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A leaf from history: Was Asghar tipped as premier?

Updated July 13, 2014


Asghar Khan's visit to the three Islamic countries was apparently part of the scheme and aimed at showing to the heads of the friendly states the person who would be the next prime minister of Pakistan. — Courtesy photo
Asghar Khan's visit to the three Islamic countries was apparently part of the scheme and aimed at showing to the heads of the friendly states the person who would be the next prime minister of Pakistan. — Courtesy photo

From the day the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) came into being, Tehreek-i-Istiqlal chief retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s role had been debated by his colleagues of the coalition and by political observers. He also came under the spotlight when before the coup he sent a letter (May 1977) to the armed forces asking them not to obey the orders of their superiors blindly and not to follow any unlawful commands.

When the accord between the (PNA) and the PPP was reached on July 4, 1977 and only the signatures were to be put, Asghar Khan rejected the accord and asked other members of the alliance to refuse to sign, too. He pledged with complete confidence that he would bring martial law in the country followed by general elections within 90 days. At that time, a vague question was raised: on what grounds did he give such assurance and asked the alliance to reject the accord?

After the promulgation of martial law and arrest of Bhutto, his role became markedly important. On Oct 28, 1977, he left on a visit to Iran, Libya and the United Arab Emirates. On Oct 29, he called on Shah of Iran Mohammad Raza Pahalvi and again had a meeting with the Shah the next day. At Tehran, addressing a press conference he said that elections could be held in seven or eight months, and praised Gen Zia as being honest in his pledges.

The most noticeable point was his assertion that Bhutto would not return to power. He also said that his party, Tehreek-i-Istaqlal, was thinking of leaving the alliance because it joined the PNA for ousting Bhutto from power and since the objective had been achieved, it was a good time to leave the alliance. Perhaps he remembered the pledge made by Gen Zia that after the polls he would be asked to take over as prime minister. Perhaps he thought that his PNA colleagues might demand a share.

With Bhutto incarcerated, Tehreek-i-Istiqlal bids farewell to the Pakistan National alliance

From Iran, he proceeded to Libya and the UAE. Many observers ponder over the logic of visiting friendly countries when his own country was faced with many issues. Rao Rashid, special secretary to Z.A. Bhutto as prime minister, in his work, Jo mien ne dekha, wrote that Asghar Khan was sent by Gen Zia who had previously tipped him as the next prime minister if Bhutto was removed from the scene. According to the author, there were some elements in the army who wanted to bring Asghar Khan because they thought that Bhutto was responsible for the fall of Dhaka. Rashid also said that the army could not rule the country and so Asghar Khan could be the ‘best choice’.

After Bhutto’s hanging, Asghar Khan felt satisfied as Gen Zia had put the election team in full gear and it appeared that elections were around the corner. Like many other political aspirants who were getting new sherwanis tailored, the former air chief also got some new suits made — suitable for a prime minister.

Rao mentions that at one press conference when Mahmood Ali Kasuri said that “… when we will come to power…” Asghar Khan became angry and immediately snubbed him by asking “what do you mean by saying ‘when we came to power’.” In fact, Asghar Khan had developed a feeling that he could replace Bhutto.

Much before the promulgation of martial law on July 5, 1977 Asghar Khan had shown little interest in the PNA movement. However, when it gained some momentum, he became overactive. His insistence on failing to reach an accord with the PPP was a clear indication of who he was working for. Some quarters were of the opinion that he had been in agreement with a faction of the army. He was under the impression that after the promulgation of martial law, he would contest the elections as Zia promised and would become the next prime minister. His visit to the three Islamic countries was also apparently part of the scheme and aimed at showing to the heads of the friendly states the person who would be the next prime minister of Pakistan, latently also seeking their approval. In his close circles it was generally believed that he was the next prime minister.

When Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court (Nov 10, 1977) Asghar Khan felt dejected with the PNA and announced the separation of his party from the alliance. In this regard, he sent a letter to PNA chief Mufti Mahmood, in which he criticised the alliance’s policies by saying that these were part of the ambiguous programme and termed it a reactionary group with an unclear plan incompatible with the 20th century situation.

The letter said that the component parties had suffered from internal contradictions and some parties even had regional interests. At the same time it was not capable of evolving a well-coordinated programme to run a government. He also wrote that the PNA did not contradict some revelations made in the Supreme Court. He also complained that the secretary of the alliance had raised objection to his going abroad. Narrating some unimportant events he said he was quitting the PNA.

Two days later, the alliance called a meeting of the central committee to discuss the letter. As Asghar Khan broke with the alliance, some other parties such as the Pakistan Democratic Party of Sardar Sherbaz Mazari and Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan of Maulana Noorani were also thinking of parting ways.

On the day Asghar Khan severed ties with the PNA, the CMLA issued a martial law regulation banning all student unions and professional organisations; the punishment for violation was jail and lashes.

Next week: Khar tricks Gen Zia

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 13th, 2014