One Risk Too Many?

Pervez Musharraf is used to taking risks, risks are what has got him this far in the first place. Nothing risked, nothing gained! There is irrefutable evidence about his flirting with danger constantly, during training. Some take risks instinctively, I like to think that the President (and Army Chief) takes calculated risks, set-piece gambles measured to succeed. Pakistan’s circumstances and his own interests have tended to dovetail in risk-taking e.g. the 180 degree turn after 9/11 saw us safely to the right side of the “war against terrorism”, it established Musharraf in the eyes of the western world. Like every human being, he is fallible, e.g. the ill-advised “Referendum” in mid-2002 was a disaster that brought the President down from the pedestal we had put him on, this despite the fact that he was genuinely popular at that time.

Given that the President was fed up with my friend Zafarullah Khan Jamali for any number of reasons unknown to most Pakistanis, there must have been urgency for removing him only days after the Federal Budget was passed, in fact the third day after the first-ever National Security Council (NSC) meeting? Some grace was certainly shown by officially dining him out! The NSC was meant to be a “buffer entity” in which issues of prime national security interest would be discussed so as to forestall drastic changes such as the change of PM. As one of those who have strongly recommended the formation of NSC and its effective functioning thereof, not only as the constitutional “buffer entity” envisaged because of our special political circumstances where PMs tend to have short career spans but as a national security clearing house, the NSC has turned out to be a severe disappointment in its first appearance in its buffer mode. As for confronting national security issues in the manner of NSC in the US, we ain’t seen nothing yet!

Shaukat Aziz has the qualifications as a technocrat in his CV to be a good Prime Minister. As for being a politician, he wouldn’t have got this far in Citibank, and in Pakistan, unless he had been street-smart. He is intelligent, suave and charming, has excellent contacts the world over (and in the country), is very personable and above all, has the trust of the one person who really matters, General Pervez Musharraf. Citibank was not stupid to select him to head its “private banking” unit. When Citibank’s President John Reid was taken to task by the US “Senate Committee for Money-Laundering” and ordered to clean up Citibank’s act with respect to dubious clients depositing tons of tainted money, he brought in Shaukat Aziz to do just that. Shaukat’s strong suit Public Relations (PR) helped him in good stead in walking a tight-rope as a deposit-taker, on the one hand to keep Citibank’s clients from pulling their money out while on the other ensuring that the money deposited was not illegal, when there is more or less a fine-line whether the money stashed in “private banking” accounts (mainly to escape taxation and other cynosure from the country of origin) is legal or not. While Shaukat Aziz does not claim to be an economist he was always a good banker, his career advancement in Citibank must be a model for all upwardly mobile banking professionals. As Finance Minister, he was lucky on two counts, viz (1) as a technocrat member of an autocratic regime he had the necessary backing to keep on implementing the reforms envisaged by his political predecessors, implemented only partly by both PPP and PML (N) Finance Ministers because of political considerations and (2) 9/11 came in really handy, Pakistan otherwise would have defaulted (no fault of the ruling regime) on debt repayments by Sep 15, 2001. Persevering with the reforms diligently and because of debt forgiveness, debt re-scheduling, inward remittances, etc Shaukat represented the success of Pakistan being turned around economically. We are now sitting pretty with over US$ 12 billion in the foreign exchange kitty, how many Finance Ministers in Pakistan can claim that? Even good generals need destiny on their side at the right time!

Jamali’s exit could have been better orchestrated to ensure Shaukat does not get the rough-ride he has started to get in our political quagmire, this will become far worse as time goes by. Shaukat Aziz should have been elevated to Deputy PM and then taken the election route he is now taking. Once Shaukat was elected as MNA Jamali should have resigned at a convenient time. If Ch Shujaat was needed for the interim, Shaukat Aziz should have been Deputy PM (and PM in all but name). At an appropriate time because of “ill health” Shujaat would have called it quits, after all he is genuinely ill. The way Jamali was packed off restores to the public psyche the perception that despite our “democratic” façade, our government remains very much a military regime, whatever democracy there is has been manipulated. In most muslim countries except for Malaysia and Turkey a single authority supersedes democracy, in our case it is the President in his more potent role as Army Chief.

As one of those who generally (and genuinely) support the Pakistan Army and its Chief, a major cause for concern is something that is probably more coincidental than intentional but could become a matter of great controversy for this regime sooner rather than later. As much as one detests ethnicity, having suffered personally because of a Punjabi/Bengali mixed origin, in our real world only lip-service is given to the concept of a “global village”, ethnicity is very much a fact of life. As much as merit must surpass all other considerations, pragmatism and realpolitik dictate prudence and soul-searching, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread!” Gen Pervez Musharraf is a Mohajir, the problem is that both the Naval Chief Shahid Karimullah and the PAF Chief Kaleem Sadaat are also of the same ethnic origin. What are the chances that the next COAS (if Gen Musharraf takes off his uniform) or VCOAS (if he doesn’t) will also not be the same? While the present choices may well have been on merit and future choice may also be on merit, in the absence of an ethnic balance a whispering campaign needs addressing before it gets out of hand. Shaukat Aziz has already been called a number of things he is certainly not, i.e. a Qadiani, a US citizen, etc, his wife (who happens to be a God-fearing muslim housewife to the core) has wrongly been labelled a Jewish businesswoman. With Shaukat as PM almost everyone who matters in important decision-making posts in Pakistan will be of similar ethnic background (notwithstanding the fact that Shaukat’s mother was from a Kashmiri family from Jullunder). Since we may have reached the stage in Gen Musharraf’s career where he is likely to shoot the messenger bringing bad news, the President’s close advisors (and intelligence agencies) would rather shove this issue under the carpet and only tell the President what he wants to hear, I would rather Pervez Musharraf faces this issue now and not put his own existence in line. The opposition may well let Shaukat Aziz take oath as PM before bringing the entire government machinery to a standstill on this potent emotional issue. In the meantime another outlandish theory is gaining currency, the “Chile Solution” where Gen Pinochet remains Army Chief having given up the Presidency he occupied for almost two decades. Many suggest that the Musharraf gameplan is to elevate Senate Chairman Muhammadmian Soomro to President while remaining in the Army House a la Pinochet. Possible? Given three PMs in three months, anything is! The frustrating thing is that because of his name recognition among world leaders and his personal PR par excellence, Shaukat will always make a good PM. At this time he would have made a wonderful Foreign Minister for Pakistan, particularly at this juncture in our relations with India. As an asset Shaukat Aziz will be lost to this nation if he is mired in extraneous controversy in the near future.

It would stand to reason and logic that Pervez Musharraf has thought out this “calculated risk”. As an avid military student he is a strong believer in one of the more important lessons of Field Marshal Slim’s “Unofficial History”, “do not take counsel of your fears”. Pragmatically Pervez Musharraf must balance this against taking “one risk too many” with the “great silent majority” in Pakistan who still believe he holds the national interest above his own.