If there is one thing that makes Pakistan a fascinating country, it is the personalities of its leaders. From its inception in 1947 to the present, India's western neighbour has produced a series of leaders who, apart from being very unlike each other, are characters in their own right.
The Qaid-e-Azam ' and never mind the opprobrium that has been heaped on him by generations of Indian nationalists ' was a prickly customer not given to displays of emotion. Yet, his social awkwardness was a perfect foil to his undeniable shrewdness and negotiating skills. Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the wiliest politician India has produced in recent times but Mohammed Ali Jinnah matched him manoeuvre for manoeuvre. You don't have to like the architect of India's Partition to admire his abilities.
Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the Sandhurst-trained Terry Thomas lookalike, was an officer of the old school, given to a lot of bluster, haw-haw camaraderie and overwhelming simple-mindedness. He took Pakistan into an inconclusive war with India in 1965 on the strength of a conviction that Hindus don't know how to fight and that one Pakistani equalled 10 Indian soldiers. He was at the helm before the mass media determined popular perceptions. Yet, he had most Pakistani journalists, including, I may add, those from East Pakistan, eating out of his hands.
It was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the playboy from a Sindhi landed family, who set the norms of flamboyance that has come to characterize Pakistani leaders subsequently. Bhutto was the archetypal populist who lacked both scruples and consistency. A gifted demagogue, Bhutto will be remembered as the man who helped Pakistancope with the trauma of defeat in the 1971 war. He was a shrewd judge of Indian psychology, and, if nothing, understood the mental make-up of India's Brahminical leftists. He made a complete monkey of Indira Gandhi, P.N. Haksar and the other 'progressive' Kashmiri Pundits who negotiated with him at Simla in 1972. He secured the release of 92,000 Pakistani prisoners-of-war without anything more than a verbal assurance of good conduct. If Pakistan still soldiers on in 'disputed' Kashmir, it is because Bhutto talked his way out of a near-impossible situation.
Compared to the transparent Bhutto, General Zia-ul-Haq was more inscrutable. He was perhaps the only Pakistani leader who had both a vision and a definite agenda. Seizing the opportunities presented by the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, he set about systematically laying the foundations of a Pakistan-centric Muslim empire whose influence would stretch from Central Asia to Kashmir. His approach was systematic, measured and, on the face of it, non-belligerent. He knew how to charm his way into the hearts of India's Lahore-pining Punjabi elite. With a nominal investment of Afghan carpets, onyx table lamps and his status as a Stephenian, he created a sadhbhavna lobby in India that helped divert attention from a sinister policy of bleeding India through a 'thousand cuts'. He was never a popular figure in India but he was devastatingly effective.
His prot'g', Nawaz Sharif, was a Punjabi businessman who could never rise above his provincial outlook. Sharif had little time for Zia's grandiose schemes. He was genuinely keen to have a working relationship with India centred on trade and other money-making ventures. In the game of brinkmanship that was at the heart of the Indo-Pakistan relationship since Zia, he blinked first and created the opening for Atal Bihari Vajpayee's bus journey to Lahore in 1999. Unfortunately, his domestic preparations were grossly inadequate and he was neatly upstaged by the military in the aftermath of an adventurist war in Kargil that took him equally by surprise. If he had survived the Kargil misadventure, he would have been eating out of India's hands.
The Pervez Musharraf who breezed his way across the cricket stadium and the negotiating tables of Delhi earlier this week has many things in common with his predecessors. He matches Bhutto in loquacious flamboyance, Zia in shrewdness and Ayub in his disavowal of all that Islamist clap-trap. He is an opportunist, pragmatist and modernizer rolled into one. Adept in the art of springing surprises, he offended the Indians with his in-your-face, maximalist approach at the Agra summit and surprised them yet again with his attitude of sweet reasonableness in Delhi. For a man who made the 'core' agenda of Kashmir the basis for any forward movement in a bilateral relationship, Musharraf meekly acquiesced in the vague Indian promise to work towards a 'final' resolution of Jammu and Kashmir. More to the point, he went out of his way to create a bipartisan consensus in India. In the process, he disarmed a BJP leadership that has the potential to be difficult. True, he did hold out a veiled threat that 'Unless we resolve the core issue, it can again erupt again on a different time-frame and under a different leadership'. But it was so veiled that most Indians chose to overlook it.
For Musharraf, the Delhi visit was primarily an exercise in establishing his own credentials. Having broadly delivered, without any serious domestic fallout, on the assurance in the Islamabad declaration of January 2004 to rein in the jihadis, he now sought to prepare the ground for the next step. By committing himself to the confidence-building measures so favoured by India and the West, he has, in turn, established the status of Kashmir as a 'disputed' province that can only be resolved on a tripartite basis. At the same time, he has met the international wariness of jihadi terrorism by advising the pro-separatist Kashmiri leaders to tread the political path. India believes that Musharraf has, in effect, chosen to put Kashmir on the back-burner. Musharraf believes he has set the agenda for a war by other means.
It is hazardous at this stage to predict how the future will unfold. The personality of Musharraf will be an important determinant because the character of the leader matters more in Pakistan than in an institution-driven India. There is enough in the personality of Musharraf to suggest he could either emerge as the pragmatic peace-maker or a perfidious rogue. However, a few points raise our level of optimism. First, Musharraf seems more finely tuned to international, post-9/11 developments than any other Pakistani leader. He appears to be viewing Kashmir through a global, rather than a Pakistani, prism. Second, there are definite indications that Pakistan has diluted its earlier conviction that the balkanization of India is imminent and requires a helping hand. Third, the creation of a modern, moderate Islamic country in Pakistan seems to be driving the foreign policy of Musharraf.
Tragically, while these trends augur well, there are countervailing pressures within Pakistan. First, as has been repeatedly shown in the past, state authority in Pakistan is fragmented and tends to work at cross-purposes. The military and ISI, in particular, are a law unto themselves. And, as the A.Q. Khan scandal revealed, even the nuclear establishment tends to go its own way. Second, the Islamization process begun by Zia has struck roots in all sections of society. Given that conventional democratic norms don't operate in Pakistan, there will always be the temptation of motivated Islamists to try and overturn Musharraf's modernizing thrust. His apparent 'betrayal' of Kashmiris is likely to feature high on the Islamist litany of grievances.
In the end, a realistic appraisal of this week's developments may not hinge on the personality of Musharraf but on the stark question: will he survive to be able to deliver' History, tragically, is not on his side.