LONG before the start of Pervez Musharraf’s July 21 Woodrow Wilson Centre address, the auditorium had already filled to capacity. With crowds continuing to surge, swarms of people were diverted to three overflow rooms.
By the time Musharraf stepped to the podium, 400 people were on hand — many of them jostling outside the doorways of packed overflow rooms, straining to catch a glimpse of him on video feeds. Still others, muttering angrily, were turned away due to lack of space. Many Pakistanis may loathe their former president, dismissing him as a political has-been reduced to a life of self-imposed exile in London and Dubai. Yet in the United States, where Musharraf recently participated in a speaking tour, he is regarded with keen interest and accorded considerable respect.
In Texas, he hobnobbed with politicians (including a probable US presidential candidate) and lectured at Rice University.
Texas is where, not long ago, a Dallas journalist spotted him at a restaurant and gushed that he was “probably one of the hottest men I have ever seen”. Musharraf later travelled to New York and appeared on The Daily Show. He strode onto stage amid boisterous applause, and sipped Gatorade as host Jon Stewart peppered him with relatively painless questions.
Then, in Washington, a diverse audience — high school students, scholars, bureaucrats, diplomats, packs of journalists — politely welcomed him to the Wilson Centre. Some refused to applaud him, yet nary a catcall was heard. The only protests were lodged (in advance, via email to Wilson Centre staff) by several Balochistan activists.
How does a disgraced former president and fugitive, who now admits he diverted $10bn of US counterterrorism aid to strengthen defences against India, command such respect in the United States? One reason is America’s infatuation with celebrity. (One often hears that we worship the House of Windsor more than Britons do.) Another is that Americans are far removed from the actions — the raid on the Lal Masjid mosque, the firing of Chief Justice Chaudhry, the media crackdowns — that turned Pakistanis against their president.
Yet perhaps most important, soon after the 9/11 attacks Americans came to believe that Musharraf was the indispensable leader — Pakistan’s only hope for fending off fundamentalism. Today, US public opinion towards Pakistan has never been more hostile, yet the triggers of such sentiment are the current government and perennial villains like A.Q. Khan. Musharraf is rarely a target of such ire.
In reality, this interest in and respect for Musharraf is observed in Pakistan more than is often acknowledged. His speeches generate banner headlines (witness the response to last year’s announcement of his new political party). And while the country undoubtedly expressed widespread hostility towards him just before his inglorious resignation — in 2007, he was less popular than Osama Bin Laden, while by early 2008 his approval ratings stood at 15 per cent and three-quarters of Pakistanis wanted him to resign — today he is more divisive than discredited. Some hate him, yet others admire him.
Consider, for example, all those who argue that Pakistan was less dangerous, corrupt and impoverished during the Musharraf era than it is today. Last year, an Express Tribune blog post articulated 50 different reasons why Pakistan “needs Pervez Musharraf”. To be sure, some of these reasons (“Copper and gold deposits were found in Chagai”) have more to do with circumstances than with Musharraf, while others (“A historic 100 per cent increase in tax collection was observed”) are of questionable accuracy. Yet others still — industrial sector growth, increases in foreign reserves — are hard to dispute. The post spawned more than 400 comments, with many heaping scorn on the author’s reasoning — and many others applauding his analysis.
Musharraf, contrary to the hopes of many, is not going away; he is, after all, running for the top political slot, with plans to return to Pakistan next year. His prospects are admittedly slim and he faces a slew of challenges, from the popularity of Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif to that pesky arrest warrant.
Yet stranger things have happened, and certain factors could work in his favour. These include the military’s continued high marks; according to recent polling by the Pew Research Centre (conducted after the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad), nearly 80 per cent believe its influence on Pakistan is positive. Or the perception that Musharraf remains a viable political figure. Several days before his Wilson Centre speech, an informal Pakistani newspaper poll of several hundred readers found that a substantial 43 per cent believe he can become “a serious political force”.
While being escorted out of the Wilson Centre following his talk, Musharraf, always an engaging personality, extended his hand to several passers-by, all of whom clasped it heartily. One onlooker began chanting, “March 23, 2012, let’s go! March 23, 2012, let’s go!” — eliciting a chuckle from Musharraf and his entourage.
Neither Musharraf nor his handlers nor the onlooker may have realised that this date marks not only his expected return to Pakistan, but also the US release of a movie called Hunger Games. This much-ballyhooed film, based on a best-selling young-adult book trilogy and expected to become the next Harry Potter phenomenon, depicts a post-apocalyptic America.
March 23, 2012: one more tie that binds Musharraf and the United States.
The writer is the South Asia programme associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.