Musharraf and the mango tree

May 30, 2008

The future of President Pervez Musharraf grows more opaque by the day. At its simplest level, it seems that while many people think he should step down, few want to see him forced out in a way that would divide and damage the country.

File photo of President Bush and President MusharrafIn the latest stories highlighting the currents and counter-currents swirling around the former army general, Musharraf lashed out at “rumour-mongers” for suggesting he planned to quit, while President George W. Bush telephoned him to pledge his continued backing.  Meanwhile disgraced scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, known as the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, has begun speaking out against Musharraf by complaining he was unfairly made to take the rap for selling nuclear secrets.  That A.Q. Khan now feels safe to speak after four years under house arrest is seen as one of the most telling indications of the times turning against Musharraf.

Reading comments on an earlier blog about Musharraf’s future got me wondering whether one could predict his next move from his past. As an Urdu-speaking ”mohajir” whose family fled Delhi at partition, an outsider in Punjabi-dominated Pakistan, and also as a former commando, how would he respond to the pressure on him to quit?

There are simplistic responses to this question — my bet would be that the usual response of an outsider and a commando would be to fight it out, if needs be by adopting the riskiest course of action. But since that question seemed too simplistic, I decided to reread what Musharraf had said about himself in his autobiography “In the Line of Fire”.

My favourite lines were in the prologue: “I have confronted death and defied it several times in the past because destiny and fate have always smiled upon me,” he writes. “I first avoided death as a teenager in 1961, when I was hanging upside down from the branch of a mango tree and it broke. When I hit the ground, my friends thought I was dead.”

Musharraf doesn’t elaborate on the mango tree episode but he does paint a picture of a man who sees himself has having always defied the odds through luck or daring. The helicopter that crashed and which he missed because he was playing bridge. Two assassination attempts. The childhood memory of his mother’s tension when as a four-year-old boy he and his family fled by train from India to Pakistan.

This is a man who sees himself as a survivor, with fond memories of boys’ gangs in his childhood in Ankara. “Even at that age I was very good at making strategies and planning tactics to ambush and trap other gangs,” he writes — a line that carries extra resonance as he tries to outmanoeuvre opposition politicians who want to oust him.

Ortakoy mosque in Istanbul/Fatih SaribasI personally rather liked the story about how the outbreak of the 1965 war with India allowed him to escape a looming court-martial in the army for going absent without leave. He says he rescued his reputation by fighting in the war, and winning an award for gallantry for pulling shells away from a fire before they exploded.

Whatever critics have said about this autobiography, it certainly makes you think Musharraf’s next move will be far from predictable. A man who writes of his punishments in the army for ”fighting, insubordination and lack of discipline” is not one to toe the line easily. And yet again, he also writes of his fondness for Turkey which must, among other places, be a possible refuge were he to step down.




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