Talking the Talk

Most heads of state paint a positive picture of their nation. During his recent tour of Europe, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf did the exact opposite. According to him, Pakistan’s people are “ill disciplined,” “tribal” and “feudal,” and certainly not ready for modern democracy. Pakistan’s politicians, in his view, are “corrupt.”

Its Supreme Court judges are “politicised,” “inept,” “corrupt,” and “nepotistic.” Its most respected media personalities are “undermining our forces and [their] own country.” Pakistan’s religious leaders, we have repeatedly been told, are “extremists.”

The impact of Musharraf’s assertions was reflected in the question posed to me by a European intellectual in the Conference Centre Lounge of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “When he has so much contempt for his own nation why does Musharraf want to lead it?” he wondered.

Before arriving in Davos, Musharraf gave a longish speech in Brussels during which he argued that Pakistan should not be judged by European standards of human rights. He pleaded with members of the European Parliament to have “more patience” with his unique brand of constitution-suspending “democracy.” Musharraf’s exact words were, “We are for democracy and I have introduced the essence of democracy, but we cannot be as forward looking as you are [in the West]. Allow us some time to reach that state.”

Describing the West’s concern with democracy in the third world as an “obsession,” he said, “You have taken centuries to reach where you have come. Allow us time for going for the value that you have reached for yourself.”

The problem with that line of reasoning is that it raises questions about Pakistan’s preparedness for modernity. If Pakistan is modern enough to be a nuclear weapons power and an attractive destination for foreign investment, why does it have a problem embracing modern democracy? If it needs time to be “forward looking” then why should the backwardness apply selectively to human rights and democracy and not to the other characteristics of being a modern power?

Apart from muddying the waters about the prospect of human rights and democracy in Pakistan, Musharraf also confused interviewers and audiences about Pakistan’s priorities in the war against terrorism. He told his audience at the French Institute for International Relations that it is more important for his Pakistani troops on the Afghan border to root out the Taliban than searching for Al-Qaeda leaders.

The problem is many westerners remember that from 2002 onwards, Musharraf’s line used to be “We are going after Al-Qaeda but the Taliban are not such a priority.” His latest U-turn is bound to result in many new research papers and articles in days to come.

Musharraf should not have wasted time touring European capitals to try and convince western governments of Pakistan’s stability and his own good intentions. He should, instead, have faced the evaporation of support for his authoritarian regime at home. His trip has helped project Pakistan as a troubled country and his own attitude during that trip has not helped his own battered image.

A simple browsing of all the interviews Musharraf gave during this trip reveals an unwillingness to make adjustments or acknowledge mistakes.
He told one interviewer that he would leave power when he is convinced that the people of Pakistan want him to quit. But it would only be his “feeling”, not the results of an election or opinion poll that would determine when the people no longer support him. Such reasoning might have impressed Musharraf’s own entourage, it only attracted sighs or giggles from outsiders.

When Nik Gowing of BBC World TV asked him about the statement by 100 retired senior military officers demanding his resignation, Musharraf’s response was that only 10 people had signed the statement. This made him appear like a ruler out of touch with reality. His description of the statement’s signatories as “insignificant personalities” some of whom had “served under me and I kicked them out” showed him to be arrogant. The dignified response from Musharraf to a statement by senior retired military men would have been silence.

On the occasion of Musharraf’s meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, the media reported that 30 pro-Musharraf demonstrators showed up with his portraits to face several hundred opponents.

The one is to 10 ratio of supporters to opponents in Londonistan exposed Musharraf’s lack of support in Pakistan even further.

The article appeared in Indian Express, on January 30, 2008