‘You shuffle, I’ll deal’

November 01, 2012

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CERTAIN anniversaries subside without a trace. The events of Oct 12 1999, 13 years ago, were one such non-occurrence. It was the day, it should be recalled, that the prime minister of our country hijacked the chief of the army staff of our army.

The flight itself was routine. PIA’s commercial flight PK 805, carrying about 200 passengers and originating from Colombo, neared its destination Karachi. Orders were issued to the pilot from prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad via the director general, Civil Aviation, Aminullah Chaudry at Karachi to prevent it from landing at the city’s Jinnah International Airport. The pilot of the plane was told that he could not land at either Karachi or at its standby alternative Nawabshah. He was free to proceed to Muscat or Abu Dhabi, or Mumbai or Ahmedabad. The unwelcome passenger on board that aircraft was Gen Pervez Musharraf.

Eventually the trucks blocking the runway at Karachi airport were removed and the plane was allowed to land with seven minutes of fuel to spare.

Years after the event, each of them published his own Rashomon version of that eventful day. Gen Musharraf’s recollections appeared in his memoir In the Line of Fire (2006). Nawaz Sharif recalled his in a series of interviews given to a journalist and published under the title The Traitor Within: The Nawaz Sharif story in his own words (2008); Aminullah Chaudry’s account Musharraf, Nawaz and Hijacking from the Ground: The bizarre story of PK 805 appeared in 2010. Truth was made to pass through the prism of their eyes.

Aminullah Chaudry’s explanation repeated a line heard all too often at the Nuremberg trials. He was simply obeying orders. He was “duty bound to carry out the orders of the elected chief executive of Pakistan, if the rules so permitted, and as long as no threat was posed to human life or property”.

For Nawaz Sharif, the removal of Gen Musharraf as the chief of army staff whom he had also appointed as chairman joint chiefs of staff was his constitutional prerogative. “When the value of constitutional posts is reduced,” he explained, “it is inevitable either to quit or to take the risk.”

He took the risk, as US president Truman did in 1951 when he removed Gen Macarthur, who was commander of UN and US forces in the Far East. Nawaz Sharif, however, gambled and lost. Unlike the US army, the Pakistan Army moved swiftly to protect its chief, and removed the prime minister.

In any other country, it would have been considered a military coup. Musharraf’s Prussian-style justification contended that it was in fact a civilian coup by Nawaz Sharif against the army. The army had simply mounted a counter-coup in defence of its chief. “I did not take over,” Musharraf claimed later. “I was handed over the government.” He made it sound like a duty-free giveaway. He grabbed it. Which self-respecting PIA passenger wouldn’t?

By 2007, after eight years in power, Musharraf’s control was no longer tenable; the return of democracy and of Benazir Bhutto no longer avoidable. Today, the beneficiaries of the deal struck between Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf are claimants to the very presidency which Musharraf sacrificed his “second skin” — his military uniform — to retain.

Asif Ali Zardari is now the president and is prepared to sacrifice everyone else’s skin to remain so. Nawaz Sharif is a president-in-waiting in Lahore, and Musharraf is a president-in-waiting in London. Will that configuration stand altered after the next general elections, whenever they might be called?

It seems unlikely. The advantage President Zardari enjoys is that of an incumbent. He is already at the crease. His opponents are still in the nets. He can decide when, if at all, he wishes to give the other side a chance to bat. For the time being, understandably, he does not wish to be hurried into declaring.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must be viewing Zardari’s position with a tinge of envy. He has reshuffled his cabinet “for the last time” before the next Indian election, all too conscious that he is now a lame-duck octogenarian prime minister. He has decided to pass the torch to a new generation of Indian politicians, the most significant of whom for Pakistan must be Mr Salman Khurshid, who takes over as foreign minister from the octogenarian S.M. Krishna.

Mr Khurshid’s credentials are impeccable. Academically, he is a graduate of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and then Oxford University. Genetically, he is the grandson of Dr Zakir Hussain, India’s first Muslim president. Politically, he began his career with Mrs Indira Gandhi and has remained a Congress Party loyalist ever since.

Religiously, he is the first Indian Muslim to occupy a post that will place him inevitably and insidiously under the microscope of public scrutiny. If he is too conciliatory towards Pakistan, he will be criticised for being too soft on terrorism. Too tough, and he will be accused of being more patriotic than he need be.

Perhaps the best guide the new foreign minister can have is the performance of a previous Indian foreign secretary, his fellow Muslim Salman Haider. Mr Haider spent just over two years between March 1995 and June 1997 in the post, under three foreign ministers. He maintained such a fine balance of credibility that whatever he achieved as foreign secretary has been cemented by his role in the twin-track dialogue that runs unobtrusively like some underground confluence between the Ganges and Indus, irrigating fresh ideas.

Meanwhile, interestingly, two absentee heirs — Rahul Gandhi and Bilawal Bhutto — wait for their political harvest to ripen.

The writer is an author. www.fsaijazuddin.pk