Lasting impression

Published : Oct 23, 2009 00:00 IST

IF one were to make a list of 10 of the subcontinents most upright figures, Sartaj Aziz would assuredly rank on it. Very few can match his record in public service or rival the esteem he has come to command. He entered politics in 1984 with a formidable equipment a civil servant in the Pakistani Finance Ministry and the Planning Commission and senior positions in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). He was Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs (1990-1993) and (1997-1998) and Foreign Minister of Pakistan from August 1998 until the coup in October 1999 in short, a technocrat in politics.

That was his strong point and also his weakness. He knew little of the ways of politicians. For all his loyalty to Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister preferred Rafiq Tarar as President. The author was then widely regarded as the best choice. Had he been President, he would have advised Sharif not to sack the Army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, while he was in Sri Lanka and would probably have brought about a reconciliation between the two. Sartaj Aziz remained loyal to Nawaz Sharif even during military rule. It was as Foreign Minister that we came to know him when he visited New Delhi during the Kargil crisis.

The book falls, broadly, into two parts, apart from the parts dealing with the years before 1984. First, an account of politics in the last quarter century draws on revealing personal recollections, backed by texts of documents reproduced as appendices. No student of Pakistans politics or of India-Pakistan relations can afford to neglect it. Particularly useful are the Charter of Democracy signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in London on May 14, 2006, and the All Parties Conference Declaration of July 8, 2007.

The Zardari-Nawaz Sharif accord of August 7, 2008, is woven into the narrative itself as is the Murree Accord of March 9, 2008. They provide clues to the strains between Nawaz Sharifs Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and Zardaris Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

The other part is the one on India-Pakistan relations, and here the author betrays a weakness. His own preferred choice of an interlocutor in the back-channel set up by Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Shaharyar Khan.

The former opted for Niaz Naik, who was so besotted with the Chenab formula as to show his counterpart, R.K. Mishra, how the river ran from a tourist map which he flushed out of a bookshop in the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. It was a euphemism for a partition of Jammu and Kashmir on a communal basis.

No government in India could have accepted it, nor Niaz Naiks Kargil formula of a summit. Indias precondition was prior withdrawal by Pakistan. A more realistic diplomat might have pulled off a summit with appropriate prior assurances. It was beyond Naik.

The author is wrong in ascribing the origin of the formula to Owen Dixons proposals in 1950. It was closer to Z.A. Bhuttos humiliating proposal in 1963. On both, the author seems to rely on Naik, whom none in New Delhi took seriously. Incidentally, it was at the Imperial Hotel that the Muslim League Council accepted the Partition Plan of June 3, 1947.

One wishes the author would write another memoir, less discreet than this, with greater details on his tenure in the Foreign Office. On the Taliban, his disclosures are very relevant.

The Saudi envoy Prince Turki, the intelligence chief, reported to Sharif his talks with Mullah Omar. Addressing the DG ISI [Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence], General Ziauddin, the Prime Minister said, Is this the behaviour you expected from the Taliban supreme leader after all the support we had given them? And the proposal we are making about Bin Laden is in their own best interest. Then without waiting for an answer from DG ISI, he turned towards me and said: Sartaj Sahib, we must review our entire relationship with the Taliban regime. The international community has criticised our decision to recognise the Taliban in May 1997. Ever since Naseerullah Babar, PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] governments interior minister, called the Taliban our boys in 1995, they are perceived to be a force created and supported by Pakistan.

A review was ordered. The very next morning, Major General Pervez Masud, in-charge of the Afghan desk in ISI, appeared in my office without any appointment. When I saw him after I finished another meeting, he said, Please persuade the Prime Minister to defer his decision to review Pakistans relationship with the Taliban regime for some time. After a long time, we see the prospect of having a peaceful and friendly neighbour in Afghanistan, because the Taliban are expanding their influence. All other alternatives will be worse (emphasis added). That is the nub of the matter.

Sartaj Aziz is now Vice Chancellor of the Beaconhouse National University at Lahore, a liberal arts university. As a detached figure he can render high service.

The 1973 Constitution did not establish a parliamentary system but a prime ministerial government. Bhuttos tailor-made Constitution divested the President of the very few discretionary powers that properly belong to the head of state in every parliamentary democracy, including India. Repeal of the Eighth Amendment without more qualifications would only revive the predominance of the Prime Minister.

The best course is to codify the recognised conventions of the parliamentary system to ensure that neither the Prime Minister nor the President becomes authoritarian. Australia has produced studies on the subject. The codification can resolve the impasse between President Zardari and Sharif. Sartaj Aziz can help a lot in that.

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