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Banquo’s ghost is leaving the banquet?

  • Published at 07:54 pm March 29th, 2016
Banquo’s ghost is leaving the banquet?

In an almost off-hand way, the South Asia Daily blog of Foreign Policy magazine announced that former Pakistani general/president/chief executive Pervez Musharraf, after receiving permission to leave Pakistan, had done so last Friday morning.

Musharraf’s lawyer said he was leaving for medical reasons (back surgery that cannot be performed in Pakistan) and would return. Musharraf, ever the commando, was quoted as saying: “I am a commando, and I love my homeland. I will come back in a few weeks, or months …”

I wonder if he will, whether after house arrest for several years, and under the threat of being tried for treason, this is not the time to take up residence somewhere else and live the life of a retired (involuntarily) autocrat.

There are plenty of them around. The blog piece casually mentions that Musharraf is facing treason charges in Pakistan for, inter alia, the 1999 coup that overthrew Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and brought the Pakistani army back into political power for the third time in the nation’s history. It goes on to say the Musharraf denies the charges. I am not a lawyer, but that doesn’t seem like much of a defense to me.

How could he deny that he was chief of army staff when the army moved against Sharif? How could he deny that it was a coup d’état, as Sharif was removed by force and not by constitutional means? How could he deny that he was chief executive, then president, for nine years? How could he deny that he, as president, suspended the constitution in 2008? It seems preposterous that he could beat the rap in a court. Why come back to face that.

I have long thought of Shakespeare’s play about King Macbeth of Scotland when Musharraf comes to mind. I admit, however, that Musharraf hasn’t come to mind very often in the past several years. In what I thought was permanent exile after he fell from power, he came back in a rash act of bravado in 2013, thinking that he could again run for office, that he would be greeted by cheering throngs.

In fact, he was greeted by constables who arrested him. Charged with treason and murder, he has passed his time under house arrest since his not-so-triumphal return.

When I think of the play Macbeth in conjunction with Musharraf, I think not so much of Macbeth the King, but of Banquo, his friend, and fellow warrior who was in line for the throne. Macbeth, wanting to beat Banquo to the throne, murdered the sitting king, and then afraid that Banquo knew of his foul deed, had Banquo murdered too.

At a banquet soon afterward hosted by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the bloody ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth (others can’t see the ghost) and sits in the chair reserved for Macbeth. Macbeth goes off the rails at the appearance of this apparition, though it is arguable that he was well around the bend even before that. I don’t think I need to finish the story, as readers will know it, but I use it to make a point.

It has been commonly thought that Shakespeare put Banquo in the play as a contrast to Macbeth, who murdered the King to seize the throne, and then an innocent man to cover up his crime. Banquo’s ghost came to the banquet to shame Macbeth, and perhaps to drive him crazy. In the latter effort, at least, Banquo’s ghost succeeded.

In relation to Musharraf, perhaps one could cite Macbeth as a warning that the ghosts of history always come back to haunt evil-doers. But I do not consider Musharraf as innately evil -- he seems to me to have been one of those tragic characters in history whose vision was badly skewed, who was easily misled, and who convinced himself, with a lot of help from many acolytes, that he was the saviour of a nation. In fact, he came close to ruining it, and the worse his rule became, the more desperate he became to stay in power.

I remember well that many observers thought at first that Musharraf could be a “transformational leader.” Such wishful thinking came from the fact that many thought that Pakistan was badly in need of transformation. But soon, it was clear that he was an army man to the core, playing, during my time in Pakistan, from an army playbook that hadn’t changed much since its previous time in power.

I wrote sometime in 2006 or 2007 of the “essential man” syndrome. Power corrupts in many ways, and one of the most common is that political leaders -- sometimes even those who are elected, but more often those who take power by force -- begin to think of themselves as the essential man, the one without which the nation would fail in some way or other. They are not alone in coming to this view of themselves, but always surrounded by sycophants who see that without such self-esteem, their ticket to “success” might even come to believe that there are many others who could do the job just as well, or even better.

I look at the tale of Banquo’s ghost very differently when I think of it metaphorically in the Musharraf case. To me, sitting there all bloody in the king’s chair, and even after he left the banquet, Banquo was a constant reminder to Macbeth of the evil he had done.

And Musharraf, sitting there in his lonely house, under comfortable-but-still-confining house arrest, must have been a constant reminder to the army not only of the corruption that comes with seized power, but that intervention in politics can, and often does, have dire consequences.

I suppose one could argue that Musharraf, by coming back, getting arrested, serving as Banquo’s ghost for an army that must have been tempted from time to time to think it could govern better than the politicians, makes up a little bit for all his earlier trespasses. But you can’t keep him there in his house forever.

The Pakistani army has its hands full with the NAP. The civilian government seems to have found a bit of courage and direction. I doubt any such temptation finds much resonance in the army (given Pakistan’s history, I am really going out on a limb here).

And I hope Musharraf swallows his pride, suppresses his commando instincts, and stays away. It would be the patriotic thing to do. The last thing Pakistan needs right now is a trial that will again back the army into a corner on whether it can really allow a former chief of staff to undergo such humiliation. I hope someone said this to him on his way out.