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Must we now learn how to skin?

May 25, 2007

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“UNIFORM is part of my skin,” is the latest pronouncement of Pakistan’s ageing Commander-in-Chief. “How can I take it off?” Which almost sounds like an invitation to the nation to learn the art of skinning before this wretched thing can be taken off his back.

Never famous for reticence or brevity, the C-in-C, even by his own standards, has begun to outdo himself in terms of speaking at great length and often, alas, to little purpose. The wisdom of experience or new-born panic? Make your choice.

De Gaulle’s dictum, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence,” has been turned on its head. The current rule in Pakistan seems to be, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as incessant volubility.”

Pakistan’s soldier-president is not the only one who loves to talk. So does his closest ally, the Don of Edgeware Road. At the time of the earthquake in October 2005 I wrote, no doubt in a moment of weakness, that I was impressed by the MQM’s relief camp in Muzaffarabad. Soon after that I got a call from the Don which lasted a modest 25 minutes. A few days later I got another call which lasted a prize-winning 45 minutes. The soldier-president and the undisputed king of long-distance talk, birds of a feather, I suppose.

As Pakistanis we are no strangers to naked ambition; and from our experience with military rule, no strangers to military folly. But this uniform refrain is beginning to sound tiresome and downright embarrassing.

Ageing chiefs are not exactly an asset for any fighting force. It becomes worse when lame and specious excuses are trotted out to justify their desperation to cling to the top. A pity that the Pakistan army, once so proud of itself – and justly so, I may add – should be reduced to this.

Yahya versus Manekshaw in 1971 was patently unfair to Yahya because after three years of merry roistering at the top he was fit only to joust, and give a good account of himself, with the fair companions brought to him by ‘General’ Rani, high masseuse to his relaxation-needing limbs.

A good thing that the Pakistan army is no longer in the business of war, at least not in the eastern theatre, because I shudder to think of the outcome if our ageing military leadership was ever pushed into any kind of serious fighting in that direction.

Who are we dealing with? Napoleon, General Giap, Che Guevara or the masterminds of two of the worst operations in the annals of the Pakistan army, Kargil and Wana? But I suppose we shouldn’t expect modesty or becoming silence in today’s Pakistan.

The waters are rising and everyone can see that this ship if not sinking is not making much of a voyage, but the soldier-president, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, is transfixed by only one image: his re-anointing as president by the present soon-to-expire assemblies.

This is an election the mechanics or outlines of which only he seems to understand. The rest of Pakistan, save of course for the King of Edgeware Road and the Daughter of the East (still keen on a deal with this sinking ship) sees it as a joke, or a mirage shimmering in the distance.

A presidential election before general elections, and from these assemblies, amounts to fixing the electoral terrain. This would have been possible before but not after March 9 when the judicial crisis erupted and certainly not after May 12 when Karachi was abandoned by the authorities and given over to MQM-directed mayhem. Matters have gone far beyond that. This is plain to everyone except our mariners on deck. Even the Q League is sensing the end. Its march into the next elections was predicated on the C-in-C holding the fort and ensuring his ‘election’ first. But with the lawyers’ movement and the Karachi killings everything has been thrown into doubt. That is why the growing glumness and unease in Q League ranks.

Nor is the MQM happy because its ascendancy in Karachi is tied to the C-in-C’s fortunes. Anything that happens to Musharraf rubs off on the MQM.

Karachi politics is now more like gang warfare than normal politics. The MQM cannot afford to slip because if it does the Haqiqis, who have reason to feel betrayed by the authorities, will be tempted to stage a comeback. In Karachi’s milieu that can only mean street warfare and more bloodshed.

The MQM has badly miscalculated. It should not have flexed its muscles so openly on May 12, an act of folly which has rekindled memories of what it used to be like in Karachi during the early nineties when the MQM’s word was law.

Those were the days when any statement faxed from Azizabad, MQM headquarters, had to be prominently displayed by every newspaper – including, I might add, supposedly the very best – without a word being changed or edited.

That golden period of undisputed mastery came to an end only with Naseerullah Babar, Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister, whose police operation broke the MQM’s back. Babar was the MQM’s true nemesis. Even now cheeks blanch when his name is taken.

But if the MQM was down and out then, its return to power was facilitated when Musharraf took over. The Haqiqis, comprising a breakaway faction, were patronised by the intelligence agencies. But not after Musharraf’s coming when they were ousted from their strongholds in Landhi and Korangi. Almost like a ‘qabza’ changing hands, those areas were then handed over, so to speak, to the MQM. The MQM thus has ample reason to be beholden to the C-in-C. Small wonder they have stood by him as he is now standing by them, even when no one else is willing to do so. More than a marriage of convenience, this is a marriage of conviction.

But when the C-in-C starts applying the skin metaphor to his uniform, it is a sign from on high that the sun has crossed the meridian and evening is close at hand. Consider also that in the Supreme Court he has to fall back upon the likes of Justice (rtd) Malik Qayyum for his defence. Qayyum was a judge of the Lahore High Court and had to leave under a cloud when secret tapes revealed that he had been taking instructions from Nawaz Sharif’s government on how to expedite Benazir Bhutto’s trial which he was conducting.

To be reduced to Malik Qayyum: a sad enough commentary on the C-in-C’s troubled fortunes. Truly, when it rains it pours. It seems to be pouring time for this dispensation.

Musharraf can still extricate himself from his troubles if only he can bring himself to say that he is quitting as army chief. Trawl through all the world’s military almanacs, no safer successor can be found than the army vice-chief, Gen Ahsan Hayat who would have a hard time striking terror into the heart of a dormouse. But don’t expect Musharraf to do this because he is just not programmed this way. He wants all even though in the process he risks being left with nothing.

This wouldn’t matter if only his future was involved. But the country’s interest is at stake too. What Pakistan needs above all is an orderly transition from Musharraf to a democratic order underpinned by the will of the people. If Musharraf has his way we can forget about an orderly transition.

But let us not despair. The bench headed by My Lord Ramday (more power to his wisdom and judgment) has important decisions to take, which will have a profound bearing on the country’s future. The present movement gives the nation hope. Let us hope from its turmoil something good emerges.

Tailpiece One: As if we didn’t have enough on our plates already, we must contend with another phenomenon: Casanova Shaukat. A newly-minted biography of Dr Rice, the US Secretary of State, tells us that on her first visit to Pakistan in 2005 Shaukat (Shortcut to his fans) tried to bowl her over with his “gigolo” charm. When she stared him down he collapsed into confusion and started “blabbing”. Some ladies’ man and he fancies himself next president of Pakistan.

Tailpiece Two: And we hear Chaudhry Shujaat is thinking of writing a book. Miracles, I suppose, will never cease.