By Wajahat S. Khan – On Oct 1 – The Day Musharraf Announced his Return to Politics
(also published with editing in The Express Tribune)
Everybody likes comebacks. No one ever agrees on their quality, but the chatter can’t be ignored. The return of the doped-out athlete or the jailed movie-star is always observed, debated and judged by all.
But there is no comeback like a political comeback: Winston Churchill; Richard Nixon; Nelson Mandela; even M.A. Jinnah – all giants of government, each left or forced out of the public coliseum as a wounded ideologue, only returned as stronger and bigger leaders: the political gladiators of their national arenas.
But the most rare of comebacks is that of the defamed dictator.
Military rulers – especially those who have had the luck to survive assassination attempts but not the acumen to sustain an absolutist, coup-inspired dispensation of their own making – returning to the political realm, that too through the mainstream of the democratic process – a parliamentary party – are the hummingbirds of the political animal kingdom: They are seldom seen, not expected to make much of a dent to the food-chain, but are obsessively sought by the observers of the jungle of public affairs. In effect, they’re cute – politically, at least.
But the artilleryman who became a commando, and the commando who became a general, and the general who became a coup-maker, and the coup-maker who became a pariah, and the pariah who became a statesman, and the statesman who became a global icon – one former President General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf, doesn’t think he’s a hummingbird. Nor do his supporters.
And they also say that he’s been through so many transformations and challenges, that another turn-around is only natural for the man who was once quoted by Time Magazine in unforgettable, yet (eventually) fallible gusto: “I never feel scared.”
Those were the Big Days of Musharraf. The million-dollar book deals and the Camp David retreats, the 95 percent referendums and the booming middle-classes, all made him, and most of the rest of the world, feel like the man was always meant to run Pakistan, fight a global war, solve regional conflicts, empower women, emancipate media, and ensure everyone in his country could afford a cell-phone.
But then, something went wrong.
Musharraf’s base – the “believers” – could not understand. The progressive elites were shocked at his treatment of the judicial crisis. The capitalist elites were let down by his inability to balance the books and provide the basics as militancy multiplied. The middle-classes saw their car and bike loans climb into deathbed debts. And as they saw both his country and his control over it melt all around him, the global elites – not the always interested academic ones, but the low-attention span political sort – concluded that Musharraf was a powerless relic, an emasculated warrior, an armchair general who needed to retire. And so it ended.
But now, it has begun again. Well, sort of.
Yesterday, in London and Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, the All Pakistan Muslim League got a new leader. Pervez Musharraf is now, officially, the tough cookie of Pakistani politics. His party’s symbol, the eagle, is a throwback to the famous Iqbal poem that inspires all to fly high. His “branding” is that he is the natural successor of the Quaid-e-Azam (all the launch events paired him in equal ratio with the Great Leader on supersized billboards – Musharraf in living colour, Jinnah in classic black and white). In marketing effect, the APML is saying that it is the return of that iconic platform: The All-India Muslim League. And their message: Big on Sovereignty, Big on Economy, Big on Security, Big on Pakistan.
But Musharraf’s Big Manifesto doesn’t have the biggest of support bases, at least not yet. Only a sliver of the “suits” – vested, corporate giants who supported him once are actively backing him now. Most of the social progressives and liberal-urbanites will only join in when there is a political raison d’etre in motion, not just long television speech, but actual politicking. However, the ‘x-factor’ that makes Musharraf feel confident enough about returning is not actually, but virtually, full of potential.
This is the “credit card” support base that APML is banking on – called so because they have the potential to provide Musharraf benefits, but currently only ‘promise’ the big bucks.
These include Pakistan’s wealthy expat community – rich in cash and even connections to lobby and support his planned comeback, but inherently politically disconnected from the political mainstream of the country.
Second is the APML’s self-processed association with the “youth” – young Pakistanis who, the APML believes, love Musharraf as a strong leadership figure but who are essentially depoliticized and uninvolved in the public policy process.
And finally, as Musharraf himself said recently to David Frost on Al-Jazeera, he is counting on “sixty percent of people who don’t vote.” This grouping, his party insiders explain, are the educated, urban tax-payers who work hard, save little and aspire for economic stability, low fuel prices and no-load shedding – instead of clamoring for “token conventional constitutional supremacy”, as one well-heeled supporter at the launch in Islamabad put it.
Musharraf’s game-plan is not public yet, nor is it fully baked. His supporters at home obviously feel the time is right for him to launch into politics, but not return back. His manifesto is broad, but his unspecified. Most of his former team-mates (or cronies) are not with him, but those who have stuck to the man regard him as Pakistan’s only hope. It’s a strange cult…the military teddy-bear who fondles the political pet-grenade is the closest one gets when comparing Musharraf to the toys – and tools – that the Pakistani polity wants to play with.
As a recent comment on Facebook, the social networking website that he is so popular on, concluded soon after his speech: “If the PML-N is a sea of Payas and Nihari, and the PPP is a broken basket of rotten eggs and tomatoes, while the MQM is a counterfeit bottle of Tabasco and the ANP is actually weeks old barbeque kebabs, then Musharraf, surely, in this fridge of politics, is a loaf of bread – basic, yes, but functional enough to get by on.”