A bureaucrat-turned-author, Tilak Devasher’s book, “Pakistan At the Helm”, could provoke a dart of apprehension for some Pakistanis, due to his professional credentials. He was a cabinet secretary in India and has written three books on Pakistan so far.
This book was a collection of anecdotes, vignettes, and incidents of Pakistani towering leaders, from Muhammad Ali Jinnah to Pervez Musharraf. The author has very thoroughly researched his books, as he described how he came across these nuggets while researching for his first book, Pakistan: Courting the Abyss.
The book provides numerous vignettes, quirks, and foibles of our country’s leaders, pushing readers to oscillate from mirth to forlorn.
The author’s analytical collections of anecdotes provide a fascinating insight into the characters of the country that ruled it. It further shines a light on their whims and peculiar traits. And most importantly, why many of them fell from power.
Though a skilful writer, Tilak wisely left political theories, enigmatic philosophies, and conventional history, and instead provided a succinct-cum-riveting account of Pakistan’s rulers in his book.
The book opens with the country’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, chapter. Contrary to historical revisionism in the country, initiated by Gen. Ayub Khan and intensified by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The book, however, unabashedly reveals Jinnah’s fondness for ham sandwiches, swigging whiskey, and western attire. Besides, the book highlighted his contemporaries’ views of him. From Mountbatten, who opined him as “a psychopathic case” to his beloved wife Ruttie, lamenting that “he was unable to satisfy her mind and soul.” As the “most powerful man in the country”, his illustrious career ends up in an ambulance that breaks down halfway from the hospital. The book also stated that he had two funerals, a Sunni one in the open and one that followed Shia norms in his home.
The next entry was the General-cum-Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who, according to the British high commissioner to Pakistan, Gilbert Laithwaite, was not in the highest intellectual class and a failure as a commanding officer in active service. Ayub Khan’s sycophancy to Iskander Mirza was widely known. The duo, in cahoots, staged a coup, but Ayub Khan had different plans and deposed Iskander Mirza twenty days later. He even considered turning Pakistan into a monarchy.
The books also spill the beans on Ayub’s disastrous handling of the ‘1965 war’, and his falling-out with his once close oppo, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Then enters General Yahya Khan, infamous for his tippling and frolicking. Under his watch, Pakistan was dismembered into two halves, and on the same day of Pakistan’s dissection, he was partying at his residence in Peshawar with his new paramour.
He was forced to resign from the office. Hence, ending the 13 years of the military junta and ushering them into a civilian rule. But, as the civilian prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, took over, he tended to rule with a firm hand and brook no criticism, just like his predecessors. His complex personality and feudal mindset overshadowed his innovation and catchy slogan. He pushed “some institutional strings” too hard, and it led him to the gallows.
The one, who led him to the gallows, was his right-man, General Zia-ul Haq himself, who obsequiously wriggled his way into Bhutto’s confidence to become the army chief. Even, Bhutto used to humiliate him by calling him his monkey general. But, the General did not forget or forgive anything. As his monkey general was the cause of his death. The average-looking general showed an uncanny ability to outmanoeuvre his opponents to become the longest-serving military dictator. But, he met his end in a mysterious air crash.
Benazir Bhutto has been described as gutsy, however arrogant, like her father by William Dalrymple. The ironies associated with her death were that she had questions about her security; one of her phone exchanges with Musharraf finished with him telling her that whatever Americans do, “your security depends on the condition of our relationship”. She thought Musharraf’s threats were for undermining and restricting her campaigning, while she was assassinated at the same spot where Liaqat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. In the 2008 election, her party swept and made way for her spouse, Asif Zardari, known for his 10 per cent cuts.
Furthermore, Nawaz Sharif has been narrated as impetuous, filled with dramatic moves rather than calculated decisions, one with a penchant for food, and had delusions of having a knack for cricket. One side of Sharif the book stressed was his use of public office for personal gains.
Due to the book’s epigrammatic style, thus, the readers would not find much about contentious topics in the annals of the country’s history, like; Jinnah’s views on future Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s strive to build atomic bombs, Zia-ul-Haq’s immense support for Mujahideen, the handling of the Kashmir issue under Benazir and Nawaz Sharif.
Though the author has no rancour for Pakistan, however, he put his extreme efforts into showing the negative traits of the country’s leaders, albeit with meticulously researched facts and ample references.
The book itself is a must-read for Pakistanis who want to explore the characters who have ruled the country since its inception.