With fresh insight from across the border
Reviewed by G. Parthasarathy

From a Minister's Journal
by F.S Aijazuddin
Three Rivers. Pages 130. Rs 395.

fakir Aijazuddin is a prolific writer not only about developments in Pakistan, but also on the intricacies of his country's foreign policies, including developments during the days when Richard Nixon and Yahya Khan secretly laid the seeds of the Sino-US honeymoon, coinciding with the events leading to the 1971 Bangladesh conflict. Aijazuddin, popularly known as “Aijaz” to his many Indian friends is a man of many parts.

A highly successful chartered accountant by profession, Aijaz has a passionate interest in promoting knowledge and awareness about the history and culture of his beloved Lahore. He has written extensively about the art treasures of the Lahore Museum, including about some outstanding miniature paintings from the days when undivided Punjab included what is now the state of Himachal Pradesh. The treasures that he cherishes in the Lahore Museum include Buddhist Gandharan sculptures and some outstanding art works from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Aijaz has a great sense of self-deprecating humour and this aspect of his literary style comes through clearly in his latest book From a Minister's Journal.

From a Minster's Journal is one of those books which is not only informative about the culture and heritage of Punjab, but presents a trenchant account of current developments in Pakistan, which make racy reading about the ethos of the military-dominated style of governance in Pakistan. Whenever the military takes over the country, it proclaims martial law, arrests the previous rulers, gags the media, intimidates the judiciary and co-opts disgruntled politicians and professionals in areas like finance and business, to help run the country's finances and business.

The book begins with a vivid account of the dramatic events of October 12, 1999, when a desperate Nawaz Sharif tried to prevent Musharraf from returning to Pakistan from a visit to Sri Lanka. The ill-advised and amateurishly implemented attempt by Nawaz Sharif to get rid of his arrogant army chief, ended with Sharif landing in jail, where he remained till the influential Saudis intervened to get him exiled to Saudi Arabia.

Aijaz was approached by General Aziz, one of Musharraf's closest cronies, (who, not surprisingly, has turned against his erstwhile mentor) with an offer of a senior government appointment. This episode clearly brings to the fore the contempt and condescension with which the army treated civilians it had approached, including the Prime Minister designate Shaukat Aziz. Aijaz, who was no pushover and candid in expressing his views was naturally not given any appointment in his area of specialisation, the financial sector. Things, however, changed when American pressures and the return of Benazir Bhutto forced Musharraf to call for elections.

This required politically neutral governments to be appointed as interim administrations in Islamabad and provincial capitals, in the run up to elections. Given his reputation for being apolitical and his personal integrity, Aijaz was appointed in Punjab's interim administration as Minister for Culture, Environment and Tourism.

A substantial portion of Aijaz's account of his days as Minister for Culture is devoted how it is really the bureaucracy under an all-powerful chief secretary that runs any interim administration, with the ministers enjoying the trappings of power like personal staff and staff cars, but really wielding little direct authority. The ministers are primarily required to fulfil protocol requirements and in the absence of regular cabinet meetings, are not aware of the overall functioning of the interim administration. Aijaz's accounts of some of some of the functions he was called upon to attend in towns in Punjab are hilarious. There is a moving and vivid portrayal of the events leading to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Aijaz points out the many differences in the circumstances leading to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Indira Gandhi. In describing how Zardari must have felt after Benazir's assassination, Aijaz perceptively observes: “I saw Zardari's speech (at Benazir's funeral) as a product of twelve years of rehearsal, and that day's takeover of the Pakistan Peoples' Party represented the final consummation of his marriage to Benazir Bhutto”.

The last chapter of the book makes particularly interesting and indeed juicy reading. Aijaz is unsparing is his assessment of individuals ranging from Prime Ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Raja Parvez Ashraf to former Pakistan ambassador to India, Abdul Sattar and former ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani and to PPP leader and leading legal luminary, Aitzaz Ahsan. This is a book which every Indian who is interested in understanding the people and politics across the Wagah-Attari border should read and will enjoy.