The News, January 27, 2008
While so many concerned Pakistanis sleep badly because of their nightmarish thoughts about the state of the nation, the spectacle of President Pervez Musharraf's determined campaign to repair the country's -- in fact, his own -- image abroad has become a kind of a diversion. Even before he left for Europe, his spin doctors had set the ball rolling with a chain of interviews with the foreign media. And Musharraf's pronouncements have made some interesting headlines.
Let us begin with what he said in his Newsweek interview. He said that Benazir Bhutto was "unpopular" with the "army". It is not easy to understand why he had to express this opinion in a formal discourse, particularly after the assassination of the charismatic leader of the largest political party in the country. What does it mean when the former chief of the army staff, who has been at the helm for more than eight years and who led the army for a longer period, emphatically implies that the army has this inherent aversion to democratic dispensation in the country?
So much more can be read in this opinion, with specific reference to attempts in the past by the army and its agencies to subvert the political process in the country and create hurdles in the way of the Pakistan People's Party's electoral claim to govern this country. Besides, if this is what he thinks, why did he have to fly to Abu Dhabi to meet Bezanir and make a 'deal' with her?
We do have a very large army and it is not rational to believe that its officers and men would not reflect the dominant trends and choices that exist in our society. Yes, General Zia-ul-Haq managed to execute the founder of the party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the ISI spent large sums to create a political alliance to oppose Benazir in 1988. But did these acts represent a collective sentiment in the army vis-à-vis a particular leader or a party?
We know that the Pakistan Ex-servicemen Society, in a meeting held in Rawalpindi on Tuesday, asked Musharraf to resign in the larger interest of the country. This meeting was attended by some very well-known retired military officers. I need not repeat the names that have appeared in news stories. Can we surmise, from this apparently extraordinary development, that Musharraf, at this time, is unpopular in military circles?
It is also significant that this meeting of the society was held at a time when the president was in Europe, struggling to defend his recent moves against the judiciary and the media. Naturally, this figured in one of the questions put to him. According to reports published on Friday, Musharraf hit out at the retired generals who said that they no longer had confidence in him.
This has been quoted from his interview with The Financial Times: "They are insignificant personalities…Most of them are ones who served under me and I kicked them out. They are insignificant. I am not even bothered by them". Kicked them out?
The Washington Post had a report about Pakistan on Wednesday with this headline: "Supports at home and abroad backing away from Musharraf". One quotation from this report: "'The army would be very happy to get rid of him', said one political analyst, Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general".
While in Brussels, Musharraf was perhaps speaking his mind when, in answer to a question, he made these remarks about the western governments: "They must understand Pakistan's difficult political environment and stop their obsession with democracy and human rights". This indicates that democracy and human rights are the not goals for him to pursue. As for the reality of Pakistan's 'difficult' political environment, we need not refer to statements made by any western government or any foreign media. Readers of our own newspapers and viewers of television's talk shows may wonder why every retired military officer or bureaucrat who expresses an opinion is critical of the present dispensation.
Talking of obsessions, one observation is that in spite of the assessments of regional experts, the media and leaders of opinion in the west, President Bush remains obsessed with Musharraf and thinks that he hasn't yet crossed the line. Quoting a senior congressional official's comments about Musharraf, The Washington Post said on Thursday: "He's locked in his own bubble that 'l'etat c'est moi' -- the state is me. He doesn't understand how anti-democratic he is. He's not thinking clearly anymore".
Obviously, the president was questioned again and again about the imposition of the state of emergency on November 3 and how this enabled him to remove judges and impose new restrictions on the media. He insisted that judges were sacked for "corruption and nepotism". He named Justice Iftikhar Chauhdry a number of times. Another subject that figured in all his encounters with the media relates to the apprehension that the forthcoming elections are not likely to be free and fair. Every time, he asserted that they would be free and fair -- "and I have added a new word -- peaceful".
This was the headline of the lead story in an English daily on Friday: "I upheld Constitution: Musharraf". There is a box item on the same that says: 'I will quit if unpopular'. Also on Friday, the Karachi edition of this newspaper has this main headline: "Look at Pakistan from Pakistan's eyes, Musharraf tells West".
This is certainly a good advice. But Pakistanis who look at Pakistan at this time, including respected observers, seem very worried about what they see. Even when the leadership of Musharraf or politics as such is not a subject of discussion, the overall mood remains grim and nervous. People just cannot come to terms with the assassination of Benazir and its immediate aftermath. Thousands and thousands of individuals have their own personal experiences to relate.
Normally, we have the regular commentators in the media, the usual suspects, who deliberate on national issues. I was shaken by the assessment of a psychiatrist that I read in a daily on Wednesday. Dr Murad Moosa Khan, who is professor of psychiatry at the Aga Khan University, said that "the present crisis is taking a heavy toll on the mental health of the people of Pakistan", adding that "even during so-called normal times, the mental health of Pakistanis is severely compromised".
Let me conclude with one brief excerpt: "Since the political crisis that started in March last year, there has been a strong sense of insecurity and uncertainty amongst the people who appear to be living on the edge perpetually. The subsequent events of May 12, Oct 18, Nov 3 and Dec 27 have further frayed their nerves. There is a sense of hopelessness and helplessness (bezaari and bebassi)".
The writer is a staff member. Email: email@example.com