Musharraf’s mixed legacy

By Zaffar Abbas

At a time when almost everyone in the country, including many of General Musharraf’s one-time trusted friends and beneficiaries, is busy condemning his nine-year rule, to mention some of his achievements may be like committing blasphemy. Still, it’s only fair to talk of some of the big, controversial and even bold decisions he took in an attempt to change the destiny of the country. Whether he succeeded in doing so, or became a victim of sycophancy or self-serving propaganda, may remain part of a never-ending debate. But this in itself shows that General Musharraf’s may well be a mixed legacy.

Gen Musharraf’s opponents and enemies are many, and understandably so. In the last decade or so some of the most divergent social and political groups turned against him, but often for different reasons. In fact, in most cases they had diametrically opposite views on issues ranging from the Kargil conflict to the seizing of power in Oct 1999, from Nawaz Sharif’s trial to allowing him to go into exile, from keeping Asif Zardari in jail to allowing Benazir Bhutto to return, or from taking the country to the brink of war with India to initiating a peace process with it.

There were political parties like the PPP or many women’s, rights and liberal groups that saw in the October 1999 military coup a positive move to block the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s use of his brute parliamentary strength to introduce his own brand of Islamic shariah in the country.

In the early years of his military rule, Gen Musharraf was praised by the country’s liberal political and social circles for reversing the obscurantist policies of General Zia-ul-Haq. There was a time that many women’s rights groups thought he was the best thing that had happened to the country in decades. But then the same people turned against him when he struck a deal with the religious right to legitimise his rule after the 2002 election.

The religious and many other politicians like Imran Khan ignored his move to overthrow an elected government, and even backed him in a fraudulent referendum that allowed him to rule for the initial five years. However, when in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, he turned his guns towards the Muslim militants, whom he had been backing in the past as the army chief the religious and political right became the vanguard of the anti-Musharraf campaign. The contradiction among his opponents was also seen in the last year of his rule. He was being criticised by the liberals and women’s groups for allowing Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa Madressah clerics to spread extremism in Islamabad, and by religious groups for killing ‘innocent’ people of the seminary.

Similarly, some condemned him for launching a military operation against militants, while a few others thought he was not being sincere in eliminating the pro-Taliban fighters. And if the militants were opposed to him for using the military against the Taliban, the secular Baloch nationalists hated him for using the military might against them, and for killing the veteran Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.

But what brought all the disparate political groups opposed to him on to one platform and triggered a chain reaction that ultimately culminated in his ouster was the imposition of emergency, the sacking of dozens of judges and the muzzling of the broadcast media. On the other hand many businessmen and industrialists remained his supporters till the very last, and thought it was largely because of his policies that the economy remained in an upswing during the last many years.

It’s largely because of such contradictions in the character and policies of the man that for most people Gen Musharraf remains an enigma. In fact, no one seems to know who the real Gen Musharraf is? Was he a hawk disguised in a liberal cloak, or a moderate and progressive man whose military training had in the past turned him into a trigger-happy leader? Was he really sincere about the progress of this country, or were his policies only targeted at perpetuating his rule? These and many other questions about the man may remain unanswered for a very long time, more so because over the past year or so the propaganda campaign from rival camps has made the line between fact and fiction somewhat blurred.

However, speaking from personal experience as a journalist I have absolutely no hesitation in stating that he was probably the best interviewee I ever came across. And I have met and interviewed quite a few top politicians, including many presidents and prime ministers. At times his answers were not at all convincing, but unlike many popularly elected politicians, he was never shy of taking some of the toughest questions about his person and politics. Even during a number of private conversations, and much to the annoyance of his aides and advisers, he listened to criticism and tried to argue his case.

He was also a unique military ruler who, instead of imposing censorship at the time of seizing power, liberalised the media, and at a later stage allowed dozens of private television channels, many of whom spent most of their airtime in attacking him and his policies. It was only for a brief period during the emergency period that there was a media blackout, and a number of TV anchors were banned from broadcasting. But once private televisions were back on air, they returned with more venomous broadcasts against the beleaguered president.

Many others who saw and worked with him say that although he was no visionary, he always tried to work hard with a view to understanding an issue, and rarely shied away from taking on a challenge. Even some of those who left him after political expediency compelled him to take Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and others as his major allies, still regard him as a sincere leader. His biggest mistake, they say, was not being able to work out an exit strategy. In fact, after being encircled by sycophants and vested interest groups, Mr Musharraf had started to regard himself as indispensable for the country. And the way he sacked more than half of country’s superior judiciary simply showed he had no love or respect for the rule of law.

But then in the end, he was a military man who should have never intervened in the country’s political affairs. For some General Pervez Musharraf may well have been a well-meaning person, but all his positive work becomes meaningless when compared with the way he overthrew an elected government and subverted the Constitution, and towards the end of his tenure tried to destroy the judiciary, only to keep himself in power.

Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 19/8/2008

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