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'Why shouldn't we resolve our differences like respectable citizens of the world?

February 05, 2004 10:52 IST
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Pakistan's Interior Minister Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat broke ranks with Pakistan People's Party leader Benazir Bhutto after the October 2002 general election to join Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali's government rather than sit in the Opposition.

In an exclusive interview to Senior Editor Ramananda Sengupta in Islamabad, Hayat asserts that President Pervez Musharraf is the first Pakistani leader ever to seriously take on fundamentalists in the country. Part of this interview was first published in India Abroad, the largest circulated newspaper for the Indian-American community, which is owned by 

Were you always interested in politics?

I was never interested in politics. I was a student of the Government College, Lahore, and took part in the students union elections in 1972. I was then an undergraduate. I knew nothing of politics. I was very keen to join the air force, for which I had been selected in 1971. But my parents were against it because I was the elder son and because I come from a spiritual background. I am a Pir, and being the eldest son, you have to take on certain responsibilities which your father and forefathers were engaged in. So my father thought the air force might not be the right area for me considering my background.

While I was at Punjab University, I went for a short course in London. When I was there, Murtaza, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's son, was with me. We were very close. We used to share the same desk in class. I met Mr (Z A) Bhutto when he resigned as foreign minister. In politics, as in everything else, timing and the opportunity are crucial.

In 1977, I had just completed my law degree. My uncle was a civil servant who was in charge of Mr Bhutto's district. My grandfather's brother and my father's brother were in politics, but my grandfather and father were limited to the family's spiritual and religious background. I thought it was time that I ventured into this field. So I met Mr Bhutto and he was kind enough to grant me a party ticket. I became the youngest member of the national assembly (Pakistan's parliament) in December 1977.

You now head the Pakistan People's Party (Patriot), a breakaway faction of the original PPP headed by Benazir Bhutto.

I have been very closely associated with Benazir, both at the political and family level. After the [October 2002] election, six or seven of the party's top leaders went to Dubai. I told her bluntly, that if you want to engage in politics, you have to take a personal decision. 'The party can make a political decision, but you to have take a personal decision. Do you wish to confine yourself as a mere housewife or do you want to take on the role of a populist leader, which you have always been? But you have been sitting out of the country for four years; your involvement includes corresponding with e-mail, by fax, by telephone. On occasion you have been calling over party leaders to Dubai or to London. Now this is no way to run a party of the stature of the PPP. You have to come back to Pakistan. Even if you go to jail, it will be a small price to pay.' 

I have been jailed over a dozen times for my political beliefs and convictions. I was in jail for five months during General Musharraf's tenure. 

But she insists that as her husband is in jail she has to be both mother and father to her children. Granted, as a mother she has a point of view but as leader of the Pakistan's People's Party, you had to look at the larger picture.

Her leadership now comprises her personal staff who can at best be called household servants. With absolutely no political background they are intellectually and politically bankrupt. How can they be expected to carry out party affairs? I told her we are going with the general's government, and if you are as rigid as you seem, then we want nothing to do with you.

So that led to the breakup?

I have been associated with both her governments. I told her 'there is something called political strategy, which you have been employing ever since you became prime minister. I was there when you formed your first government in 1988.' I said 'you have always carved out deals with the military, both in 1988, and in 1993. Now this is another chance -- the military leadership is prepared to allow us to become the lead party in the government. Their only condition is that you cannot be allowed into Pakistan. For the sake of the party, you should allow the party to form the government.'

(But) there was a definite lack of trust between her and her senior leaders. She just doesn't want anyone to don her mantle, which she feels no else is qualified, so we parted ways. 

We had contested and won many seats in the election. Why should we remain in the Opposition?

What was the deal General Musharraf offered you?

I wanted to be part of the government, and to solve the problems of party workers. Above all, President Musharraf is the first military ruler who has held elections according to the timeframe, which he had set. No other military ruler in Pakistan has ever honored such commitment. Be it Zia-ul Haq, Yahya Khan or Ayub Khan. When he held elections, it was up to us politicians to ensure that the political process, which he had restarted, gain momentum and space, and finally establish itself firmly.

The transition from military rule to civilian rule will always take time.

The situation was such that if we hadn't decided to join the government, the elections would have been annulled, and the nation would have continued under military rule. General Musharraf could rightfully blame the politicians, saying 'I held the election, but the politicians subverted it.' So essentially the process of re-democratization was started in October 2002. Today, though I won't say it has taken root, I would say it has achieved a certain amount of respectability and stability. Now it is up to us to take this further.

What were your primary challenges when you took over as interior minister?

Pakistan was facing the greatest challenges of contemporary history by fighting the war against terrorism. And with all the challenges and accusations that we faced, it was certainly a Herculean task. President Musharraf's government is totally committed to come down heavily on all terrorist elements, extremists, sectarian, all of them.

The first appointment was that of the minister of interior, which shows how important this objective is for the government. In the past 14 months, we have achieved some remarkable results, which have been universally acclaimed and acknowledged.

Yet the government has discontinued its drive against illegal weapons. Extremist propaganda is still easily available, and there is tremendous resistance to the plans to change the curriculum at madrassas…

It is certainly not an easy task to undertake. There are still pockets of resistance. There are elements who wish to pursue their own brand of idealism. But despite all the odds, the greatest test of any policy is the results. And we have achieved remarkable successes. Pakistan has been afflicted with sectarian tensions, religious extremism and terrorism of the worst kind. This has been the case long before 9/11.

Ever since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan has been the victim of terrorism. We have endured the worst types of terrorism on our soil. It has played havoc with our civic system, our social fabric, which had already been fragile because of these obscurantist elements. It started with General Zia-ul Haq and continued with certain civilian governments after that.

No cohesive, concerted or serious initiative was ever made by any civilian government to address this issue. Some political expediency or the other would always impede such measures or initiatives. General Musharraf is the first Pakistani leader who is genuinely committed to this policy. Once you are committed at that level, there is no looking back. His policies have meant business, and despite criticism within the country, sometimes harshly, we have gone ahead and pursued this policy without blinking. 

Does the fact that the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal -- the group of religious fundamentalist parties -- is in power in two provinces affect this effort?

Yes, it certainly does. Though they (the MMA) are not part of the federal government, they have the numbers in the North West Frontier Province. In Baluchistan, they are a partner in the ruling coalition. Certainly, we have problems in those areas. But at the same time, you must understand we are very clear that while in the past such efforts have suffered due to political expediency we have made sure that this time around, the same expediency doesn't block our way.

Does the perception that the Americans are involved in this effort cause resentment in Pakistan? 

The Americans are involved all over the world on account of their interests. What Pakistan is doing today is purely the result of our domestic concerns. The Americans are helping us out because of their concerns. It may not necessarily have to do immediately with our national interests, but, of course, our national interests are being served along the way.

The US government embarked on this war against terror post 9/11. Pakistan is a frontline ally. It has undertaken all its international obligations but it has all been done in our domestic interests. Tomorrow, if god forbid, there is any threat to Pakistan's security, then no other country is going to come to our rescue. We are fully alive to this reality. That is the reason why we feel it is important to create a society where there is no room for any extremist, obscurantist or sectarian elements. 

We have been the victims of terrorist attacks -- the incident at Quetta, the attacks in Karachi, the attempts on President Musharraf. We are still engaged in that war. Everyone says we aren't fully out of the woods as yet, but we have made significant progress. From the day I took over in November 2002, I would say we are certainly much better off than 14 months ago.

How powerful are the jihadi elements in Pakistan?

Show me one Pakistan parliamentarian who is associated with jihadi groups. The jihadi philosophy is totally contrary to the beliefs and principles on which our government and its major allies have come to power. Frankly speaking, I would say the jihadis have absolutely no power. 

But the attempts on General Musharraf…

Look at what is happening in Israel. Do you think elements in that part of the world would be considered powerful simply because of some suicide missions in Israel? Was the American government brought down to its knees simply because the World Trade Center blew up? 

If there is a problem before you, you have to confront it. All over the world, there are people, elements, factors who are out to fulfill their self-seeking agendas and to destabilize their respective systems and governments. The government is there to stop it. If they [terrorists] were powerful, they would have taken over civilian society all over the world. I am not discounting the magnitude of the threat, but over the past 14 months, this has diminished. The structures on which these forces were built have started to be dismantled and that is what has been one of our remarkable successes.

What are your views on the SAARC summit?

The fact that it was held in Islamabad is in itself a big achievement. The two leaders met, certainly a good omen. A very positive and healthy beginning has been initiated, which should have been done much earlier.

We are very optimistic that Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit will not only be a historic one, but it will pave the way for the two nations to seriously go ahead and address the core issues which have plagued the subcontinent for so long.

Although the SAARC charter prohibits bilateral discussions, these talks on the sidelines have certainly been productive. Even if you do not discuss outstanding issues at this level and point of time, that we were meeting is a very significant achievement. The Indian leadership has been shying away for the past two years from a dialogue. And that did not contribute towards getting our relations back on track. There was a belligerent stance taken towards Pakistan.

We are gratified that finally realization has dawned on the Indian leadership that a dialogue is the only and best way to proceed ahead.I am sure once the process is started, at every level, it will pave the way for addressing issues.

But one needs to remain engaged. We must keep on talking if we need to address problems. Germany overran France during the World War. Today Germany and France are the closest friends in the EU (European Union). Why shouldn't we resolve our differences like respectable citizens of the world?

The resolve has to be there, the will has to be there. Above all, our top leadership has to adopt a statesman-like approach. Who can really do that, only time will tell.

Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Design: Uday Kuckian 

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