Musharraf: The arrogant dictator who badly wanted a deal with India

The India factor - and the burning desire to get even militarily for the East Pakistan debacle - loomed large in whatever he did or say, especially after he became the country’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a designation he gave himself after seizing power in 1999 and later, as the President.

Mahendra Ved Feb 05, 2023
Pervez Musharraf

The perennially uneasy, if not hostile, relations between India and Pakistan had more touch-and-go moments than any other time when General Pervez Musharraf, who passed away Sunday (February 5, 2023), led Pakistan.

What could have been a diplomatic faux pas at the 13th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2003 was averted by just a minute by Pakistani diplomats headed by then Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokar.

Musharraf, arriving at one of the sessions of the summit, would have run into Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was coming down an elevator. Both were headed for the same conference hall. The Pakistanis swiftly made Musharraf change the route. The relief on the faces of Indian officials too was palpable.

The two leaders had met at the Agra Summit (July 2001) but had disagreed controversially on a possible peace deal. The embers were still burning. Coming face-to-face in third countries would have been embarrassing.

Earlier, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Kathmandu (January 2002) was barely a few tense weeks after the attack on the Indian Parliament. The two armies were pitted eyeball-to-eyeball. The two leaders sat far apart and reportedly avoided even eye contact.

But Musharraf scored a diplomatic hit at the closing session by exhorting Vajpayee to “at least shake hands for the sake of peace in South Asia”. He had walked up to Vajpayee amidst thunderous clapping by all present. This left no choice for Vajpayee but to rise and shake hands.

The Delhi connection

 Musharraf was born in India and had migrated to the new country clutching his father’s hand. He always seemed uncomfortable with these connections.

He was the second Mohajir, a migrant from India, to head the Pakistan Army. The first was General Mirza Aslam Beg. To him, what India thought of him mattered much. To India, he was yet another Pakistan Army chief who, whatever their origins, had a pathological hatred against India, that being their raison d’etre. Many Indian analysts thought that being Mohajirs, the two were anti-India. Musharraf did not acknowledge this.

The Agra Summit

Musharraf reportedly refused to salute Vajpayee when the latter visited Lahore in February 1999 at Nawaz Sharif’s invitation. Analysts have said this, along with the Kargil conflict that was Musharraf’s handiwork according to Sharif, eventually caused a confrontation that led to Musharraf and his military loyalists ousting him.

The India factor - and the burning desire to get even militarily for the East Pakistan debacle - loomed large in whatever he did or say, especially after he became the country’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a designation he gave himself after seizing power in 1999 and later, as the President.

When India invited him to Agra, the protocol for his meeting Vajpayee was questioned. Musharraf deftly used the opportunity to ease out the incumbent president Muhammad Rafiq Tarar and take that office. If the first one against Nawaz Sharif was politico-military, this was a constitutional coup.

Asked why the Agra Summit failed, he gave his own set of reasons, accusing the "hardliners" among India’s “Hindu nationalists,” But his rhetoric was reserved for not giving a handle to India that would make him unpopular back home.

He had visited during that visit, Nehar Wali Haveli, which means "House Next to the Canal", his ancestral home in old Delhi’s walled city. He couldn’t place himself in a situation where he would have to “return to Nehar Wali Gali,” he said.

An out-of-the-box thinker

In the days he became unpopular, a Pakistani Urdu journal wrote of Musharraf’s supposed love for old Indian film songs. It wrote, “he has been humming these days Chal, ud ja re panchhi, ke ab yeh desh huwa begaana,” a nostalgia-filled song from the Hindi film Bhabhi (1957) that talks of the bird, unhappy at being unwanted by those around it, keen to fly back home. It was an emotional throwback to his Old Delhi roots. Musharraf’s office was supposed to have issued a formal denial of this report.

When India protested on an issue and demanded a clarification on an issue that involved the United States, Musharraf tersely said: “You are India. You are not America.” After the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, Musharraf expressed his sympathies to Vajpayee and sent a plane load of relief supplies to India.

Musharraf was that rare leader who, after being deposed, in an interview justified using the militants to cause problems in India since that was in Pakistan’s “national interest.”  But he was also the one to “think out of the box” and reach an understanding with India that ended cross-border infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir for a considerable time after he boldly gave an undertaking not to let Pakistani territory be used for terrorism. The deal endured for many years.

It also led to cross-border trade and movement. The “Delhi boy” who headed Pakistan reached a measure of understanding with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was born in what is Pakistan today.

It is well known that a lasting deal on the Kashmir issue - on which both Musharraf and Manmohan Singh were working quietly through back channels and which reportedly had made considerable progress - could have made the Line of Control between India and Pakistan "irrelevant". But Musharraf lost political ground when he arrogantly removed the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The move triggered massive protests among the lawyers and journalists, which the autocrat in Musharraf was unable to anticipate, and eventually forced him to step down.  

(The author is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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