'I don't think Mr Modi is politically interested in starting a serious conversation with Pakistan'

Princess Diana complained to her about her difficult in-laws and Benazir Bhutto about her husband. Former Pakistan minister Syeda Abida Hussain tells V. Kumara Swamy that her life has been an eventful one

  • Published 13.03.16

When India was partitioned - Pakistani author and commentator Hassan Nisar likes to say - political reformers and democrats opted for India while feudal lords with "big moustaches, thick necks and fat bellies" went with Pakistan. Former minister Syeda Abida Hussain's father, Syed Abid Hussain Shah, was a feudal lord-cum-politician with a big moustache and thousands of acres of land. And he opted for Pakistan.

Syeda Abida Hussain smiles at the reference. "As we belong to rural areas and retain a link with the people and also get elected because of this, urban commentators describe us as feudal. Feudalism is not a very negative word, according to me," she says.

If there is a label she does not want to be tagged with, it's the term landlord. The family has lost land over the years because of land reform laws in Pakistan. She is not "that big a landlord" now, she says as she sips her Darjeeling tea with a spot of milk. Big, of course, is relative. She owns a 700-acre farm in Jhang in Pakistan, besides stud and cattle farms, a summer home in the hills and sprawling properties in London, Islamabad and Lahore.

She does concede though that she was born to "privilege and a contingent sense of entitlement". She went to high school in Switzerland, signed up for an art and architecture course in Florence, Italy (because she liked the place), vacationed in Europe in the summer, attended horse races around the world and discussed thoroughbreds with Queen Elizabeth II. The world's rich and powerful confided in her - Princess Diana told her about her "very difficult" in-laws and Benazir Bhutto talked about her husband's possible extra marital dalliances.

But more than these it is her role as a politician that she would like to highlight in her book, Power Failure - The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman (OUP). She was a minister in various cabinets, a former diplomat and has been an astute observer and analyst.

Hussain, 68, is in India for the release of the book. We are seated at a table-for-two in a five star hotel in central Delhi. Dressed in a dark purple salwar suit, with her side-swept, short, white hair and large silver earrings, she cuts a regal figure. She speaks in unhurried and measured tones and looks me straight in the eye at the end of every answer.

Is "Power Failure" a fitting title for a personal memoir? "Many have said that it's a very catchy title," she says, sounding somewhat irritated. Then she explains: "We in Pakistan have failed to produce leadership to deal with the problems of our country. In that sense it has been a power failure."

Being at the helm of affairs from time to time has meant having a "ringside view" of major political events, and the book maps her personal history and correlates it with the history of Pakistan during the same period.

Though the book was written a year ago, the Delhi event was postponed a few times because of tensions between the two neighbours. But it's now been formally launched, and Hussain seems happy to be in Delhi. "The stay has been very pleasant and peaceful," she says. But she doesn't sound as pleased about the current state of affairs between the two countries.

"At the moment, I don't think Mr Modi is politically interested in starting a serious conversation with Pakistan. I am advocating a policy of live and let live. India should first start the conversation so that we can reciprocate. For us to initiate something without any reciprocation from India is fruitless," she holds.

However, she maintains, the "best years" of India and Pakistan relations are over. "Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh were the only two prime ministers in India's history to begin a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan. But they were not able to concretise resolution of any outstanding issues between the two countries," she says. She blames domestic developments and terrorism emanating from Pakistan for the situation, but claims the situation is "different now".

But Hussain fears that India "may miss out on a chance" to improve bilateral ties because Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Army are on the "same page" on relations with India. She holds forth on how the Pakistan Army, with "an iron hand and without any discrimination", is crushing terrorism.

"Our Saudi friends in the past pushed terrorist elements into our country to fight in Afghanistan and even supported some within Pakistan. But our army is now very firm in saying no to such elements," she says as she intently removes biscuit crumbs lying on the table, one crumb at a time.

She should know. A Shia in Sunni-majority Pakistan, Hussain herself had to face threats from sectarian forces. In fact, the most feared anti-Shia terror organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is from Jhang, her political stronghold. She remembers how "Shia Kafir" - Shia is an infidel - was written on sundry walls in Jhang.

She and her family have lived with physical threats, but the situation has improved, she says. Malik Ishaq, the most feared member of the organisation, was killed in an "encounter" last year.

Hussain joined politics when she was 25. Once termed "spoilt and demanding" by her politico husband, Syed Fakhar Imam, she says she changed after her father's death in 1971.

"I was left with a large burden of responsibility. That's when I stopped being demanding," she recalls. Her father, considered one of the founders of Pakistan, was a member of the Muslim League in the Constituent Assembly of undivided India and a votary of Pakistan.

Over the years, Hussain aligned with almost every major political party. She started with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the Seventies, moved to the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif in the Nineties, was an independent during military rule and then returned to the PPP.

As a minister in the federal government in 1990, she was accused of being on the payrolls of intelligence agencies. In what is known in Pakistan as the Mehran Bank scandal, it was alleged that intelligence agencies bankrolled many politicians, including the current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, because it wanted Benazir Bhutto to be defeated in federal elections that year.

Hussain admits that she received money. "We were led to believe that it was an election fund for members of the government. I took a small amount of money. And that was it. That was no corruption," she says, sipping her tea and dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin.

Despite an eventful political innings, she believes her "most interesting years" were in Washington from 1991 to 1993 when she was Pakistan's ambassador to the US. Her encounters with former US vice-president Al Gore were "most amusing", she recalls. "He thought that my deputy chief was the ambassador and he made the same mistake twice," she says.

Her family has almost been prophetic about Pakistan. Her father's last words were: "This is the end of Pakistan that you and I have known." That was in early 1971 and before the birth of Bangladesh. Her mother predicted the "judicial murder" of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was later hanged.

Hussain herself had warned Benazir Bhutto to avoid Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, where she was assassinated in December, 2007. "I was very uncomfortable about Liaquat Bagh as it has a history of political assassinations. I advised Benazir not to go there. But she ignored my suggestion," she says. Hussain was among those injured in an assassination attempt on Bhutto earlier that year.

The former minister feels that Bhutto would have been a successful PM had she lived. She is not unhappy with PM Sharif either, who she says is doing a "great" job. But she is doubtful about ex-cricketer and politician Imran Khan.

"Imran is essentially a sportsman. He is a nice man but he is quite confused about his politics," she says. "But he may succeed one day."

Today, Hussain has quit active politics. So has her husband, who had served as Pakistan National Assembly Speaker and minister in several cabinets.

The next generation, however, is doing its bit. The power couple's son, Syed Abid Hussain Imam, is fighting local elections by aligning with the ruling PML-N. One of her daughters, Syeda Sughra Imam, has been elected to the Senate of Pakistan; another, Syeda Umme Kulsum Imam, has chosen to be an entrepreneur.

Hussain might have quit active politics, but she has other interests - including horse racing and breeding - that keep her engaged. "I am reasonably satisfied with the way I have led my life," she says.