TAILORED TRUTHS - Looking good for the Americans

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  • Published 6.10.06

In the Line of Fire: A Memoir By Pervez Musharraf, Simon & Schuster, Rs 950

General Pervez Musharraf has not got his autobiography ghost-written for posterity. It is meant for a specific contemporary audience in the United States of America and in the West.

His memoirs are also not meant to directly boost his image at home. Most Pakistanis will not understand, for example, what he means when he describes his childhood neighbourhood of Nazimabad as not the “Harlem of Karachi” but, perhaps, its South Bronx.

Although narcissistic and egotistical, this is essentially a get-to-know-me-better book for the Americans. Its recurring message is: “Look at me. I am a modern, liberal westward-looking soldier, a moderate Muslim, forced by circumstances to assume dictatorial powers. I am a man of destiny — God saved me through two wars, air-crashes and from desperate assassins because he wanted me to live to serve my country. I stand between order and disorder. I manage the cordon sanitaire between civilization and the marauding hoards of bearded terrorists. I am your friend.”

The book is, therefore, not an obituary masquerading as an autobiography as some have remarked — although the DNA of military coups in Pakistan is such that those who conduct them must be aware of the associated risk of being carried out horizontally from office.

Musharraf does not pretend to be an intellectual and quotes Richard Nixon approvingly that leaders must not suffer from “paralysis by analysis”. So do not expect from Musharraf an analysis of why the Pakistani polity is perpetually in dire straits or why its sporadic democratic intervals are so dysfunctional. The general’s diagnosis is that “democracy has to be tailored in accordance with each nation’s peculiar environment”. He himself has tailored democracy in Pakistan and put it in military uniform.

The differences between Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he overthrew, cannot be understood in the military, political and ideological terms described by Musharraf.

It was a routine upheaval within the Pakistani ruling elite. The civilian bureaucracy, the judiciary, those elected to the legislature by virtue of their wealth or the power of the gun — all protected by the army — run the country as a corporation. They routinely repatriate their loot abroad, directly benefiting Western financial institutions (at least they did this till their accounts started getting frozen after 9/11). Whenever there is a falling out among the board members of the corporation, because of an intransigent group or an individual, they are turfed out.

An old Pakistani friend summarized it very well when he said: “Our elite has evolved an extremely successful strategy of enriching themselves and extending their political and social influence by sacrificing the head of the government they choose every two to three years. This allows them to continue their plunder. We are, in effect, the worshippers of Kali — we search for a ruler, demonize him, get him killed and continue as earlier.” Virtually all Pakistani leaders lost power through this process. So will Musharraf, even though the post-9/11 declining interest in democratic norms has given his extra-constitutional dispensation an umbrella of international legitimacy and some longevity.

That Musharraf is a tactical thinker is evident. For him to look good, everything can be twisted. So, for example, the Kargil debacle transforms itself into a military victory. And the nuclear black-marketeer, A.Q. Khan, becomes a freelancer, smuggling out eight tonnes of centrifuges in the boot of his car from a highly secure nuclear lab. Already, he has backtracked on claiming on page 237 of the book that the government of Pakistan received “prize money” from the CIA for handing over al Qaida operatives.

Yet, there are parts of the book which are riveting — especially those that describe the manner in which the coup against Sharif was carried out by the designated “coup brigade”, which has conducted all military coups in Pakistan — the Triple One Brigade of the Rawalpindi Corps. It is difficult to believe, however, that Musharraf, who claims to have war-gamed the American response if Pakistan did not heed its commands after 9/11, had not war-gamed the ouster of Sharif.

The book has been ghost-written. All bets are on the journalist, Humayun Gauhar. He comes with impeccable antecedents. His father was the ghost-writer for Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s memoirs, Friends Not Masters. The title of the book, In the Line of Fire, is borrowed from a 1993 Hollywood film starring Clint Eastwood. Described as an “underrated thriller” in trade journals, the film features Clint Eastwood as a secret service agent who could not save Kennedy, but is determined to prevent the assassination of the president whom he has been detailed to protect now.

Musharraf also considers himself to be in the line of fire. But who is he protecting — the idea of Pakistan, himself, or a beleaguered American president? Perhaps all three in his own way.

A learned Pakistani friend said of the book: “It is just like a Hindi film. The first half has a bit of comedy, a bit of romance and a bit of adventure. It is in the second half that the villain enters.” The first half of the book is indeed quite entertaining. Young Musharraf steals fruit from other peoples’ gardens, punches bullies, swings from trees, jumps over walls, falls in love with a Bengali girl and opts for an arranged marriage. He also learns to make “time-bombs” out of ordinary crackers with unfiltered cigarettes as time-fuses. It was all a part of character-building in the good old colonial sense. Destiny was preparing him for winning his own battle of Waterloo, not on the playing fields of Eaton but at the Foreman Christian College, Lahore.

But once he took over as president to protect democracy, why did he not hand over power back to the people as he had promised to do after three years? As for all his brilliant ideas to save Pakistan, he could be on television running his own “Ask Uncle Musharraf” programme, like Geo TV’s Alim Online, for those tortured by existential questions.