Things better left unsaid

September 24, 2005


WHAT is it about power that prompts normally sensible, even brilliant, people to say and do foolish things? Take the case of Pakistan’s charismatic prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In the ‘70s, Oriana Fallaci was one of the best interviewers in the business, so it came as no surprise that Bhutto invited her to come to Pakistan in 1972. The resultant interview comprised five meetings and covered a lot of ground. Re-reading it after thirty years, even the most rabid Bhutto-hater — and there is no shortage of this breed among the chattering classes — will be impressed by the sheer intellect of the man.

He spoke movingly of his aspirations for Pakistan, and his grasp of detail was almost breathtaking. When asked if he thought he would last, Bhutto naively replied: “... I could be finished tomorrow, but I think I’ll last longer than anyone else who’s governed Pakistan. First of all, because I’m healthy and full of energy — I can work, as I do, even eighteen hours a day. Then because I’m young — I’m barely 44... Finally because I know what I want...” Seven years later, he was hanged by Zia after a farcical trial.

The point here is that what should have been a memorable interview was immediately discredited by the controversy caused by Bhutto’s petty and gratuitous insults hurled at Indira Gandhi during the conversations with Fallaci:

“Mrs. Gandhi has only one dream: to take over the whole subcontinent, to subjugate us... I don’t even respect her. To me she’s a mediocre woman with a mediocre intelligence. There’s nothing great about her; only the country she governs is great. I mean, it’s the throne that makes her seem tall, though actually she is very small. And also the name she bears. Believe me, if she was prime minister of Ceylon, she’d be nothing but another Mrs. Bandaranaike [who] got there by the simple fact of being Bandaranaike’s widow, and Mrs Gandhi by the simple fact of being Nehru’s daughter. Without having Nehru’s light...

“She’s never impressed me, ever since the day I met her in London. We were both attending a lecture, and she was taking notes so insistently and pedantically that I said to her, “Are you taking notes or writing a thesis?” And speaking of theses, I can’t believe she succeeded in getting that degree in history at Oxford... That’s how I’ve always seen her: a diligent drudge of a schoolgirl, a woman devoid of initiative and imagination...”

And this is the woman Bhutto was trying to persuade to return the 90,000 Pakistani officers and soldiers India was holding as prisoners of war. A footnote to this interview was that after its publication, Fallaci said Bhutto sent emissaries to convince her to say publicly that she had made up the sections relating to the Indian prime minister. She naturally refused, and now the interview is part of her collection “Interview With History.”

So what prompted Bhutto to make these churlish comments? Had power gone to his head to the extent that he felt exempt from the constraints of normal behaviour? Something similar seems to have happened to General Musharraf during his recent interview with the Washington Post. Apart from his unfortunate comments about rape, he is quoted as saying:

“Leave the developing world aside; I think we are better than all of them. Bring the developed world and let us compare Pakistan’s record, under me, a uniformed man, with many of the developed countries. I challenge that we will be better off.”

I wonder what the readers of the Washington Post would have made of this claim by the leader of a country where people were dying from drinking contaminated water even as he spoke in New York. Actually the comparison Gen Musharraf wanted is made every year, and Pakistan currently languishes at 136th in a field of 170 countries listed by their social indicators.

No doubt this complacency stems from the fact that the general spends much of his time in Islamabad where things are indeed better than in the rest of the country. On his next trip to Karachi, he should roll down his heavily tinted window and ask the driver to drive off the main road. He will then see for himself the piles of garbage, the pot-holed roads, and the crumbling infrastructure. Perhaps he will then refrain from comparing Pakistan with the developed world.

During the WP interview, he proceeded to deliver his now-famous bombshell about women and rape: “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a moneymaking concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.”

Although President Musharraf now claims these were somebody else’s words, the Post reporter who conducted the interview, Glenn Kessler, says he has the tape and quoted the general verbatim and in context. What was an otherwise successful trip, during which he broke new ground by addressing the Jewish World Council, has been completely overtaken by a totally unnecessary controversy over his insensitivity towards rape victims.

But wait: it gets worse. During a later meeting organized to meet women in New York and allay their concerns, the general lashed out at critics in an embarrassing temper tantrum. According to the report published in this newspaper on September 18, “Provoked by a single question, the president allowed an event held to promote his government’s pro-women policies to degenerate into a bout between himself and part of the invited audience.”

As the slanging match grew more heated, Gen. Musharraf retorted to a woman who asked him a question: “I am a fighter; I will fight you. I do not give up, and if you can shout, I can shout louder.” And more in this vein. He then snapped at another woman: “Are you a Benazir supporter? [The] lady was prime minister of Pakistan twice, ask her what she has done for Pakistan.”

Apart from the questionable taste of running down Pakistani politicians on foreign soil, perhaps Gen. Musharraf forgot that he has already been ruling the country for longer than Ms Bhutto’s two combined and abbreviated stints. He also neglected the fact that both times, the army engineered her removal, as it did Nawaz Sharif’s.

Is it arrogance that makes some politicians forget themselves and shoot from the hip? Or do they just get carried away by the sound of their own voice? Whatever it is, one wishes that on occasion, they had kept their mouths shut.