hated him.

So today, Pakistan is celebrating, but India is sad to see Musharraf go. We may not say so officially but this is what it amounts to when we talk of the vacuum he leaves behind. In both countries, the imprint of the man will long outlast him. But what now?

Will the army under Musharraf’s successor continue his thinking on Kashmir and the relationship with Delhi? That’s only the first of many urgent questions we need to ask. Will his political successors offer the same hope of a solution assuming, of course, we can sort out the present self-created mess in the valley? No doubt Asif Zardari has promised more, but can he deliver? And if Asif and Nawaz quarrel, as many expect, could the relationship with India become the distraction both seek. It’s happened before.

Meanwhile Musharraf’s civilian successors have their own pressing concerns. How are the judges to be restored? The issue hinges on whether it can be done in a way Asif is comfortable with and Nawaz doesn’t see as a debilitating dilution. And who will they appoint as the next president? I’m sure Asif wants the job, but he will never say so. In the circumstances, he’s probably the right man too. But is Nawaz big enough to accept that? Also, can they tackle the many economic challenges they face? This is not a question of inclination, but guts to enforce the right answers, and then, time to see them through. Have they either? And finally, there’s terror.

History will be kinder to Musharraf than his countrymen. Of that, I have little doubt. But will time also place him in a different perspective in India? I think not. As the valley hurtles towards a frightening denouement, we’re likely to miss Musharraf and the hope he once held-out even more.