Musharraf @ Harvard: His Vision for Pakistan

September 8 – Undeterred by the strong midday heat, hundreds of Harvard students, faculty and staff arrived hours in advance to join a line that stretched down Eliot Street to hear Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf speak at the Kennedy School.

The burgeoning crowd was soon complemented by police barricades, mounted state troopers, the Secret Service, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors in what organizers described as some of the most stringent security ever provided for a dignitary’s visit to Harvard. Boston’s highway I-93 N had been shut down entirely for his escorted caravan, with open-backed SUVs carrying sharpshooters leading and following.

Once inside the crowded ARCO forum, the full-capacity audience listened as University President Larry Summers introduced Musharraf and described the close relationship that Harvard and Pakistan have enjoyed since the country’s independence in 1947. Summers also solemnly noted that recent events had put Pakistan in the global spotlight and that “the world was listening closely to its leaders.”

As the first in this year’s Institute of Politics speaker series, Musharraf’s task was to present his vision of Pakistan’s future. He flatly stated how Pakistan was “an important bridge between the West and Islam” and that his primary objective to stem the tide and shape Pakistan into a “moderate, modern, progressive, democratic and Islamic” nation, as was intended by the principles of its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Proceeding in an organized and linear fashion, Musharraf then laid out his four-pronged approach to remedy the economic and political erosion the country has faced in recent decades, by presenting his government’s program for development: (1) economic revival, (2) good governance, (3) political restructuring and (4) human capital development / poverty alleviation.

Musharraf also commented on the significant macroeconomic progress the country had made since his coming to the helm in October 1999, such as record foreign exchange reserves and exports, low inflation and a reduction in the national debt. Yet he was quick to point to the enormous challenges of poverty alleviation, social and legal reform and attracting FDI that the country still faces.

Musharraf also elucidated the country’s unique geopolitical status at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, and how that made it a strong player in both the regional and international stages.

He then described Pakistan’s strong historic ties with the United States and reiterated Pakistan’s position as a key ally in the global fight against terrorism. Addressing the issue on a more domestic front, he openly declared that, “militancy and extremism has no place in Pakistan” and that he was “determined not to let fringe elements ruin what we have put in place.”

The President then addressed issues on the minds of many in the audience – his political reform agenda, the empowerment of women and relations with India. Without batting an eyelid, he pledged his unwavering support to Pakistan’s return to democracy, which he said was well underway given the upcoming elections in October. Musharraf also reaffirmed his current policy of devolving power to people at the local level and strengthening municipal institutions. He spoke passionately about his desire to improve human rights in Pakistan by reforming the police and empowering minorities and women, by presenting his government’s plan to reserve an impressive 33% of National Assembly seats for Pakistani women.

Musharraf was equally firm in addressing the Kashmir issue, which he described as unfinished business from the time of Partition that needed to be resolved through the UN-mandated plebiscite allowing Kashmiris their rightful self-determination. He also condemned the massive deployment of troops on both sides of the border and made it clear that “peaceful relations with India” would only be possible when the doors to dialogue are opened. He also expressed his desire and commitment to resolve the impasse and spoke to the important role the U.S. could serve as a neutral peace-broker.

Musharraf also broached the subject of the xenophobia and discrimination that has arisen both in the east and the west in the post 9/11 environment. “Hate should have no market,” said Musharraf and passionately declared that the new world order be one of justice, fair play and mutual respect. He advocated increased interactions of people and scholars from the Western and Islamic worlds and in closing declared,
“We must do away with prejudice, we need peace and to build a better future for our children.”
Closing his speech to a standing ovation, the President then took questions from his highly engaged audience.

The animated Q&A session that followed brought a personal and human perspective to the event. Covering topics as diverse as Pakistan’s nuclear policy, gender equality, the much-debated preemptive attack on Iraq, the national referendum and the reformation of the feudal system, the world leader seemed in his element as he debated, listened and laughed with his audience.

His sense of wit, ability to speak extemporaneously, and a sense of sincerity shone through, especially at the last question, posed by HBS second year Massod Razzaq (OK), who asked, “What can we young, educated Pakistanis do to help our country?” to which the President promptly replied, “Come back and serve Pakistan, are you prepared to do that?”
As students filed out of the forum, many felt an imbued optimism and hope surrounding Pakistan’s role in the 21st century that lingering in the air.

Faheen Allibhoy (OC) grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, the UAE, Cyprus, the UK and the Philippines. After graduating from Wellesley College, she worked for two years at the International Finance Corporation (the private sector of the World Bank), and at Merrill Lynch.

Shaan Kandawalla (RC) grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. Before coming to HBS, she spent a year working in Pakistan with a Human Development Task Force to create a national plan of action for education, healthcare and economic development. After graduating from Wellesley College in 1998, she spent three years at Goldman Sachs.