Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who passed away this week at the age of 96, was an icon in more ways than one.
As the first chief of the Pakistan Air Force, it was his task to set up the institutional structures and channels and formulate the rules of operation for the nascent organisation. This was clearly not an easy, routine task and required competence, foresight, wisdom and integrity to deliver efficient and sustainable results. The Air Marshal possessed all four.
The defining quality in this respect is to place the task and the organisation one is building above one’s own self, which he did. And the organisation — the Pakistan Air Force — that he built up displayed its efficiency, discipline and skill during the 1965 war with India.
Placing the cause above his self was a trait that was on display in his later political life as well. And this was an attribute that I had the chance to witness on more than one occasion. I was not a part of his political party — Tehrik-e-Istiqlal — or his political activities. I was a professional colleague of his economist son, Omar Asghar Khan, who died under tragic circumstances, and the association with the Air Marshal was personal. However, the discussions with him were always political. He was highly intelligent and had a keen insight into the political process the country was undergoing.
The Air Marshal is deemed to be a failed politician. By the yardstick of winning elections or acquiring power, he did fail; but that is not the yardstick by which he himself measured his political success. He was not one to choose to succeed ‘at any cost’. The basic principles that he stood by were important to him and he was not prepared to sacrifice them for the sake of expediency.
I can testify to two events as a silent spectator. I was a regular guest at his house in Abbottabad. Once, on the eve of the 1990 general elections, a local politician called on him with a plan to team up their candidacies: the Air Marshal for the National Assembly and himself for the Provincial Assembly. His case was that the Air Marshal commanded the Abbottabad urban votes and he could command the rural votes. The Air Marshal gave the visiting politician a patient hearing and entertained him as per local standards of hospitality.
After seeing off the visitor, the Air Marshal joined the family — where I was present — assembled for lunch. He narrated the gist of the discussions in his crisp professional way and also declared that he will not form an alliance with him. His wife, a very graceful, noble and principled lady, asked him why and he said that the gentleman was engaged in illegal cutting and sale of trees and he could not associate himself with the timber mafia.
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Come elections, both lost. Needless to say, the Air Marshal was disappointed, but did not regret his earlier decision.
The second event I witnessed was the arrival of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto at the Air Marshal’s residence in Abbottabad sometime in late 1990. I was then resident there and closeted in the study working with Omar on analysing the 1990 election results. There was curiosity in the family, as the Air Marshal was then a strong opponent of Mohtarma.
The PPP had lost the 1990 elections heavily — or made to lose. However, Mohtarma’s ordeal was just beginning. There were rumours doing the rounds that she had handed over a list of Sikh pro-Khalistan activists in Indian Punjab to the Indian government and that she was likely to be charged with treason for it. Mohtarma took the accusation seriously and had come to see the Air Marshal in this regard.
There was a long one-on-one meeting and, after her departure, the Air Marshal came to the study and said that Mohtarma was seeking his support in case the Khalistan case was opened. The Air Marshal had asked why she was seeking his support and she had said that he had cast iron integrity and his support could protect her.
The Air Marshal asked us for the initial conclusions of our election analysis and we all concluded that the polls had been massively rigged. The Air Marshal was visibly disturbed with the rigging of the elections and now with the threat of treason charges against Mohtarma. He took both as links in a chain of events meant to undermine democracy in the country. He also said that he was opposed to the PPP, but there was now a bigger threat. Between the Air Marshal and Omar, who was also provincial President of the NWFP Tehrik-e-Istiqlal, they decided to extend support to Mohtarma and, following a party meeting, the Pakistan Democratic Alliance was born. Within a year, our 500-page election analysis, titled How an Election was Stolen? was published by the PDA, which presented detailed empirical evidence of rigging and also identified 70 seats where rigging had allegedly taken place. The establishment was placed on the backfoot and the charges against Mohtarma never materialised.