General Pervez Musharraf: Pakistan's big beast unleashed

It's boom time under the rule of General Pervez Musharraf. But can you ever really trust a dictator? Ahead of this year's elections, the novelist Mohsin Hamid takes an ambivalent look at the top cat who dragged his country into the 21st century
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The Independent Online

In Lahore, where I grew up, there were three distinct types that you found in every school and playground. The intellectuals were, by and large, known as chutiyas, a term which translates both literally and metaphorically into English as "pussies". Then there were the bubber shers. Though this is the Urdu word for lion, it is used mockingly more than admiringly, connoting not so much strength as overfed laziness. And then there were the true heroes, the studs; we called them cheetas and they were named, of course, after the cheetah, the deadly, fast-moving, great cat of Africa.

I was reminded of these teenage labels when I started to read In the Line of Fire, the autobiography of Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf. I had expected bombastic, excessive prose from my supreme leader, but was surprised to find myself rather liking the man. I remain deeply concerned about the implications of his rule for the future of Pakistan, it is true, but insofar as he bears any similarity to the narrator, he strikes me as quite a pleasant sort of fellow to have as one's dictator.

On recent visits to the country, my younger relatives tell me that the taxonomy of weak chutiyas, fat bubber shers, and exalted cheetas is still in common use in Pakistan today. I hypothesised that Pervez Musharraf might well be a cheeta. To confirm this I first set out to compare the elements one would expect to find in the life story of a cheeta with those present in his book. From my training as a management consultant, I realised that such a benchmarking is best done within a framework. Accordingly, I devised the double-M double-I double-H (or MMIIHH) framework, which is composed of Mischievousness, Machismo, Impetuousness, Intelligence, Heart, and Honour.

Every cheeta I knew growing up took great delight in what we called "a bit of mischief". One favourite pastime was to throw raw eggs from automobiles at passing pedestrians (for the most part, impoverished manual labourers with no access to a change of clothes) in the dead of night, and then speed away, laughing. This was known as "egging". A true cheeta, even if he did not engage in egging himself, would at the very least come along for the ride and recount the story with some glee. Musharraf amply satisfies this requirement with anecdotes such as the one in which he is taught by his uncle how to go up to a "baldy" (in this case a "man [who] had oiled his bald pate, making matters worse, for it was shining like a mirror and inviting trouble"), "give him a tight smack right in the middle of his shiny head...[which] must have stung like hell", and get away without any consequences.

Yet an instinct for mischief alone does not a cheeta make. Escaping automobiles can sometimes stall and baldies can sometimes retaliate, and in such circumstances machismo is called for. The cheetas of my youth were perhaps most famous for their ability to take a beating while giving as good as they got in the face of overwhelming odds (having an arm fractured by a hockey-stick, for example, and still being able to break the other guy's nose). Musharraf is no exception. Whether joining "the street gangs" of Nazimabad (which he likens to the "South Bronx") as "one of the tough boys," or being told by a professional bodybuilder that he has "a most muscular physique", or leading his commandos through training exercises such as running at full speed "on a yard-wide beam 300ft high, spanning the top... of a metal bridge... with a fast river flowing underneath", he proves his machismo time and again. This serves him well in the face of multiple assassination attempts, which he confronts with remarkable equanimity. (omega)

Machismo leads, perhaps inevitably, to impetuousness. Impetuousness explains why so many of us in Lahore died at the wheel in automobile accidents at the ages of 16 and 17, before we were legally entitled to drive. It also explains why our national cricket team seems to have an endless supply of fast bowlers and a desperate lack of opening batsmen - a delivery left well alone is categorically not the mark of a cheeta. Here again Musharraf does not disappoint. Repeatedly in his autobiography, when confronted or slighted, he informs us he "saw red". After September 11, 2001, when made aware of Richard Armitage's statement that Pakistan would be "bombed back to the Stone Age" if it did not support the US, Musharraf has to resist telling the American official "to go forth and multiply, or words to that effect". And he does not always hold back. At a tense meeting of South Asian leaders he extends his hand, "on the spur of the moment", to Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee in apparent violation of diplomatic procedure, with the result that "a loud gasp of awe [and I daresay admiration] went through the hall, full of stuffy officialdom, that the prime minister of 'the largest democracy in the world' had been upstaged."

But impetuous as he is, a cheeta is no fool. He may not study, but he is invariably clever. A street-smart operator is a cheeta; a buffoon is a bubber sher. Perhaps it is this applied intelligence that explains why many of my schoolmates who were cheetas have done so well in the rough-and-ready world of Pakistani business, while many of the purely book-smart chutiyas of my acquaintance have been paralysed by over-analysis and now languish in less lucrative careers. Musharraf neatly captures the distinction when he points out, referencing Napoleon, that "two thirds of decision-making is based on study... but the other third is... based on one's gut". Moreover, like a true cheeta, he confesses of his youth, "if, from all this, you have concluded that I was not intensely focused on my studies, you would not be far wrong."

If mischievousness, machismo, impetuousness, and intelligence were their only attributes, cheetas would not be so popular. But there are two more: heart and honour. When I was growing up, a cheeta could be forgiven for getting into needless fights, doing excessive amounts of drugs, harassing girls, and generally causing mayhem - so long as he had a good heart. By good heart, what was meant was that a cheeta was true to those he loved: true to his family, his friends, his team, his country. This test Musharraf passes with flying colours. He has great loyalty to each of the units in which he serves, to the army as a whole, and to Pakistan - often to the point of risking his own life. He also writes of his compassion for the Bosnians while on a peacekeeping mission: "When the Pakistani Brigade Group... finally came, all its personnel fasted one day of every week, and distributed the food they had saved among the more needy Bosnians."

Similarly, honour is of great importance to the cheeta. The cheeta is expected to publicly assert that he always keeps his word. But unlike the more foolish bubber sher, who actually tries to fulfil his promises no matter how disastrous the consequences, the cheeta is expected to be more discerning. In practice, like a company issuing quarterly earnings reports, the cheeta must almost always do what he has said he will do but also be prepared on rare occasions to depart from expectations. This concept can rarely have been better expressed than by Musharraf in the following passage about a vow he made soon after becoming President: "I was quite serious when I announced that I would remove my army chief's hat... But events that soon began to unfold started putting serious doubts in my mind... Therefore, much against my habit and character, I decided to go against my word."

So the real question is not whether Musharraf is a cheeta. That he is, his autobiography makes abundantly clear. The real question is, what happens when a cheeta takes over one's country?

As it turns out, part of what happens is a great deal of good. When I first met the woman I would later marry and asked her what she did for a living, she told me that, among other things, she was an actress on television. We were in London, where she was visiting on holiday, and I remember being surprised. I had grown up in a Pakistan with only one television channel - conservative, state-run, and featuring newsreaders with veils atop their heads - and I personally knew no actresses. My wife-to-be informed me that she acted in a show called Jutt and Bond, an Urdu sitcom about a Punjabi folk hero and a debonair British secret agent, and that she was the love interest.

Like many men, I had always wanted to date a Bond girl. It took me less than a month to come up with a fictitious excuse for travelling to Lahore in hot pursuit. There, my wife-to-be exposed me to the incredible new world of media that had sprung up in Pakistan, a world of music videos, fashion programmes, independent news networks, cross-dressing talk-show hosts, religious debates, stock-market analysis, and dramas and comedies like Jutt and Bond. I knew, of course, that the government of Musharraf had opened the media to private operators. But I had not until then realised how profoundly things had changed.

Not just television, but also private radio stations and newspapers have flourished in Pakistan over the past few years. The result is an unprecedented openness. In cities like Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, young people are speaking and dressing differently. Views both critical and supportive of the government are voiced with breathtaking frankness in an atmosphere remarkably lacking in censorship. Public space, the common area for culture and expression that had been so circumscribed in my childhood, has now been vastly expanded. The Vagina Monologues was recently performed on stage in Pakistan to standing ovations.

Similarly, higher education has benefited from being opened to the private sector, as well as from a huge increase in state funding. After finishing her MA in journalism at Goldsmiths three years ago, my sister found herself with multiple teaching offers from universities back in Lahore. Our father, an economics professor for much of his professional life, says he cannot remember a time since the heady years of the 1960s when there was so much excitement in academia.

My sister's experience bears this out. Her salary, at around £50 a week, might not seem much by London standards. But it goes a long way in Lahore. A few years ago, top MBA graduates in Pakistan would have been lucky to earn that amount. And if my sister becomes a full professor or a department head, she can expect to earn far more. The sudden attractiveness of her profession is fuelling a surge of interest in pursuing research degrees. In the sciences and engineering alone, the government is expecting to graduate 1,500 doctoral students annually by 2010, a hundred-fold increase on the 1990s figure.

Going to speak at the small urban campus at which my sister teaches, I was taken aback by the subjects on offer. Students were studying to be beat reporters, literature professors, sound engineers, magazine editors, sculptors, and costume designers. They were putting on an original rock musical. And enrolment was soaring, with ever-increasing demand for places. My sister told me some of her students were working nights in the city's call centres to pay their tuition.

All of this has taken place against the backdrop of a staggering economic boom. Over the past five years, Pakistan's economy has been one of the fastest growing in the world. Foreign firms are investing billions of dollars in sectors such as telecoms, where Pakistani mobile-phone users have gone from under a million at the start of the decade to 30 million today. In London, one often reads of people of Pakistani descent travelling to Pakistan to attend terrorist training camps. Far more common, but virtually unreported, are the stories of successful Pakistan-born expatriates returning home for better financial prospects.

My buddy OH is one of them. An architect, he trained at the Rhode Island School of Design and joined a small firm in Boston for several years, working on projects ranging from baseball stadiums in the US to nightclubs in China to cliffside residences in Venezuela. But he wanted to be his own boss. So a couple of years ago he moved back to Lahore and started his own firm. Now he is so busy that he has to turn away assignments. "Nothing works here, yaar," he tells me. "It frustrates the hell out of you. But I love it. I wouldn't go anywhere else."

For despite the inefficiency of Pakistan's construction practices and the corruption of its bureaucracy, the skyline of Lahore is being transformed. With the economic boom has come a demand for offices, hotels, and housing. Gleaming new towers are beginning to rise out of deep pits in the fertile, alluvial soil of Lahore's newer neighbourhoods, dwarfing the slender minarets of the old walled city that feature so prominently in postcards and guidebooks.

All this, it seems, is the upside of having a cheeta for your president.

Why is it, then, given the remarkable progress made by Pakistan under Musharraf, that so few other countries are clamouring to be led by cheetas of their own? Perhaps it is because their people desire greater say in the running of national affairs. I recall my own participation in the referendum of 2002. Its purpose (omega) was to give Pakistanis a chance to decide whether Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, should continue to be President. I was in Islamabad at the time, so I cast my vote in Pakistan's capital.

I arrived at the polling station with the intention of voting in support of Musharraf. My reasons were threefold. First, it was shortly after September 11, and the invasion of Afghanistan, and I felt Pakistan needed strong leadership if we were to avoid the fate that had befallen our neighbour. Second, I approved of what appeared to be a genuinely progressive approach that the government was taking in a number of areas. Third, I thought that returning to the rule of either Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif, the democratically elected Prime Ministers who had presided over the decline of Pakistan's economy and institutions in the 1990s, would be an unmitigated disaster.

I immediately noticed at the polling station that staff far outnumbered voters. Indeed, my sister and I seemed to be the only voters there. I showed my identity card, had my finger marked with indelible ink, and was given a ballot to take with me into a booth. I expected a simple: "Pervez Musharraf for President: yes or no?" Instead, I encountered the following text: "For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfil the vision of Quaid-e-Azam, would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as President of Pakistan for five years?"

As I struggled to decipher what precisely it was that I was being asked, a man came in and ordered me to hurry up. I had seen him lurking about the entrance to the polling station, but he was not one of the officials. "Who are you?" I asked him. "Can't you see I'm voting? Get out of here."

He eyes hardened. "People are waiting," he said

"What people? There's half a dozen booths here and one voter."

"I said," he snarled, "hurry up."

"Who the hell are you? Get out of my face." I appealed to the officials. "I'm trying to exercise my right as a citizen. I need my privacy. Who is this person? Why don't you do something about him?"

The officials seemed alarmed by all this but did nothing to intervene. The man was clearly a soldier or policeman in plainclothes. He evoked in me that typically belligerent Pakistani reaction to being ordered around for no reason, the product no doubt of our history of colonialism and dictatorship. So we exchanged unpleasantries for a bit. Eventually he stepped back, although not as far as I would have liked, and I voted, although not as quickly as he would have liked, and that was that.

My sister emerged from the women's section and we left. In the 10 minutes we had spent at the polls, neither of us had seen another voter. Yet when the results of the referendum were announced, the country was told not only that 97 per cent of votes had been in support of Musharraf, but that the turnout had been 43 million people, or a massive 56 per cent of the electorate. These figures were so obviously ridiculous that even someone who had actually voted for the man, as I had (having resisted the urge to change my mind in protest at the low-grade intimidation I experienced), felt deeply disheartened by the exercise.

Rigged elections rankle, of course. But surely it is churlish to keep insisting on democracy when the cities one visits, the metropolises of Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, are witnessing a boom unlike any in recent memory? The problem is that there is more to Pakistan than its cities. And it is in the hinterlands to the west of the country, in the provinces bordering Afghanistan, that the downside of cheeta-style military rule becomes most apparent.

In 2004, I made a reporting trip out to Gwadar in Pakistan's Balochistan province. Gwadar is one of the government's showcase development projects, a deep-water port and model city being constructed with Chinese help on the site of a small fishing village near the straits of Hormuz, through which most of the world's oil flows. The province is also home to an insurgency against the perceived heavy-handedness of the central government in general and the army in particular. I arrived shortly after a bomb had killed several of the Chinese engineers who were working on the port.

I expected to find strong anti-Pakistani sentiment. I found nothing of the sort. Children were even playing street cricket in the uniforms of the Pakistan national team. But while I was in Gwadar I was stopped and questioned menacingly by a pair of undercover security operatives. No outright threat was made, but the tone of the encounter was so unsettling that I later complained of it over the telephone in a call home I made from a payphone.

Overhearing me, a shopkeeper and his cousin began to commiserate. They told me of daily rudeness and regular beatings at the hands of the security forces. "We think of ourselves as Pakistanis," one of them said, "but they treat us like terrorists." And then, out of sympathy for what I had experienced, they refused to let me pay for my lunch.

I left Gwadar deeply concerned about the consequences of the confrontational approach being taken by the government to the unrest in Pakistan's western provinces. Of course, the state must act when faced with violence and terrorism. But it must also guard against the abuse of power by its security forces, and it must hold back from victimising entire populations in the pursuit of a few criminals.

Unfortunately, cheetas are not known for their restraint.

Since the schoolyard is the cheeta's typical stomping-ground, it may be useful to compare the rule of Musharraf to the reign of a bully in a rough inner-city secondary school. For a time, if the bully is a progressive and fair-minded one, some benefits may accrue. Other ruffians may become less likely to steal the lunch money of their classmates. Weak children with glasses may feel less frightened as they head off to class in the mornings. But resentment against the bully will grow, and eventually someone stronger will come along - or someone weaker will get his hands on a knife - and the bully will be replaced.

Acknowledgment of the bully's short shelf-life is implicit in the title Musharraf has chosen for his book, In the Line of Fire. What he seems not to understand are the implications of this: the urgent need, if his policies are to survive him, to broaden his support base and to plan for a Pakistan without him at its helm. In this he is following in the footsteps of the many army chiefs who have preceded him as dictators of Pakistan, men like Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, very different in their policies but very similar in their failure to bequeath lasting national institutions or to provide a sustainable platform for Pakistan's growth.

"The issue of democracy is a recent, post-Cold War obsession of the West," Musharraf writes. "I am still struggling to convince the West that Pakistan is more democratic today than it ever was in the past." Yet the issue of democracy is more than merely a recent obsession of the West. It was fundamental to the notion of Pakistan as envisaged by our nation's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, before the Cold War had even begun. And it is not just the West that is unconvinced Pakistan is democratic today; Pakistanis like myself are unconvinced as well.

Democracy matters because without it the entire nation is in the line of fire, one bullet away from unpredictable change. And it matters because even progressive policies feel illegitimate to broad swathes of the nation's population when they are dictated by a president with a general's stars on his shoulders. There are trade-offs to be made when one allows scantily dressed models to walk the catwalks of Lahore but empowers the security forces to seize people on the streets of Balochistan merely for looking suspicious. And these trade-offs must be decided upon by the nation as a whole.

It is the cheeta's natural inclinations away from inclusiveness and consensus that perhaps best explain why so few cheetas have proven popular with democratic electorates. But these values are of paramount importance in a country as vast and diverse as Pakistan, the world's sixth largest by population. We are increasingly divided between our more prosperous and progressive cities to the east and our more restive and conservative tribal areas to the west. Bridging our divisions has become essential.

Pakistanis are scheduled to go to the polls again in 2007, our 60th year of independence. I for one would like to see models continuing to walk the catwalks. But I would also like to see whether the rest of the country agrees. If he wants to leave a lasting legacy, Pervez Musharraf would do well to put in place the preconditions for truly free and fair elections and to build alliances with politicians based on a shared vision of the future rather than on a willingness to support a President in uniform.

Cheetas are celebrated for their speed, not for their endurance. Paradoxically, it is only by laying the foundations for his democratic departure that Musharraf is likely to be an exception.

Mohsin Hamid's novel, 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist', is published by Hamish Hamilton in March