To say that Gen Pervez Musharraf's decision to get himself sworn in as the President of Pakistan has come as a surprise would be an understatement. Ever since he took over as the chief executive of Pakistan in a military coup in October 1999, he had never missed an opportunity to tell people that he had no political ambitions beyond rescuing Pakistan from the morass of political and economic problems in which it found itself. Once that task was done, he would gladly step down and let the country return to civilian rule. Why has he gone back on this assurance now? The obvious answer would have been that he was planning a transition back to civilian rule in the near future and wanted to ensure a measure of continuity in policies, as well as to give himself a future role in the government. That he would attempt to do so by becoming the President of Pakistan was widely expected in that country.
It is the timing of the move that has caught everyone by surprise. Pakistan's Supreme Court has given him until October 1, 2002, to make the transition and that is still almost 15 months away. The move also does not fit his own time-table for he has completed none of the tasks he had set himself when he came to power. These were to set the economy right, eliminate corruption and restore accountability in the administration, and curb the growth of the jehadi culture, of private armies and sectarian strife in Pakistan.
One explanation of the move could be that he has been under severe pressure from the major powers, which are also Pakistan's principal donors and creditors, to start moving in the direction of civilian rule. Unlike the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth has given him only till October this year to restore democracy and have given no indication that they are willing to extend the deadline. But it is most unlikely that Musharraf has allowed this to hurry his time-table. For one thing, it is ultimately what the US says and threatens to do that matters, and in contrast to the Commonwealth, the Bush administration has not set a deadline for the restoration of democracy.
A second explanation—indeed the obvious one—would be that he has done this to consolidate his own power. But power and authority can't be enhanced simply by changing one's designation. On the contrary, by distancing himself from the general staff of the armed forces, which is his real base of power, it could just as easily weaken him.
One is thus left with only one other possibility: that Musharraf has been able to convey the seriousness of the problems Pakistan faces to the general staff and has secured its full backing to take difficult decisions. He has timed his move to give him the additional legitimacy and authority that he feels he needs in the forthcoming talks with India.
It's possible that the change of office was precipitated by Benazir Bhutto's declaration, on behalf of the alliance of democratic forces in Pakistan, that since Musharraf wasn't an elected head of government, a democratically-elected successor government would not feel bound by any agreement that he reached with Atal Behari Vajpayee in Delhi. If that is indeed so, then it is one more piece of evidence that Musharraf is coming to Delhi with the serious intention of putting India and Pakistan on the road to peace. Evidence pointing in this direction has been building up over the past four weeks: his no-nonsense speech to religious leaders on the occasion of the Prophet's birthday—asking them to start living in the real world, recognise Pakistan's dire economic straits, stop issuing cries of jehad against India and think about what they were doing to their co-religionists across the border—was the first unambiguous indication that he was preparing his people for hard decisions by his government. The fact that the entire speech was televised is another. His refusal to play to the gallery by reiterating well-worn Pakistani positions on Kashmir was a third. A televised question-and-answer session, in which he expressed his desire to change the course of history and to open the road from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad if Vajpayee cooperated, was a fourth. Not so coincidentally, several jehadi organisations have announced a moratorium on their activities and the Hurriyat's hardliners have suddenly become ardent supporters of the forthcoming meeting.
But it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that Musharraf is doing all this solely because he is anxious to reverse the heightening confrontation with India. His domestic compulsions are no less urgent. The various jehadi groups have now ignored his call to stop displaying their arms and to curb their sectarian activities for a second year running. He has met with no success in taming the smuggling that deprives Pakistan of an estimated 30 per cent of its potential tax revenues. He has been the very soul of patience in trying to bring them around by persuasion, so much so that he has been deemed weak and ineffectual by the press and the intelligentsia in his country. All this may be about to change, for Pakistan's fiscal position has not improved and its gdp has grown by less than 3 per cent for the second year running.
One suspects that Musharraf knows that success at home and success in defusing tensions with India are interlinked. For, success in reducing tensions with India on terms he can persuade Pakistanis to accept will greatly strengthen his hands in dealing with his local problems. But this places a very large burden of responsibility on Vajpayee too. If Musharraf returns empty-handed because New Delhi couldn't or wouldn't prepare a gameplan that gave the two countries a chance to meet half-way, he will return a weakened man. To stay in power, he will be left with no alternative but to give the jehadis their head in Kashmir. And that means one day giving them their head in Pakistan as well.
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