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Eagle takes to the skies

October 9, 2010

By Kallol Bhattacherjee

Life in exile has made Pervez Musharraf a bit of an introvert. Browsing the internet and watching TV for long hours help him keep in touch with the outside world. He reads a lot these days. Over the last two years he has been in London, Musharraf has read the collected works of Allama Iqbal and the speeches of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He also keeps tabs on people working towards inter-faith harmony and friendship in South Asia and abroad. Unlike Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, H.S. Suhrawardy, Iskander Mirza and Tariq Ali—prominent Pakistanis who had been in exile—Musharraf has had a different kind of experience.

While people like Bhutto and Sharif were sent into exile by dictators, in Musharraf’s case, the dictator himself had to flee following the return of democracy in the country. Musharraf is now trying to be part of that democracy with the launch of his political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), on October 1 at London’s former National Liberal Club.

His partymen are confident that Musharraf will be able to garner huge support. As Chaudhry Shahbaz, chief coordinator of the UK chapter of the party, pointed out, wherever Musharraf has travelled in the last two and half years, he has drawn local Pakistanis, be it workers, teachers, students, bankers and investors, who have promised support.

In a way, Musharraf had started working on his return to Pakistan as soon as he landed in London in mid-2008. From the very beginning, Musharraf used his international contacts to his favour. He began delivering lectures at think tanks, universities, conflict management agencies and risk assessment bodies. At one point in 2009, in a single trip alone, Musharraf delivered 17 lectures in the US. He also visited Sweden, Dubai, different west Asian countries, Hong Kong and Singapore, where he delivered lectures. Those who have attended his lectures vouch for his knowledge on the latest threat of extremism—Pakistani Taliban. Musharraf should know, having survived multiple assassination attempts and having dealt them a bloody blow in the Lal Masjid operation of July 2007 in Islamabad.

Through these lectures and visits, what Musharraf has been doing is gauging the mood of Pakistanis across the world and generate support for his return home. “At the end of his lecture, Musharraf always asked the Pakistanis what they thought of their country and that is how he has followed up on the public mood back home,” said a source close to him.

Two things are clear about Musharraf’s politics in London. One, his reading and thinking have increased his conviction against religious extremists like the Taliban; second, his exile has not been apolitical.

Thanks to the Scotland Yard security restrictions, Musharraf has not been mingling too much with people. This kind of secrecy has bred wild rumours about him. Given the fact that the Muhajirs—Pakistanis of Indian origin—dominate the exiled Pakistani community in London and its suburbs, there were rumours that Musharraf, who himself is a Muhajir, has been approached by certain sections of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). When Imran Farooq, founding leader of MQM, was murdered in September, it was believed to have been done to prevent him from joining Musharraf’s party. However, Musharraf denied knowing Farooq.

It is understood that disliked by the democratic lobby, Pakistan Peoples Party and all branches of the Muslim League in Pakistan, Musharraf was aware that he had a tough job ahead. So, he prepared well ahead of his entry into politics. In February this year, Musharraf started sending mails to his friends and relatives. He also opened a Facebook account which attracted over three lakh members from all over the world. He used the media to keep the world posted on his activities. Musharraf believes that his fan following on Facebook is an indicator that he has found favour among the educated and upwardly mobile youth in Pakistan.

Winning over the youth has been on top of Musharraf’s agenda. On September 29, when he delivered a presentation on terrorism at a function organised by Intelligence Squad, a think tank, young Pakistani banker Awais Khan could not help but feel proud of his passionate appeal to the youth. “We just love this guy for his honesty. The only concern is how well will he be able to project himself,” said Awais.

“Musharraf has become better informed and more articulate over the last two and half years,” said Awais. “He has also become a more devout Muslim. Whether he succeeds on his return to Pakistan is secondary. What is important is that despite having been a usurper of power, he has remained free of corruption.”

Musharraf’s honesty is his USP. At the launch function, he announced: “I have no skeleton of corruption in my cupboard.”
Musharraf’s Hermes ties had made him famous during the early years of his ‘war on terror’. He does not believe in wasteful fashion statements. Perhaps, it was to keep the income flowing that the former ruler (he does not like to be referred to as a dictator and he tells people who try to remind him of his past that “dictatorship is a state of mind”) of Pakistan chose to go for paid lectures all over the world. These lectures have honed his presentation skills.

Musharraf speaks a curious mix of Urdu, Hindustani and English and finds it difficult to speak steadily in one language. What makes it even tougher is his military-honed habit of stressing on words which provides his audience many lighter moments in his otherwise serious presentation.

The initial ride has been anything but smooth for Musharraf. During the party’s first public meeting at Birmingham’s New Bingley Hall, as the audience cheered him, outside the main gate, an equal number of activists of Hizb ut Tehreer sang “Musharraf, Gilani, Zardari, west has run out of slaves” in a rap cadence and garlanded his portrait with shoes. As if the fanatics outside the venue were not enough, a few minutes after he began, a  heavily bearded man interrupted Musharraf with the standard demands from the fanatical fringe. “We want Islam. We want Islamic riyasat. We want khalifah,” the man screamed. This incident left Musharraf visibly rattled. Musharraf and his men are battling large number of radical elements among themselves. Hit by recession and battling unemployment, the immigrant Pakistani community easily turns radical in moments of angst.

So far, Musharraf has not troubled for his British hosts. But in the near future, as he becomes politically active, the cost of hosting him might show up on the British political atmosphere.  Perhaps, that is why Musharraf has an alternative pad ready in Dubai.
His coterie of followers point out that by hosting him during Eid, the Saudi royal family has sent a strong signal that they would not let any discomfort come in the way of Musharraf and his political plans. This might help Musharraf both in London and Dubai. So far, however, the biggest worry has been to provide fool proof security to a man who has held the “most dangerous job in the world”.  The Taliban in Pakistan and those hurt by his military approach to the ‘war on terror’ have to be kept in mind while framing a security system for Musharraf when he returns to Pakistan.

Musharraf plans to befriend India in his search for securing a safe passage to Pakistan. But his gestures speak otherwise. During the rally, he was introduced as the soldier who almost changed the map of South Asia by capturing Kashmir. It was a clear reference to the Kargil operation in 1999.

During his speech, Musharraf reminded the crowd that as chief of the Pakistan army, he had put his foot down on the joint statement between prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif on finding out that the K-word was not mentioned in the text. “If Vajpayee threatens to return if Kashmir is included in the joint statement, then he can very well go back, I told Nawaz Sharif when he was hosting Vajpayee during the bus diplomacy in 1999,” he said in his speech.

After two and half years of preparation, Musharraf has laid out an ambitious plan to salvage his country from the tag of a “failed state”. For this, he has given out a covenant, his manifesto. The covenant of All Pakistan Muslim League aims to rid Pakistani infrastructure, communication, water management, agriculture, population and energy sector of all the problems. His manifesto makes it clear that if returned to power, security will be his primary objective and he will ruthlessly crush all rebellion against the state. (In his trademark way, he lifted his fists to his chest and said, “kuchal denge”).

Low on international trust, under assault of Islamic fundamentalists and the Taliban, ravaged by worst floods in the century, Pakistan is a challenge to any aspiring ruler. Musharraf, it seems, is not afraid to take up the challenge. Apart from “Pakistan First”, his other slogan is  “Jaag Pakistan Jaag”. His party’s symbol is the introvert eagle, shaheen in Urdu. Musharraf, like the bird, is not afraid of being a lone ranger.

Lonely life
In exile, Pervez Musharraf reads a great deal more than he ever did. He enjoys non-fiction and poetry. His special area of interest is the clash of civilisation authors like Samuel P. Huntington.

His life in exile has been a comfortable one. He gets up early and reads and writes throughout the day and also holds meetings with visitors.
Thanks to the security provided by the Scotland Yard, his movement has been curtailed. But whenever he travels, he does so in style, in a black Audi.

Musharraf still has the habit of fisting the air and it generates confidence among his listeners.

Another aspect of Brand Musharraf that appeals to the average Pakistani is his love for sports. In his childhood, Musharraf played volleyball, badminton and cricket.

Musharraf, who speaks fluent Turkish, loves Arab food.

Friends say Musharraf chose the house in London’s Arab district as it gave him the feeling of “home away from home”.

No one knows why Musharraf decided to relaunch his political career. It is a popular joke among Pakistani journalists that Musharraf did so because he considers himself a gift of God to mankind.

Source: The Week

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