Worth two in the Mush

PAKISTAN’S punsters are having fun these days. If Bush comes to shove, will Mush make way, asks one. Bush-Mush hota hai, quips another political satirist. ‘Mush & Bush’ is the name of a weekly column in The Friday Times, scathing in its satire of the two men.

By Barkha Dutt

Published: Sun 2 Mar 2008, 8:26 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:24 PM

Crafted by the wickedly smart Jugnu Moshin, it once quoted the general telling the American president that the "pen is mightier than the sword”. Whoever said that, countered George Bush, “obviously never encountered automatic weapons". The humour is biting, but also dark and cynical. It’s the wry wit of a people who know that even after having delivered a historical vote, the epilogue to the elections is being scripted in a city more than 11,000 miles away.

No surprise then that in Pakistan’s public discourse, Bush and Mush have become almost impossible to de-hyphenate. Like Tom & Jerry, or Punch & Judy, they have been caricatured as comic architects of their own self-destruction: sort of vaudeville twins who remain on stage, long after the show is over.

For two countries bound together in a dysfunctional relationship of distrust as well as dependence, there is thus an eerie similarity to the elections in Pakistan and the United States. At the heart of both campaigns is the story of how two men, once flamboyantly popular and powerful, fell from grace in the eyes of their people. And both countries remind us how a single error of judgment can set into motion a series of suicidal decisions, which once taken, make retrieving life impossible.

If sending troops into Iraq has indisputably been George Bush’s nemesis, sacking the Chief justice and declaring emergency marked the beginning of the end for General Musharraf. But both men responded to criticism and protests with petulant egotism and denial, slipping deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of a Wonderland only they understood.

The symbiotic closeness of the two presidents is funny when you think back to the fact that as recently as 2000, Bush did not know who Musharraf was. Quizzed by a reporter to name the general in charge of Pakistan during his presidential campaign, Bush had barked back,-“Wait, wait, is this 50 Questions?” Finally, he described the general as “the guy who just got elected — no, not elected — this guy just took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country,” while admitting that he couldn’t name him. A few years later, Bush was to describe Musharraf as “one of my best friends”.

There’s another unlikely commonality between the two, and that’s India’s response to them. Even when public opinion in their respective countries has been viciously contemptuous and filled with ridicule and distaste, India has seen utilitarian merits in both. Only Bush, this government believes, would have delivered the nuclear deal to India while being able to simultaneously contain domestic whines about outsourcing. And while we may not have ever trusted the general fully, enough foreign policy wonks were willing to give him credit for flexibility and original thinking on Kashmir.

In fact nothing annoys Pakistanis as much as what they see as India’s susceptibility to the general Saheb’s glib and hollow charm.

I found myself floundering to explain this to the one man who possibly hates him more than anyone else in Pakistan. I was driving with Nawaz Sharif through the Punjab heartland, past the ancient city of Taxila, all the way up to the frontier province. We had already been through the mandatory questions and answers on judges, coalitions and democracy, and I was staring out peaceably at the quiet beauty of Pakistan’s orange country, when suddenly the former prime minister said now he had a question he wanted me to answer. “Why were Indians so fascinated with Musharraf?” he wanted to know.

I struggled to explain, falling back on all the well-worn arguments. India had always seen through Musharraf’s compulsive need to play-act and perform, I said, but at the same time, we believed he was a moderate and was willing to push the boundaries of conventional wisdom on Kashmir. We knew his sincerity was rehearsed down to the last stage whisper, but there had been a grudging sort of admiration for his willingness to take risks on home turf. But we weren’t frozen in time; we too could see how a once-confident leader was in danger of becoming a poor caricature of himself.

None of my answers satisfied Sharif. His entire campaign pitched the general as an American stooge who cowered each time Bush called, while he positioned himself as the manly Punjabi who had the gumption to answer ‘bomb for bomb’ by overseeing six nuclear tests in response to India’s five. Later, I didn’t know whether to be shocked or to hide in embarrassment when Imran Khan told a huge crowd of supporters that Musharraf “almost pissed in his pants” at the very mention of President Bush.

This is the irony of Pakistan’s opposition to President Musharraf. Liberal contempt for dictatorship has blended with right-wing hatred for Washington to create a potent, if confused, cocktail of dissent.

But while President Bush’s obituary has been prepared for November, in Pakistan they aren’t so sure that their president is going anywhere just yet. In the drawing rooms of Lahore and Karachi, Pakistan’s well-heeled elite knock back their vodkas and hope that the dramatic election results will herald definitive change. But fevered whispers are already proclaiming a possible ‘pact’ between the canny new leader of the PPP and a president, still desperate to cling to office. So what if Musharraf agreed with Jemima Khan’s description of Asif Zardari as a “crooked widower” in what has to count as the most indiscreet interview by any president anywhere in the world? Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari may have declared a willingness to work together. But the people of Pakistan know it could all fall apart if America decides otherwise.

And so, yet again, the fates of Bush and Mush are intertwined. Pakistan knows it may have to wait for America’s first Black President to take office, before it can embrace a genuinely new future. In the meantime, the country waits to exhale, breathless in anticipation, fearful that it may implode in anxiety.

This is Pakistan’s tragic paradox: America is both its destroyer and saviour.

Celebrated Indian television star and host Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor of NDTV 24x7. Write to her at barkha@ndtv.com

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