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Watch out for Musharraf

December 11, 2010 11:50 IST

Richard Holbrooke, the US president's special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, was speaking to a gathering of US diplomats and security experts last month. He was asked what chance there was of former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf returning to politics.

"He has about as much chance of coming back to power as (former Soviet) President (Mikhail) Gorbachev," Holbrooke said. "Had he fulfilled his promises to President Bush to restore democracy, close down the extreme madrassas and do the right thing in the tribal areas, we wouldn't be in the situation we are today. He didn't keep his word," he added.

Damning words for Musharraf, who, having come to power in 1999 in a bloodless military coup, announced last month in London he had created a new party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, with an eye to competing in the 2013 polls.

Business Standard almost met him in Dubai -- almost because General Musharraf, who has obviously made the UAE his base because he cannot return to Pakistan for fear of being arrested or assassinated, sent word to Pakistani journalists he wanted to meet them even though they hadn't sought any appointments with him, but indicated that meeting an Indian journalist "could be a problem". This was days after India turned down a visa to him and he blamed an Indian bureaucrat for it.

So Musharraf is safe, living in a country where the second largest group of immigrants is from Pakistan; where society is closely monitored, there is no politics and where at the slightest hint of misdemeanour you're deported. But the salaries are high and the quality of life -- by and large -- is good.

By contrast, Pakistan is a lively democracy-in-transition, raucous, passionate and optimistic, but also very poor. The current debate there is over reformed general sales tax (GST) linked to the next tranche of an $11 billion International Monetary Fund bailout programme.

Pakistan had originally aimed to implement GST by July 1, 2010, but delayed it for three months owing to provincial and federal disagreements over how to collect the tax. Pakistan's tax-to-GDP ratio is about 10 per cent, among the lowest in the world. Increasing the tax base is a key condition for continuing the IMF programme. It is also necessary if it is to recover from the devastating floods of August. "The international community is not going to be able to pick up the bill for $20-30 billion or more. We will pick up some of it ... but the Pakistanis must raise their own revenue base," Holbrooke has said.

Musharraf's new party appears to have no economic programme. His lieutenant, Shaukat Aziz, who gave up a job in World Bank in New York to return to Pakistan and become Pakistan's finance minister, has since abandoned him. Although he's based in Dubai too, he has apparently had his fill of politics.

Mohammad Ali Saif, a former cabinet minister and now a legal adviser to Musharraf, was made a cabinet minister for three months and has thrown in his lot with him, expecting to be rewarded. Major-General Rashid Qureshi is the other "founder member". Two other "leaders", Sher Afgan and Advocate Fawwad Chaudhry, were present in the initial stages of the party's launch.

However, the orientation of the new party is, well, still military. Respected Pakistan newspaper Dawn has this account of a press conference in January this year where it was first suggested that Musharraf might return to politics. The tail end of the Dawn report said: "At one point, journalists decided to boycott the seminar after one of the speakers warned the media against criticising the policies of Gen Musharraf. 'We will pull out the tongues of those, including the media, who will criticise Musharraf,' said the speaker. The journalists ended the boycott after Barrister Saif apologised to them."

However, politics is no laughing matter. Supporters of Musharraf have already hit a brick wall in Pakistan. The Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid) was blessed by Musharraf himself before the 2002 general elections (he was not a member because he was President and, therefore, non- partisan). The party was the brainwave of his principal secretary, Tariq Aziz. But by 2010, Chaudhry Shujaat had become the president of the party.

Tentative attempts by Musharraf's lieutenants to revive this were given a short shrift from Shujaat, who advised Musharraf to stay away from Pakistan because conditions were not ripe yet for his political revival.

In the circumstances, Gen Musharraf will have to strain every nerve and sinew for political traction in his country. True, 2013 is still far and like India, Pakistan lives every day in a state of high excitement. But Musharraf is one of the most colourful politicians Pakistan has given to the world. For that reason alone, his progress is worth watching.

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi