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The case of Musharraf and the drunk uncle
November 06, 2007
Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf [Images] deserves our sympathy.
Not because he has been forced to carry out a coup against his own regime, not because his troops are being kidnapped en masse by Pakistani Taliban and then awarded Rs 500 for good behaviour, not because he himself has become a prisoner in his Army House and can't even nip out for coffee and Paan as he used to, but because he has utterly lost his grip over grammar.
In my 15 years in journalism, I have covered three coups. And as I walked towards my office last Saturday, I had the cynicism of someone who has seen it all before. As I entered the BBC offices on a chilly Saturday afternoon in London [Images], a senior Pakistan hand, who like me had interrupted his cosy weekend to cover the story, wondered aloud why the general was taking so long before appearing on national television and explaining his actions.
"His speech writer is too old for all this excitement. He is probably taking his time," I said. Barrister Sharifuddin Peerzada has midwifed every single coup in Pakistan and when General Musharraf took over in 1999, we had to wait until 3 am for him to address the nation. The nation listened to his 10 minutes of neatly turned out verbosity and, relieved, went to sleep. Peerzada may lack in democratic credentials, but he cares about his syntax.
Last Saturday as I arrived at my desk, Musharraf had already started his address. And it was immediately clear to me that he had fallen into that aging dictator's familiar trap: He had written his own speech.
I exaggerate because he only occasionally glanced at his notes and for 40 minutes talked, well, gibberish; the kind of stuff that only journalists and think-tank-wallahs would take seriously.
I was so unsettled -- not by what he was saying, but by the way he was saying it -- that I listened to the entire speech again last night.
I have been accused of punctuation abuse often enough to take these things in my stride, but for the 40 minutes that General Musharraf spoke in Urdu, he didn't use one proper sentence.
He replaced his verbs with hand gestures, nouns slipped off his shrugged shoulders, adjectives quivered under his desk.
And when he said, "Extremists have gone very extreme," it suddenly occurred to me why his speech pattern seemed so familiar. He was that uncle that you get stranded with at a family gathering when everybody else has gone to sleep but there is still some whisky left in the bottle. And uncle thinks he is about to say something very profound -- if you would only pour him one last one.
Consider this; in the middle of his speech when everyone was silently urging him to get to the point, losing the thread of his diatribe about how judicial activism was responsible for the rise of jihadis in Pakistan, he abruptly said, "I have imposed emergency," then looked into the camera, waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and said, "You must have seen it on TV."
He forgot to mention that he had pulled the plug on all television channels except the State-run television. It might sound like old-school dictator talk, but just imagine if somebody took away your television and then told you, 'Oh, did you see that thing on TV?'
For those who haven't suffered General Musharraf's regime directly, he can come across as a rakish figure, a daredevil who easily switches between his camouflage commando uniform and designer suits and then half sleeved shirts for attending fashion shows -- his favourite cultural activity before he was forced to abandon it because of security concerns.
His CV is impressive: Here is a man who can manage the frontline on America's war and terror, get rid of three prime ministers and scores of generals and still find time to write an autobiography and then get George W Bush [Images] to endorse it in front of the world media.
I visited Delhi soon after Musharraf's failed Agra [Images] summit and he seemed to have earned the grudging respect of the Delhi elite. My Indian colleagues looked at stone-faced Vajpayee and wondered, why can't the new shining India have a handsome leader like Musharraf. One south Delhi resident claimed his wife had started watching Pakistani channels obsessively just to get a glimpse of our commando President.
I reminded my Indian friend of Musharraf's Kargil adventure. "How come you have forgotten your Kargil widows so soon?" I said. "Well come off it, he is a bit of a matinee idol from the fifties," I was told. I am not a big fan of period Bollywood, so I kept quiet.
As I watched the speech this Saturday, I wondered if my Indian friend's wife saw the same Musharraf that I saw on my screen. He was like that uncle that I mentioned earlier, who after a couple of drinks not only wants to explain the meaning of life, but also why he is the most misunderstood man in the world, how your aunt never valued him, why the world is run by a cabal of Jewish gays and why Japanese technology is a disgrace.
You want to take the bottle away and tell him to get some sleep. He wants to tell you he loves you more than his own son and now can you pour him another drink.
I am not even remotely suggesting that Musharraf was drunk when he addressed the nation. No, it was something far more sinister. He seemed to be having an out of body experience, there he sat in his sherwani reading an order written by his uniformed alter ego, wagging a finger at himself, accusing his own government of spreading terrorism.
And let's not forget that when I say Pakistani government, I mean General Pervez Musharraf.
Here are some random things he said. And trust me, these things were said quite randomly:
Yes, he did say, "Extremism bahut extreme ho gaya hai (extremism has become too extreme)."
"Hum se koi darta hi nahin (nobody is scared of us anymore)."
"Islamabad mein extremist bharay houay hain (Islamabad is full of extremists)."
"Hakumat ke andar hakumat bana rakhi hai (there is a government within government)."
"Har waqt bas court ke chakkar lagatey rehtay hain (officials are being asked to go to the courts every other day)."
"Officials ki beizzati kartay hain (officials are being insulted by the judiciary)."
At one point he appeared wistful when reminiscing about his first three years in power -- "mera total control thha (I had total control)." You were almost tempted to ask: What happened then, uncle?
But obviously, uncle didn't need any prompting. He launched into his routine about three stages of democracy. He claimed he was about to launch the third and final phase of democracy (the way he said it, he managed to make it sound like the Final Solution). And just when you thought he was about to make his point, he took an abrupt turn and plunged into a deep pool of self pity.
This involved a long-winded anecdote about how the Supreme Court judges would rather attend a colleagues' daughter's wedding rather than just get it over with and decide that he is a constitutional President.
As I said, I have heard some dictator speeches in my life, but nobody has gone so far as to mention someone's daughter's wedding for imposing martial law in the country.
When for the last few minutes of his speech he addressed his audience in the West in English, I suddenly felt a deep sense of humiliation. This part of his speech was scripted. Sentences began and ended. I felt humiliated that my President not only thinks that we are not evolved enough for things like democracy and human rights, but because we can't even handle concepts like proper syntax and grammar.
Abraham Lincoln was quoted. The slow and painful evolution of Western democracy was evoked. Idealists were told to manage their expectations and then there was the obligatory poetic flourish: "I would not let this country commit suicide."
Sure, a colleague chipped in, I would rather strangle it with my own hands.
As he closed his speech with a rather poetic "forever Pakistan, forever," and the national anthem started to play, it occurred to me that our whole nation is probably feeling like a Kargil widow by now.
With no cable television to console her sorrows.
Mohammed Hanif is the head of BBC's Urdu Service. His novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes will be published by Random House India next year.