About an hour into Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first one-on-one conversation with Army Chief and self-appointed President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, in July 2001 at Agra, the enormous difference between the approaches, wisdom and stature of the two were becoming increasingly apparent. While the former was deeply invested in overcoming bilateral differences of the past and taking the relationship into constructive and productive channels, the latter was fixated on India acknowledging that the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) issue lay at the root of all difficulties between the two countries.
In this conversation, and in others, between them in Agra, the General’s single-minded instincts — perhaps honed during his years as an army commando — were always getting the better of him. He wanted to return to Pakistan and show his people that he had achieved what no other Pakistan leader had ever done: he had made India to implicitly, if not explicitly, agree to Pakistan’s position that the J&K issue was the primary cause of India-Pakistan problems. And that in doing so, India had abandoned its view that J&K was merely a symptom of Pakistan’s overall attitudes towards India. Ironically, in a speech, some months after becoming the Army Chief of Pakistan, Musharraf had said that India-Pakistan differences would remain even if the J&K issue was resolved because India was a hegemonic power.
For Musharraf, J&K’s incorporation into Pakistan was an unfinished agenda of India’s Partition. This is also an opinion that was and continues to be widely held in Pakistan. The logical inference which flows from this standpoint is that India-Pakistan ties do not depend on a resolution of the J&K issue alone, and that India must be flexible on all bilateral matters even if it involves sacrificing its own interests.
The Kargil ambition
It is an open question if Musharraf ever overcame the basic thrust of his initial commando training. Certainly, Musharraf’s actions in Kargil show his thinking as simplistic and tactical. The entire operation was based on the assumption that India would be unwilling to militarily counter the Pakistan army’s occupation of the Kargil heights. The fact that India would undertake all steps required to protect its northern defences was obviously ignored. The General also misread the reaction from major powers. He anticipated that they would pressure India to accept a ceasefire which would enable Pakistan to continue occupying the Kargil heights. Instead, they viewed the Kargil action as immature and irresponsible. Additionally, Musharraf had largely kept Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the dark about the connotations of the Kargil enterprise. However, this writer can state with confidence that for a few days Sharif entertained the illusion that Kargil could lead him to becoming ‘Fateh-e-Kashmir’ (conqueror of Kashmir). It is only when Vajpayee conveyed to him that India would pay any price to defeat Musharraf’s intrusion that he realised that he had to seek a way out.
Pakistan was humiliated because of Kargil. Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif fell out and the former began to make plans to oust Sharif. However, he had to proceed circumspectly to assess the attitudes of some corps commanders, because of the inroads that Sharif and his father had made in the top levels of the army. Musharraf and his cronies used trusted businessmen, among other civilians, to contact some of the corps commanders whose loyalty to the Army Chief could not be taken for granted. Sharif’s father, popularly called ‘abba mian’ tried to patch up differences between his elder son and Musharraf but failed. In October 1999, Musharraf took over power and a few months later, Sharif went into exile. However, ‘abba mian’ continued to live for long periods in his home in Raiwind. Musharraf had always respected him and instructed the General Officer commanding Lahore to ensure his welfare. Musharraf also dismissed DG ISI General Ziauddin Butt who Sharif had appointed as Army Chief.
The gradual decline
Musharraf effectively ruled Pakistan from October 1999, when the army ousted Nawaz Sharif and restored the General to the position of its chief, till late November 2007 when he appointed Ashfaq Kayani as his successor. He continued in office as President of Pakistan till August 2008, after which he quit under threat of impeachment.
Musharraf drew the substance of his power from his position as Army Chief and the moment he handed over the baton to Kayani he became powerless. If Musharraf had hoped that Kayani would help him retain the Presidency, he was sorely disappointed. But he should have known better. The Pakistan Army has always acted as a body corporate. Once a chief leaves, his honour is sought to be protected to all extent possible, but he is expected to stop interfering in the army’s functioning or in the country’s public affairs. Musharraf learnt this to his bitter cost when he tried his hand in politics.
The army did not want him to return to Pakistan to dabble in politics. Kiyani and his successor Raheel Sharif showed their displeasure by not intervening in the judicial processes against Musharraf. At the same time, they did not allow the judicial decisions against him for treason to be implemented. Moreover, Raheel Sharif also prevailed upon Nawaz Sharif to let Musharraf go into exile.
Interestingly, Musharraf regretted overlooking Lt. General Tariq Majeed, and choosing Kayani instead, for the Army Chief’s job in 2007. It is not that Majeed would have saved him from his indiscretions but he would have been kinder and gentler to him for Majeed is a gentleman unlike the rough-edged Kayani.
The Indian connect
Musharraf was a Mohajir (a term which refers to muslim migrants from India). His parents moved to Pakistan from Delhi. He also married a Mohajir lady. Being a Mohajir, he had to make a mark in an army dominated by Punjabis. He hid his affinity for his Mohajir colleagues well but those who were in his inner circle knew of his sympathies for some Mohajir officers. While he was a colourful person, he could blend in a social gathering at least till he took over the reins of full power in Pakistan. One of my cousins recall having a pleasant conversation with him during a visit to attend a wedding in Lahore in January or early February of 1999. My cousin did not know that he was talking to the Pakistan Army Chief. It was only later that his host disclosed that he was actually speaking to Musharraf. Musharraf was also known to be a ladies man and some of these relationships were diplomatically significant. However, Musharraf’s Mohajir origins did not diminish his negative views about India.
After the failure of the Agra summit, the statesman in Vajpayee remained committed to the normalisation of ties between India and Pakistan. His trip to the Pakistan monument during his Lahore visit in 1999 was not an empty gesture even though the Pakistani generals did not understand its significance just as sixteen years later, on Christmas Day in 2015, they failed to comprehend the importance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Lahore to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The question is if Musharraf who pledged in January 2004 not to allow territory controlled by Pakistan to be used against India — a commitment which was never kept — and engaged in back-channel talks on J&K and other issues was really interested in building a viable relationship with India who he viewed as an eternal threat. There is no conclusive evidence, certainly not in the public domain, and perhaps not even in the confidential papers about the ultimate outcome of these backchannel talks. There has been talk of a four-point formula which would have inter alia allowed movement between the two sides of the Line of Control and of some mechanisms between the two sides. There is no clarity if these would have been consultative mechanisms or joint mechanisms. The real point is whether these mechanisms would have diluted Indian sovereignty over the erstwhile State of J&K. Indian backchannel negotiators have denied any proposal to compromise on sovereignty. The Pakistanis say, in private conversations, that some crucial issues needed to be ironed out, though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed in his press conference in January 2014, that an agreement had been reached which could not be announced because Musharraf was irretrievably weakened by 2007. In any event the constitutional changes of 2019 have changed the dynamic of Indian approaches to J&K.
The history of political generals
Of the four Army Chiefs who held direct political power in Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq blew up along with his aircraft in 1988. The mystery of his death has never been solved. The remaining three were compelled to leave office and cut pathetic figures after their exit. Ayub Khan resigned in 1969 and died in 1974 in Islamabad. In these three years he was ignored by the people though he had been supreme leader for eleven years. Yahya Khan, whose drunkard antics caused the break-up of the country, suffered the ignominy of defeat at India’s hands. He handed over power in January 1971, to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and lived on till 1980 but was under house-arrest till a year before his death. And, Pervez Musharraf spent the last six years of his life in exile abroad with a treason conviction over his head. He battled a fatal illness and only his body was brought back to Pakistan to be buried. He died unhonoured and un-mourned. Significantly, all were largely welcomed by the people when they assumed power. Today in Pakistan, when incumbent army chiefs still hold the substance of power in their hands, retired chiefs continue to cut sorry figures once they take off the uniform. The latest to be the target of ignominy is General Qamar Bajwa who retired in November 2022. He is naturally being blamed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan for all of Pakistan’s current troubles. But there is no sympathy for him, even among other politicians. And, his successor Asim Munir can be expected to distance himself from Bajwa even if he owes his job to him.
Vivek Katju is a former Indian diplomat