Hard to beat the General

BY Visa Ravindran| IN Media Practice | 20/09/2009
Musharraf's gift of the gab and perfectly strategised TV skills disarm viewers and persuade them to suspend disbelief at least for the moment.
VISA RAVINDRAN marvels at how much the former Pak Prez gets away with.

Former President Musharraf¿s recent television interviews have been quite fascinating. We saw and heard him say that American funds had been diverted by Pakistan for use against India, that Pakistan arms itself against enemies on the West (Taliban) and East (India) with the same weapons and that there's no question of dedicated use of weapons against one threat alone, once they are distributed to the troops. He even added clearly that they would continue to be so used. And then a day later when the Pakistani government expressed displeasure and said that he had done great harm to Pakistan, he does a complete volte face, saying the topic of US funds in Pakistan was not discussed at all in the interview!


In June 2009, Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi , begins an interview with Musharraf asking if the General is still angry with him, and the arch manipulator answers with a smile that some misrepresentations in a recent article had upset him because" manipulation of facts is always disturbing." And then the arch manipulator goes on with obvious good cheer to answer with calm demeanour and carefully marshalled 'facts,' to tackle every question with aplomb. Every interview, whatever the dicey questions might be, is peppered with" whatever I did, I did for Pakistan". His gift of the gab and perfectly strategised TV skills disarm viewers and persuade them to suspend disbelief at least for the moment.


The greatest power of television is the visual representation of events which automatically  makes the viewer trust what he" sees and hears" in his own drawing room. While seeing the same things repeatedly î º violence and sex, for example, dulls one's senses into accepting them,  that is not the case with interviews where, however passively one receives what is said,  a volte face is hard to take. And looking back at some  videos of Musharraf's interviews, I was surprised at how often he has done this and also won admiring responses from some sections despite receiving flak.


After an interview to Aaj Tak (March, 2009) which brought mixed reactions from viewers to interviewer and interviewee, one blogger calls the general" one of the most sincere and honest Presidents we have had. God bless Gen.Musharraf." Another says he is" no fan of Musharraf but this interview was great….the 'idiot host' was put in place." Another blogger corrects a blatant lie " Musharraf was lying when he said he did not arrest Nawaz Sharif. NS remained in jail for 14 months before he went to Saudi Arabia…" The favourable ones are summed up by one admirer who says" Mush still rocks" in the midst of several raining curses on him.


In a July face to face with Maureen Khan in London, Musharraf says his seminars and conferences go down well because truth is the answer to mushkil savaal ( are there others where it is not strictly necessary?) and that he admits mistakes, accepts solutions and is always willing to act on better solutions if they are offered. This is the interview which also zoomed in on his West London apartment. Musharraf describes it as his" humble-sa ghar" , no palace, and bought from his own savings. He elaborates that he faced no corruption charges (?) unlike Bhutto or Sharif and similarly waves off questions about the" concessional tariff" at which his farmhouse in Pakistan was acquired. He never concerned himself with the"choti cheez"  he says glibly, referring to the market price of the farm and says whether in this matter or that of keeping expensive gifts ( diamond necklaces, gold watches, expensive cars), he had always followed rules and if there were divergences anywhere he was always ready to set things right by paying the difference "î º If I can I will pay the difference, if I can't I'll sell". That simple !


His" humble" life, according to Scotland Yard, is costing the UK upwards of £ 25,000 per day to provide adequate security î º the danger to innocent civilians if the general were to be targeted in public, necessitated buffering up the posse of retired  Pakistani commandos he paid to protect him. As his not so modest lifestyle reportedly included playing golf and dining at the Dorchester, such collateral damage was a distinct possibility !


How does the man succeed time after time in  avoiding embarrassment and come up neutral, if not smelling of roses? He always describes himself as simple, without ego,  as in the famous David Frost interview where he said demitting office was not difficult for him because he was without ego but  " I knew that it would lead to  tremendous amount of turmoil; that was the difficulty, the difficulty was from Pakistan's point of view….," being one of many instances. The typical deflection of feeling from self to country and people that every politician calls to his aid but not many succeed as  well as Musharraf  in clothing it with a veneer of sincerity.


Robert Levine, a psychologist who defined the qualities that make for effective persuasion, mentions authority, honesty and likeability as important attributes. When applied to Musharraf, one finds he has authority by virtue of his position but creates 'honesty' and ' likeability'  at least for the duration of the public interface, very skillfully by his cool demeanour, the refusal to be ruffled or browbeaten and by couching most answers in a very reasonable tone of voice.


He engages with his host on an equal footing when he wants to disarm him by adopting an" I'm like you, no different" stance as when he says he'd sell the farm house if he couldn't pay for it, at other times he pulls rank if it suits him, and manages to create an illusion of facing questions honestly and without reservation. Above all everything is for Pakistan, even a comeback if it becomes necessary. After telling Frost that  he would not have been able to continue as an' impotent President' or a ' hated leader' he piously adds that if Pakistan were to 'go into a nosedive or on a self-destruct mode' and if he could" contribute something to rectify the situation, certainly I will; my life is for the country, for Pakistan."


With Musharraf, honesty and likeability are skillfully manufactured everytime, boldly but casually conveyed in every interface, and all thorny issues  are swept away under a carpet of patriotism and national fervour.  Every interview is a bravura performance.  The manner is so complete that spell-like, it suspends the viewer's critical faculties for the moment. It is subtler than the art of the demagogue, something so finespun that it slips by and lets him win the public moment. But has he outshot himself this time?










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