By Khaled Ahmed
May 02, 2015
Power Failure: The Political Odyssey of a Pakistani Woman by Syeda Abida Hussain (2015) rivets the reader with its honesty of detail. “I am a year older than Pakistan, one of midnight’s children, born to privilege and a contingent sense of entitlement,” she begins, with a pledge of cold realism that doesn’t abandon the 700-page narrative. Pretty Abida, nicknamed Chandi, had just done her O Levels when President General Ayub Khan’s son, Tahir Ayub Khan, met her in 1962 and fell in love with her.
The proposal was shot down by her Shia father, Syed Abid Hussain Shah, honorary colonel during World War II, a feudal landowner of Jhang, a member of the Legislative Assembly of India in 1946 and of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, who became a minister in the 1954 cabinet. This was when the colonel’s family met and idealised Fatima Jinnah and went politically wrong when Ayub Khan “defeated” her in elections.
Parental matchmaking pointed to cousin Fakhar Imam. Her comment on the match, after protesting her missed post-O Levels Cambridge stint: “Except, I did secretly find Fakhar devastatingly attractive.” Fakhar’s reaction when they first met sums up his personality: “You look great.” A scholarly, book-reading Fakhar thought she was “spoilt and demanding” and might be a handful, after which Chandi used the weapon she was to employ selectively in future too — she started crying, and clinched the marriage.
He confessed he had loved her since he was nine but was bugged by the colonel’s feudal lair Shah Jewna, where he felt his identity would be threatened. They easily resolved that crisis and decided to manage two separate homes, coming together in Lahore. In 1970, Chandi joined the Pakistan Peoples Party and became a nominated member of the Punjab Assembly. In the ripeness of time, she was to clash with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
She developed the hard shell of minimalist realism politicians acquire during their apprenticeship. General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the autocrat she had fallen out with. In the new set-up, Fakhar decided to join as minister of local government and rural development. Fakhar was pragmatic and hands-on at the grassroots; Chandi was idealistic, in addition to being hands-on.
Zia announced “non-party” elections in 1984. Fakhar won from Kabirwala (a Shia-killing town), Chandi from Jhang (a Shia-killing city), and not on the women’s quota. After she was allotted a seat, a Sindhi didn’t want to sit “next to a woman” and got himself removed. She could have killed him. Gentle Fakhar advised a cool-down but soon locked horns with the Zia lobby by refusing to give up his candidacy for assembly speaker. The ISI’s infamous Brigadier Imtiaz “Billa” failed to attract him to the finance minister ship; he beat Khwaja Safdar to the speaker’s post by 15 votes.
Zia created the Shia-killing Sipah-e-Sahaba machine in Jhang. There was more humiliation coming Chandi’s way — boarding a Fokker in Rawalpindi, she got rudely pushed aside to make way for Pakistan’s bridegroom of jihad, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. At Shah Jewna, the new graffiti said “Shia kafir” and her stud farm stood attached because its lease had miraculously lapsed. In 1986, Benazir Bhutto arrived in Lahore and overwhelmed the Zia junta. Turncoat politicians became part of the political routine. Zia died in a plane crash in 1988, Benazir came to power.
Chandi returned to Shah Jewna to ready herself to fight her next election against the dreaded Sipah chief, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, whose minions had already announced that “in voting for Maulana Haq Nawaz, the voters of Jhang would not only ensure for themselves a key to heaven, but would also set aside the profligate woman from Shah Jewna who was a heretic and did not deserve to live, and casting a vote for her would be tantamount to inviting the wrath of Allah and burning in the fires of hell.” She beat Jhangvi by 8,000 votes as an independent candidate. The PPP had come to power.
President Ghulam Ishaq Khan got rid of a callow PM Benazir and welcomed Nawaz Sharif as the next PM, leading a broad alliance put together by ISI chief Hamid Gul. Chandi couldn’t join her because a local rival in Jhang was a PPP lynchpin close to Benazir. Ghulam fired Nawaz, but this time the Article 58/2/B reflex was a bit of a swansong as the Supreme Court went against it. Later, Nawaz and Ghulam both had to leave.
After the October 1993 elections, it was PPP redux. Sadly, this time, Benazir’s own President Farooq Leghari threw her out. Sharif climbed wearily back, unchastened, untutored. Chandi morphed with changing times, each time distanced from “principles”, and somersaults for survival in the Sipah-infested countryside were the name of the game. Soon Kargil happened, and Sharif was ousted too.
Are there any principles in politics? Chandi clearly had her own: Don’t rub me the wrong way, keep your inevitable male chauvinism under wraps, show noblesse oblige, be patriotic, and I can walk with you. When the generals took over, she fell back on local government and adopted the survival mode. When democracy returned, she did the politics her “independent group” of feudal puritans collectively recommended.
She became firmly committed to Benazir’s return to Pakistan. She had a hand in Benazir and Nawaz signing the Charter of Democracy in 2006. She shuttled between Pakistan and the UAE, meeting Benazir and getting to know her personally. When Benazir decided to land in Karachi, she passed on to her TV anchor Shahid Masood’s warning that plans were afoot to assassinate her. When Benazir nearly got killed in the Karsaz massacre, Chandi was in her armoured truck and got injured.
By the time her odyssey comes to an end, she has sustained the deep wound of her parents’ deaths, but is compensated by two gifted and well-educated daughters, Sughra and Umme Kulsum, and a bright lawyer son Abid, who partnered with Benazir to write her political analyses. Her writing style is the way she speaks, and when you talk to her, her Urdu is seriously good, to say nothing of the Jhangochi she speaks in her Shah Jewna constituency.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.