It was September 26. I recall it because I was catching the flight back from Dallas and long hauls I find dreadful. At that point I had no idea I was walking beside and chatting with the next President of Pakistan. I don’t think he had any idea either
They say some are born great, others achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. I shall add to this list: on some, high office paradrops. Here’s my little tale, tomorrow being September 1.
Last September, I was travelling through the States and returning to Pakistan from Washington DC. I was scheduled to speak at the Brookings Institution, which also offered me the opportunity to connect with friends from the community of think-tankers focusing on South and West Asia.
The day before, Khalid Hasan, who is as great a host as he is a writer and whom I affectionately call “Sirji”, had invited me to lunch at the National Press Club where I got to meet with Tezi Shaffer, Bob Hathaway and Lisa Curtis. We exchanged views. They were trying to make sense of the goings-on in Pakistan and sought my read. I happily confounded their confusion by adding mine to theirs.
Since native confusion is generally regarded as insight, which always amuses me, everyone thought I had my finger on the pulse. On such occasions, for at least an hour or so, I begin to actually believe that I know something others don’t or perhaps I can make better sense of things than others, especially those who are viewing the situation from outside. Mercifully, this feeling is short-lived.
The next day I spoke at Brookings and as I was leaving, Steve Cohen invited me the next day to Ms Benazir Bhutto’s talk. “She is gonna be here and it’s just eight or ten of us; would be good if you could join us as a Brookings alumnus and a Pakistani.” I said I would be there and left.
Come the next day, I stepped into the venue and saw Steve chatting with someone who, despite standing with his back to the entrance, looked familiar. As I went further into the room and found myself a chair at the round table, I realised that the gentleman was Asif Ali Zardari. I spotted other friends including Marvin Weinbaum, a fine scholar of the region and a former professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who now works at the Middle East Institute (MEI). Ms Bhutto was still to arrive and we talked to each other while awaiting her. And then she entered the room, mercifully without the chignon, dupatta and the jacket, the hallmarks of her public appearances which once earned her the title of the worst-dressed politician.
She was the centre of attraction, sitting to the right of Steve who introduced her and us, saying that whatever she said was off the record and then mischievously pointing towards me quipped that the only one who might be tempted to reproduce her comments in the next day’s paper was me! I couldn’t help notice that Ms Bhutto hadn’t even acknowledged Mr Zardari who sat quite unnoticed by most while all eyes were upon her.
She spoke elegantly, as was her wont. She criticised now-retired General Musharraf (for some reason the PPP-wallahs now pronounce it ‘MusharRaaf’ since Mr Zardari read out the charge-sheet against him and added his own stress to the general’s name — party loyalty perhaps!) but also made plain that the only way to move forward was through a democratic transition. She talked about terrorism as the gravest threat facing Pakistan and which made it essential for all actors to avoid any upheavals.
The underlying theme was that she was in talks with Musharraf precisely to effect the transition and acquire space for democratic forces. I agreed with her assessment, even though I thought her take on FATA and how to handle the situation there was somewhat removed from the realities on the ground.
We had a discussion and then she left for another commitment. Mr Zardari stayed put. Ms Bhutto had to return to the MEI, a block away, in about two hours and we decided to kill time. Mr Zardari started talking to a few of us who were left.
Mr Zardari said he was no intellectual but that he did have a feel for the street. He held forth in a strange way, adding disclaimers about not knowing things as well as Ms Bhutto or those of us present in the room but spoke for most of the time, nonetheless.
Nearing mid-day we decided to walk to the MEI, Marvin, Mr Zardari and myself. It was September 26. I recall it because I was catching the flight back from Dallas and long hauls I find dreadful. At that point I had no idea I was walking beside and chatting with the next President of Pakistan. I don’t think he had any idea it either. On September 6, 20 days to a year from that warm day in DC, Mr Zardari would be in the President House. Are all of us fooled by randomness, even those advantaged by it, as Mr Zardari so obviously is?
At the MEI, with the Pakistani press in attendance, Mr Zardari was his smiling, chatty and quipping self. Ms Bhutto arrived late, but arrive she did, this time with the chignon, dupatta on her head and the jacket. Mr Zardari went quiet as attention focused on Ms Bhutto — again. But this time, as she took the podium, she noticed Mr Zardari sitting to one side and asked in her nasal Urdu for him to be seated prominently and next to her.
I could only shake my head!
This time when he goes to the US, he would be the centre of attention. And I won’t be walking beside him.
Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Daily Times, 31/8/2008