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'Musharraf weaker after Kabul's fall'

'Musharraf weaker after Kabul's fall'

Publication: The Indian Express
Date: November 29, 2001

Benazir Bhutto makes no secret of the fact that she wants to return to Pakistan. And wants desperately to fill the political vacuum there, particularly since General Pervez Musharraf seems to be on a weak wicket. Bhutto, who glittered in diamonds and pearls during an interview with COOMI KAPOOR today, admits that a passion for politics and a lavish jetset life style are both part of her personality. On a trip to India at the invitation of the CII, Bhutto is keen to project herself as a liberal espousing pragmatic economic policies, in contrast to the fundamentalist approach of some other Pakistani leaders. Excerpts from an interview:

Q.: On balance, has Pakistan gained or lost due to the recent developments in Afghanistan?
A.: It depends on perception. My own party feels the Taliban was giving Pakistan a bad name. We had called upon the military regime to break relations with the Taliban in 1998.

Q.: Your own government when in power was reputed to have first fostered the Taliban. Your interior minister General Nasrullah Babbar described the Taliban as hamare bachche.
A.: Yes, he did say hamare bachche hai and many people in Pakistan do consider the Afghanis to be like our own children.

Q.: I think the remark was in the context of the Taliban, not Afghans in general.
A.: That is a question you must ask General Babbar since I cannot reply on his behalf. I can only tell you that my government did not make the Taliban although this is a perception. The Taliban rose on their own, but we did work with them. After the overthrow of my government the Taliban movement was hijacked by hardliners, causing immense damage.

Q.: Hasn't General Musharraf's position been considerably weakened following the US intervention in Afghanistan? How would you have handled the situation?
A.: The way I see it, there may have been no need for American intervention if democracy had not been destablised in 1996. As a consequence of the Taliban movement being hijacked, the al Qaeda set up its training camps. Afghanistan became a central point for militant groups from different parts of the world.

Q.: Hasn't General Musharraf's position weakened even within the army?
A.: I don't get on with the General and he doesn't get on with me, but here in Delhi I am a little concerned about trashing opponents back home. Certainly, Musharraf has taken certain steps to strengthen his position within the armed forces. But there are a lot of rumours circulating that he feels very insecure. There are rumours that for his personal protection, efforts have been made to secure outside commandos, non Pakistani commandos. While the rumours may be untrue, they do illustrate that General Musharraf's regime is much weaker and more unstable today after the fall of Kabul than it was previously.

Q.: How powerful is the former ISI chief Hamid Gul whose sympathies are reportedly still with the Taliban?
A.:  HAMID Gul was one of the key aides of General Zia ul Haq and was instrumental in setting up some extremist factions. He and a section of the military have tremendous sympathy for the Taliban and the Mujahideen. Which is why there is a debate raging in Pakistan and the larger Muslim world on the role of Muslim countries in the world community. There are leaders like myself who believe that democracy and free markets can help Pakistanis achieve progress and prosperity. But people like Hamid Gul believe democracy is wrong, and there ought to be a spiritual leader who acts as the guide of a dictator in running the affairs of the state, so that the government can be controlled for its mission to spread pan-Islamic theocracy.

Q.: Won't Hamid Gul create a problem for Musharraf?
A.: He and General Musharraf used to be close and I am unaware that they have fallen apart. Were he to withdraw his support to General Musharraf, I can tell you General Musharraf would find himself in deep waters.

Q.: You are considered more friendly towards India, yet there was no major breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations during your regime. In fact your successors Nawaz Sharif and General Musharraf made more noises.
A.: That seems to be a perception. But if your closely examine the gamut of Indo-Pak relations, the only periods in which any substantive agreements were reached was when the Pakistan People's Party was in power.

Q.: How was your interaction with Prime Minister Vajpayee and Home Minister L K Advani?
A.: My party has welcomed the many proactive steps the BJP government has taken, such as the release of some Kashmiri leaders and the initiation of a ceasefire. These might not have achieved much but the very fact that these proposals were made showed that New Delhi is willing to talk.

The home minister comes from my city of Karachi and my home province of Sindh, so I have a degree of affinity with him and tried to practise some of my Sindhi with him. I found the prime minister to be a person of few words. A simple but effective communicator who made me feel comfortable. Like Musharraf, I tend to prattle a lot, so I view it as a great value when people are able to convey what they have to say in a few chosen words.

Q.: This must be a very traumatic time, exiled from your country and with your husband in jail.
A.: The last five years of my life have bordered on hell. In the past when I went through periods of tension there were others I could rely on. My mother was a great source of comfort and both my brothers were alive.

Q.: Your mother is now estranged from you.
A.: No. During the elections of 1993, we were briefly estranged for six months over her support to my brother. But afterwards we were fine. My mother lives in Dubai with me. She suffers from a form of Alzheimer's disease because she was hit on the head by the administration. That's one of the reasons why she was estranged from us. Because when you have the disease and the pressure starts to build up, you turn against those who are closest to you.

Q.: How are your three children coping?
A.: My son has become a teenager. I am horrified at the thought that soon he won't be able to sit on my lap. They miss their father tremendously. To a wife a husband is important, but I think it pales into insignificance when one thinks of the impact the father has on the lives of the children. I worry for my children because there is no male around. The Bhutto men all died young.

Q.: India sees Pakistan as a rather feudal democracy compared to India, where there is more grassroot participation.
A.: Yes, it's very surprising for me because since the sixties, power has gone from the rural community to the business community. Now, it is in the process of being transferred to the information community. In every country there are families with a tradition of going into politics. Look at George Bush or Al Gore.

Q.: You have these two very different images, a passionate politician and a jetsetter.
A.: Both images are to a certain degree true. I grew up in a family of privilege. My mother was a glamourous lady and so we kept up with fashion and bought what were brand names. But we were also brought up with a social conscience.

I don't make a pretence because I think it's hypocritical to dress up in a drabl manner in public and sparkle at home.

Q.: It is said that this visit to India on the CII's invitation is part of a planned campaign to boost your image in the hope that you will soon fill the political vacuum in your country.
A.: That's a positive thought and a positive perception. Actually, I came to meet the people of India and explain to them some of my vision for economic progress by working together.

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