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  • Published 20.02.02
There are far fewer jokes about General Pervez Musharraf than about his predecessor in uniform, General Zia-ul-Haq. But one joke which did the rounds extensively during the Pakistan president's visit to Washington last week was about Musharraf's encounters with his barber. The barber, goes the joke, repeatedly quizzes Musharraf about elections in Pakistan whenever he is at the presidential mansion to work on the general's hair. Musharraf patiently outlines his poll time-table for Pakistan, but the same question pops up again and again: until the general asks the barber why he is repeating his query about elections. The barber replies that it enables him to give Musharraf a better hair-cut. Every time elections are mentioned, the general's hair stands on end, making it easier to cut it. The joke was popular in Washington because the spectre of elections followed Musharraf all the way to the White House last week. Not in terms of any pressure on him to hold the polls: the Americans would rather deal with men in uniform in Islamabad than any elected politician at this time when they want to change Pakistan into an entity which it intrinsically cannot be. President George W. Bush and some others made pro forma references to democracy in Pakistan. That would not have bothered Musharraf at all. After all, he too is used to saying things he does not mean - and saying them well. But when the White House summed up the outcome of the Pakistani president's visit to Washington in a "fact sheet", the second item among the support programmes for Islamabad announced by Bush was two million dollars in "democracy assistance". It envisages American technical support for conducting elections, training of election commissioners, domestic observers and political party monitors in addition to provision of election commodities. The irony of this announcement was not lost either on those who were narrating the popular joke about Musharraf and his barber or on those who were enjoying its narration. Provision of election commodities by the United States of America for Pakistan? The goodies to be shipped by the Americans for the general's poll games in Islamabad were never specified, but would these include America's world famous "hanging chad" voting machines which produced an inconclusive presidential election result in the US in November 2000? Even as Musharraf was holding talks with America's leaders in Washington, a federal court in Los Angeles ordered California's secretary of state to replace, by the next presidential election in 2004, the punch-card voting machines which caused political chaos for both Bush and his Democratic rival, Al Gore. The original time-table for replacing these outmoded machines was July, 2005. In Florida's Palm Beach county, which became globally known after the Bush-Gore election fracas, new touch-screen voting machines will replace the controversial old ones in a month for county-wide elections. So, if these old machines are being phased out, would they be sent somewhere abroad in the spirit of "aid"? It would only be in the fitness of things if the US - where a huge credibility gap spans its electoral process - exports its poll culture to Pakistan, whose elections have been dubious even at the best of times. But more so now, since the Americans would very much like Musharraf to continue in power in Islamabad as long as a way can be found to pay lip-service to democracy in Pakistan. The "democracy assistance" outlined in the fact sheet was a way for America to live with its "concerns" for democracy in Pakistan and for Musharraf to pursue his agenda as an unelected head of government without giving Washington or other Western governments a conscience. But such a perfect balance of demand and supply that was seen on the issue of democracy was not in evidence in several other areas of vital importance to Musharraf during his three-day stay in Washington. Which prompted the general to make an almost plaintive plea for unstinted support from Washington when he appeared before the house of representatives international relations committee. "As I sit here, the eyes of all Pakistanis...and our entire region are focussed on the physical manifestation of support that the US is giving to Pakistan", the general said. "The more support they see from the US to me and my government, the more extremism goes down and my support increases". It would be wrong to suggest, as some in India would have everyone believe, that Musharraf's Washington sojourn was a failure. It was not, by any stretch of wishful thinking. But it was clear between the lines that a lot had changed since the general last met Bush in New York in November. From the president downwards, everyone in the Bush administration was then grateful to Musharraf for his support to the US in the war against the taliban and al Qaida. This has since been tempered by the realization that Musharraf was left with no choice in September last year. The Americans gave Musharraf all of one day to make his volte face and cast aside the taliban. And he did. Two months ago, few congressmen or senators would put up with anything said against Musharraf even in private conversations. Members of the India Caucus, who have been New Delhi's "best friends", would accuse Indians who questioned Musharraf's sincerity of pursuing a one-dimensional agenda without taking into account Washington's interests. All that had changed by the time Musharraf went to Capitol Hill last week. At the house international relations committee, several members put him through the mill, something that would have been unimaginable three months ago. The congressman, Joseph Crowley, a Democrat, questioned Musharraf's credentials to be a member of the global coalition against terrorism until he convincingly demonstrated that terrorist threats from Pakistan were being identified and eliminated. Jim McDermott, the Democratic co-chairman of the Indian Caucus, inserted a statement in the congressional record, which called for Musharraf to seal his border with India to prevent infiltration of terrorists. It would also have been clear to Musharraf during his conversations with key members of the Bush team that America's priorities had changed between his November meeting with the US president and now. Then, Bush was obsessively interested in seeking and securing Islamabad's help in changing Afghanistan. That having been achieved with military might, Washington's new priority is to change Pakistan itself. In such a situation, Musharraf finds himself at the receiving end of US pressure in a manner that is altogether different from what he faced soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks. What he will be called upon to do in the coming weeks and months will directly impinge on him. To that extent, it is far more challenging than anything which Musharraf faced in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Washington's faith in Musharraf's ability to transform Pakistan is based less on his courage of conviction than on realpolitik. Some Americans compare the general's post-September 11 actions and his January 12 speech against religious extremism to positions taken by some of America's southern leaders against racial discrimination in the Fifties and Sixties. Having burned their boats with former allies who were unwilling to support racial changes, there was no going back on a reformist agenda for these leaders who opted for change. The same, it is argued in the corridors of power, holds good for Musharraf. Contrary to the general impression in India that he felt slighted by Washington's refusal to give him the F-16 planes, which Pakistan had paid for, Musharraf was not unduly worried about that "contentious" issue. For the wily general, the F-16s are no more than a symbol - for public consumption in Pakistan - of the fighting effort he is undertaking with the Americans to guard Islamabad's supreme national interest. The general's hour of reckoning, it would seem, came during discussions between the Pakistanis and the Americans about the trade package for Pakistan. The trade benefits of $142 million outlined in the White House fact sheet was far less than what Musharraf had hoped for. It was not that Bush was tight-fisted in offering a better package. The outlines of a package, which included big tariff concessions and market access for Pakistani textiles, had been discussed during a visit by Pakistan's commerce minister, Razzak Dawood, a few months ago. Any such deal was, however, fiercely opposed by lawmakers from the textile-producing states of Georgia and North Carolina. What they threatened was blockage of a top presidential priority - the trade promotion authority, which would allow Bush to negotiate trade agreements which the Congress could approve or reject, but not amend. Nine senators, among them Republicans and Democrats, wrote to the commerce secretary, Don Evans, a fortnight before Musharraf arrived that "any agreement to construct an aid package to Pakistan that adversely impacts an ailing US industry is directly contrary to both administration policy and common sense". Bush could not, however, let Musharraf go home empty-handed on the textile issue. He, therefore, used his executive powers to let Pakistan utilize unfilled portions of existing quotas to export apparel worth $113 million. He also increased Pakistan's base quotas by $29 million. There are two lessons to be learned from this. For Washington, its interests come above everything else. And secondly, US priorities keep shifting and leaders or governments who are not part of those priorities tend to fall by the wayside.