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Turning on the dictatorial charm

Karan Thapar wonders if one can realise what Pakistan can boast of a strange but unique tradition. It has produced some of the most charming dictators the world has known!

india Updated: Oct 01, 2006 01:02 IST
Sunday sentiments | Karan Thapar
Sunday sentiments | Karan Thapar

I wonder if you realise that Pakistan can boast of a strange but unique tradition. It’s produced some of the most charming dictators the world has known! I haven’t the faintest idea why this should be the case but, indubitably, it is. Last week as General Musharraf, in his debonair suit and ringing voice, regaled the world it suddenly struck me that he’s the third in a line that goes back 50 years.

The first was Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Although he bestowed the rank upon himself, he had the charm and grace of an Englishman. Rajeshwar Dayal, one of our earlier High

Commissioners, recounts a delightful story that captures the spirit of Ayub. One Ramzan, Dayal was required to urgently call on the President — as Ayub was — to convey a message from New Delhi. He was summoned to Army House at 6.30 in the evening and ushered into the garden where Ayub was sitting, admiring the sunset over the Margala Hills.

“Good to see you Rajeshwar,” the Army dictator greeted him. “What will be your poison?”

Conscious that it was Ramzan and not wanting to offend Ayub’s sensitivities, Dayal asked for nimboo paani. Ayub looked at him aghast.

“Don’t be ridiculous, old chap. Have a decent whisky.”

“But it’s Ramzan, Sir,” Rajeshwar spluttered.

“So what?” shot back the Field Marshal. “Stop being a good Hindu and become a good Muslim instead!”

Rajeshwar Dayal ends this anecdote with the comment that a couple of scotches ensured his mission was accomplished most amicably.

Alas, I never met Ayub although I heard a lot about him from my father. If I’m not mistaken, they were almost contemporaries. But I did get to meet the other two dictators. And they were no less charming.

It was in 1985 that I interviewed General Zia-ul-Haq. He was at the very apogee of his power. In those days it was commonplace to remark that he looked like the British comedian Terry Thomas. And certainly the General had a Cheshire Cat-like grin. But his manners were impeccable.

The interview over, General Zia accompanied me out of the drawing room of Army House, down the corridor and to the porch. My car had already driven up. As we spoke, the General reached out and opened the door. With a last handshake and an invitation to return again, he bid me goodbye.

In those days, Army House in Rawalpindi had a large circular garden at the front. As the car drove around it and straightened for the final approach to the gate, the General’s ADC, who was sitting beside the driver, spoke out. “Turn around Mr Thapar, the General’s waving goodbye.” I swivelled in the backseat to find General Zia waving from the porch. As I waved back his hand suddenly moved to his forehead and he gave me a cracking salute.

I was 29 and, no doubt, impressionable but it was hugely flattering — actually thrilling — to be sent off in this style. Later I discovered General Zia did it for every single foreign journalist and they all fell for it like nine pins. It was a ploy, but a very effective one.

General Musharraf is, of course, more matey. There’s less ceremony about him. He’s more direct, informal and often fairly tactile. He laughs easily and he laughs a lot. The occasion I remember happened in February 2000, four months after he seized power.

We had just finished an hour long and fairly aggressive interview. It was a bruising experience for both sides. But afterwards, over tea and snacks, he couldn’t have been more friendly. Noticing the crew on their own he walked up to engage them in conversation.

Musharraf started by placing an avuncular hand on the cameraman’s shoulder. Then, taking out his cigarettes, he offered him one. Nirmal immediately accepted. But when it came to Bunty’s turn, our sound recordist replied: “Sir, mein cigarette nahin peeta.”

The General chuckled and winked. “Yaar, aaj mein siraf cigarette hi pilaunga!” The allusion was obvious and everyone burst out laughing. General Musharraf had won over my crew.

These are just three little stories but they happened with extraordinary men. Each of them was a dictator. Each Pakistani. And each is proof of how charming they can be. Is this just a coincidence? Perhaps. But would you have said the same of General Pinochet, General Galtieri or even General Franco? Of course it’s true of our own Field Marshal Manekshaw. But then he never became a dictator!

First Published: Oct 01, 2006 01:02 IST