The man without a legacy
Pervez Musharraf (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
HIS LIFE WAS TOPSY-TURVY. Turvy followed topsy with an historic inevitability. It seems logical therefore to place the moral of the story before the story. The story is of a summit in the parched heat of July 2001 in Agra, once capital of India’s northern kingdoms, and home to the greatest monuments in the world.
The moral is from an event in the Crusades, the conflict between the rising strength of Europe and a still-ascendant Arabia that raged across centuries. The war for Jerusalem between two iconic adversaries, the ageing Saladin and the youthful Richard had ended in victory for the Arabs. Richard wanted to meet Saladin before he returned to England. Saladin refused. Furious at the perceived insult, Richard threatened to renew the fighting. Saladin remained sanguine. Saladin explained his decision. Kings, he said, should meet only after every dispute had been resolved. For, if kings failed to bring peace at a summit, there was nowhere left to go but down.
The Agra summit of July 2001 represented the high point of hope in the Indian subcontinent. It was propelled by then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s magnificent passion for peace, to bring closure to a generational conflict that had drained the blood and resources of the people.
Vajpayee startled conventional commentators on February 19, 1999 when he rolled into Lahore on a bus and hugged his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. The two promised that they would never permit another war to take place. They ignored the activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami who hurled rocks at Vajpayee’s bus as it crept towards the Lahore Fort for a function.
The deep state in Pakistan, heavily invested in permanent conflict, stirred. The Pakistan army chief, Pervez Musharraf, ordered the infiltration of regular troops dressed in mufti across the Line of Control (LoC) into Kargil in the mountains of Kashmir.
Musharraf had acted without the knowledge of Nawaz Sharif, a display of indiscipline and breathtaking effrontery that must be unique in the annals of military conduct. It escalated into a full-scale war that ended in yet another devastating surrender by Pakistan.
Sharif suffered the public humiliation of defeat, but Musharraf was unfazed, defending his suicidal adventurism as strategic achievement. Neither facts nor silence were his strong points. Opportunism was his forte. Sharif, bristling after Kargil, tried to dismiss Musharraf. In October 1999, Musharraf was flying back from an official visit to Sri Lanka when his officers gave the signal for the coup that put the General in power and Sharif in jail. Pervez Musharraf, plucked by Sharif out of comparative anonymity in 1998 and appointed Chief of Army Staff, had become the supremo of his country through a bizarre roll of destiny’s dice.
There was a general mood of optimism as Pervez Musharraf (1943-2023) hosted a breakfast for editors in Agra. We realised soon enough that he loved the sound of his own voice, like any self-proclaimed ‘man of destiny’. Most editors were, variously, bemused or amused or hopeful. Most missed the silence of experienced Pakistani bureaucrats at the table, who were trying hard to hide the cringe in their hearts
Unable to find a nomenclature from the constitution, Musharraf promptly took on the private-sector title of ‘Chief Executive’. It meant nothing. He ruled by the gun, and to prove the point appeared in publicity photographs brandishing a pistol while his two pet Pekinese dogs frisked around. In June 2001, Musharraf kicked himself upstairs to the office of president. At the top of his agenda was Agra.
Vajpayee, still determined to pursue that elusive peace after the fall of Sharif, and perhaps calculating that a deal with an army chief would possess more heft than one with a civilian, elided Musharraf’s role in Kargil and welcomed the General with a 21-gun salute in Delhi on July 14, 2001. One presumes that the Bofors field piece had not been used for the salvo, for that Swedish gun had played a major role in Kargil. Musharraf, throwing smiles with abandon, posed for pictures in an informal plain white shirt.
Perhaps he was genuinely happy to be in the city of his birth.
The talks were scheduled for the Ides of July, the 15th of the month, not quite the most auspicious day in the calendar. But Roman superstition was far from anyone’s thoughts that morning in Agra. There was a general mood of optimism as Musharraf hosted a breakfast for a selection of editors. We realised soon enough that he loved the sound of his own voice, like any self-proclaimed ‘Man of Destiny’. His sentences ran around in circles but hinted that he brought some magic formula which would create history. Most editors were, variously, bemused or amused or hopeful. Most missed the silence of experienced Pakistani bureaucrats at the table, who were trying hard to hide the cringe in their hearts.
They knew something that we did not. There had been no substantive negotiations on the four-point plan that Musharraf had brought. There was no draft merely in need of last-minute touches; what the two sides were doing, in effect, and at the highest level, was a first-minute read. Musharraf had convinced himself that all he had to do was flourish a bit of paper and a beholden India would sign on his dotted line. Two decades later, one is still astonished at the gullibility of Delhi’s top bureaucrats who should have done the homework before agreeing to a date for the meeting. Maybe they had all bewitched themselves. The senior Indian politicians in Vajpayee’s delegation were confounded as they started to ponder over the implications of what they were being asked to sign.
Musharraf wanted, in essence, a phased withdrawal of troops from Jammu and Kashmir by both counties; a joint Indo-Pak-Kashmir “mechanism” for the autonomous governance of the province, and continued recognition of the ceasefire line.
Nothing added up. No one seemed to have debated how the first two proposals would work. Would the Indian people ever accept this dilution of Indian sovereignty in Kashmir? There was no mention of terrorism; nor would the agent provocateur of Kargil even discuss India’s principal concern. One can extrapolate, from this, that the Pakistan element of the “joint mechanism” would hand out medals to terrorists instead of hunting them down, and soon unfurl a new flag as the identity of a new status. Indian troops would leave the state. What guarantee was there that Pakistani troops would leave when their chief had started the Kargil War through lies and deception?
Was this another invitation to the United Nations? Would this unravel the long process of Jammu and Kashmir’s integration with the Indian Union? As these questions began to float through the conference venue and hotels full of journalists, the mood shifted. At the high table, there was some dramatic last-second to-ing and fro-ing but the deal was dead at birth.
The conjuring trick was over. Vajpayee, following the advice of Home Minister LK Advani, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, and Defence Minister George Fernandes, conveyed that he could not put pen to paper. Musharraf, from his standpoint, could not condemn terrorism. He would have been denounced as a traitor by Pakistanis if he had.
In the dark of the evening, Sushma Swaraj, then Union minister of information and broadcasting and designated spokesperson of the conference, told deflated subcontinentals and deadpan foreigners in the media hall that the summit had failed.
Pervez Musharraf had convinced himself that he could win by subterfuge what he and his predecessors had been unable to obtain by war. His itinerary was optimistic. He had planned a thanksgiving visit to the shrine of the venerated Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer that night on his triumphant way back home. But the most productive thing he had done during a very long day was posing with his wife Sehba in front of the Taj.
Prime Minister Vajpayee might have chosen Agra in the hope that the gentle waft of Taj vibrations would soothe inbuilt tensions. The Taj Mahal is certainly civilisation’s greatest tribute to love. It is also a graveyard. A graveyard of good intentions, perhaps, but still a graveyard. July 15, 2001 became the graveyard of hopes and assumptions that for weeks had riveted the subcontinent and aroused the curiosity of the world.
Hope is the gravitational pull of diplomacy. It is a measure of Vajpayee’s commitment to peace that he did not abandon hope despite the inevitable, sensational terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament within six months of Agra, on December 13, 2001, by five Pakistanis from Jaish-e-Mohammed, a killer organisation nurtured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Musharraf was chief of the Pakistan army when this happened, and it is highly unlikely that ISI would not have kept him abreast of what its factotums were planning.
Musharraf had convinced himself that he could win by subterfuge what he and his predecessors had been unable to obtain by war. Vajpayee, following the advice of LK Advani, Jaswant Singh, and George Fernandes, conveyed that he could not put pen to paper. Manmohan Singh adroitly picked up the expectations Vajpayee had created and set them afloat again
Public fury in India forced the Vajpayee government to mobilise in 2002, in Operation Parakram. Musharraf retaliated. He showed no intention of taking serious action against Jaish. Speculation mounted over the ‘inevitable’ war: Would it include the use of nuclear weapons? A few high-profile embassies began partial evacuation of their staff. Startlingly, India lost more soldiers in Parakram, many in mine-laying operations, than in Kargil, according to a statement by Defence Minister Fernandes in Lok Sabha. Demobilisation began only in July 2003.
The echoes of Parakram had barely toned down when the indefatigable Vajpayee resurrected the spirit of amity, this time through cricket diplomacy, giving permission for a scheduled India-Pakistan series in Pakistan. Vajpayee’s commitment caught the imagination of the Pakistani street in a way no Indian leader had ever done. A pre-tour Indian delegation was greeted in Karachi by people lined along the streets waving posters of Vajpayee and Musharraf.
The Indian team, led by Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, stopped at the prime minister’s residence in Delhi on the way to the airport. Vajpayee asked them to win hearts as well as matches. They did. The many thousands of Indians who streamed across to watch cricket in the cities of a so-near-and-yet-so-far neighbour returned with stories of unexpected individual generosity and collective warmth. When India won a match in Lahore, sporting Pakistani crowds waved the Indian Tricolour. There was some magic in the air, over a wondrous oasis in the large desert of Indo-Pak relations.
THE DEFEAT OF Vajpayee in the 2004 General Election was mourned by his fans in both nations. His successor Manmohan Singh adroitly picked up the expectations Vajpayee had created and set them afloat again. Musharraf responded. Once again, the froth began to rise. A meeting between the principals was set.
On getting a nod and a visa from Pakistan’s Delhi mission, I flew to Islamabad to interview the president for Subhash Chandra’s Zee news network as part of the preamble for the visit.
Men of Destiny live outside the dictates of a calendar. At first, the president’s office pretended that they knew nothing about this interview. The first law of reporting: you persist. On the third day of doing nothing, the call came. The president would give time at his residence in Rawalpindi that evening. I organised a crew and we set off early. After about 15 minutes in the car, I asked the cameraman how many cassettes he had brought. Just one, he said. He had been told by the Musharraf office that the interview would last about 15 minutes so he considered one 18-minute tape sufficient. Second law: take nothing for granted. I turned the car around, and we picked up more tapes. Just in case. The interview went on for nearly two hours. All one had to do was lob a soft query, hear a self-serving answer, catch the contradiction, and then follow through with a sharp question that drew more of the truth in Musharraf’s words.
In October 1999, Musharraf was flying back from an official visit to Sri Lanka when his officers gave the signal for the coup that put the General in power and Sharif in jail. Musharraf, plucked by Sharif out of comparative anonymity in 1998 and appointed chief of army staff, had become the supremo of his country through a bizarre roll of destiny’s dice
The official reason for Musharraf’s second visit to India, on Saturday April 16, 2005, was to watch cricket on Sunday. The highly esteemed Indian External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh welcomed Musharraf at Delhi airport and set the tone by suggesting that the ceasefire line in Jammu and Kashmir should be seen as a bridge rather than a divider.
This time, he got the sequence right. Musharraf went to Ajmer first, wearing a pink turban and white salwar-kameez, before flying to Delhi. The mood at the banquet hosted by Manmohan Singh was cheerful. Musharraf praised the environment of unprecedented harmony and cordiality: “People’s wishes and aspirations have overtaken their leaders’ and their governments. Therefore, I think the [peace] process is irreversible.”
If the Indian Army had been given permission to comment, it might have suggested that Musharraf tended to be less honest than his tongue: in the past 24 hours, it had killed 12 terrorists in Kashmir exported by Pakistan.
Manmohan Singh responded with a desire for an “enduring” solution to all problems. He meant, when the cosmetics were wiped off, Kashmir. India offered to create designated points on the ceasefire line where divided families could meet, open new bus services, and enhance trade and tourism.
Singh did not buy the full Musharraf plan; no Indian leader could. But it says something for Musharraf’s powers of persuasion that he believed he could finesse the Kashmir dilemma. Singh told an American delegation that the two had nearly succeeded. A WikiLeaks exposure revealed that an American diplomatic cable had reported to Washington that on April 21, 2009 Singh had told Howard Berman that the two countries had come close to a “non-territorial” solution to Kashmir. Their solution was liquid; they felt that they could melt the problem.
Singh began to mentally prepare for a visit to Pakistan. There was the tug of sentiment as well. If Musharraf was born in Delhi then Singh was born in Gah, a village in western Punjab; their families crossed borders during the terrible violence of Partition. Musharraf sold the “non-territorial” softening as forward movement on the four points he had taken to Agra. Singh preferred, typically, to say less than he did.
The higher they soar, the more lethal is the fall.
The old menace of turvy began to chase Musharraf’s fortunes. His alliance with America against the Afghan Taliban after 9/11 had a domestic component. He complemented cooperation with NATO with a campaign for “enlightened moderation” in his own country, which was a polite way of telling radical Islamists that it was time to place a comma after their endeavours. A full-stop was of course out of the question. In 2002, he banned foreign funding of Islamic centres and mosques, and sacked senior military officers suspected of Islamist thinking, measures designed to please his mentors in the post-9/11 White House. He made no effort, however, to stop the export of terrorism to India. Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba continued to get patronage.
We should not sneer at the fact that Musharraf, the “moderate Muslim”, measured his doctrine by the whisky glass in a prohibition country. Alcohol was hardly an unknown feature of life among Islamabad’s elite. As his years in office descended into confusion, instability and rampant violence, such solace probably became a mental health medicine.
Unable to find a nomenclature from the constitution, Musharraf promptly took on the private-sector title of ‘chief executive’. It meant nothing. He ruled by the gun, and to prove the point appeared in publicity photographs brandishing a pistol while his two pet pekinese dogs frisked around
The plague of terrorist armies was not deflected easily. Musharraf nearly lost his life twice in December 2003; on both occasions assassins tried to ram his motorcade with vans laden with explosives. In July 2007 came the Islamist insurrection at Lal Masjid in Islamabad. No one really knows how many times Musharraf escaped. What he could not escape from were his own follies. Absolute power travelled in a familiar direction, to his head. There was a typical military election in October 2007 in which Musharraf got 98 per cent of the vote. The political landscape was bloodied by stabs in the back, even as it crumbled under the weight of shoddy deals. In December 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated during a public rally. The killers were not identified; they never are in Pakistan.
As for the promise of Agra and Delhi: Suffice it to mention that when Musharraf finally lost office in August 2008, the successor government announced that the four points he had dangled before Vajpayee and Singh were his personal ideas, never endorsed by a cabinet decision. But dictators never understand the difference between personal and formal. They are the shotgun merchants of politics.
Pakistan’s first military autocrat, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, died in isolation and disgrace after being told to step aside by his own generals. General Zia-ul-Haq disappeared in the sky when his plane blew up, cause still unknown. The third, an accidental dictator, was lucky to leave Pakistan alive in 2016, and died in Dubai, a convict since 2019 when a special court found him guilty of high treason.
Pervez Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup. His years in power were soaked in blood.