Karachi-based businessman Mamnoon Hussain was elected to succeed Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s president on July 30. We recently spoke with the unassuming and mild-mannered 72-year-old Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) stalwart and one-time Sindh governor about his new role and more. Excerpts:
How did you get involved in politics?
I was born a Muslim Leaguer. My father wasn’t very active in politics, but he always believed in the ideology of the Pakistan Muslim League. I joined the PMLN in 1993, shortly after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan had dismissed Nawaz Sharif’s first government. Mian [Nawaz Sharif] sahib was shocked [about his dismissal]. I didn’t know him then. I appealed to the president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry; we organized protests against the prime minister’s removal. When [Sharif] next visited Karachi, he summoned me. He asked me why I had done it, why I had organized the protests. I told him, simple, after a very long time there had finally been a government working for the good of the business community.
How did you react when you found out you were nominated for president?
It didn’t come as a shock. I was already aware that my name was under consideration, along with four or five other names. When I found out I was the final choice, I thought this sounds fine. Better, I guess.
Sharif’s next government was ousted in 1999 by the then-Army chief. Were the Musharraf years challenging for you personally?
Those were tough times. Musharraf’s regime used every trick in the book to dismantle the PMLN. I was locked up in a Karachi jail for one month on the charge of disturbing public order. Musharraf subjected our party workers to constant humiliation and torture. Let me give you an example: when we would go to visit Nawaz Sharif in lockup, the authorities would only allow a handful of us—three or four at a time from over a hundred people gathered there—to meet him. Also, let me clarify one thing. I wasn’t arrested on the day of the coup. This was because on that day President Rafiq Tarrar had invited me to a seminar. Now had I been in Karachi, I would have been in cuffs. In a way that invitation became my saving grace, although they caught up with me very soon.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution renders the office of the president largely ceremonial. How do you feel about this?
That is exactly how the role of the president should be in a democratic country. The president should not interfere in the running of the government, as he did prior to the 18th Amendment. I have no complaints. Listen, the head of the state can still do a lot provided he is interested in doing so. He can work to bring harmony among the provinces. More importantly, he can work for education. Do you know the president is also the chancellor of most universities in Pakistan?
What did you mean when you said you would never be a president like Khan or Zardari?
Why do I even need to follow their example? I am Mamnoon Hussain. I do not need to follow anyone’s lead. During Zardari’s term, his office was deeply political. It was not hidden knowledge that he was running a party from his presidency. He didn’t seem to care much about keeping the office separate. Okay, I understand that if a person has been elected on the basis of a party, his loyalties will always be with that party. Yet, one needs to be careful. Then there was corruption. In my opinion, corruption was introduced and spread during Zardari’s government. Before his government took over, the debt was Rs. 6,000 billion and now it is Rs. 14,000 billion. Where did the money go? As for Ghulam Ishaq Khan, he had a very bureaucratic way of doing his job. Khan once told Nawaz Sharif—who narrated this to me—that to successfully rule a country one should not keep giving people what they want. People should come begging with their palms spread. Only then should you heed them. That was his mindset.
Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party boycotted the presidential election. Was this wise?
The PPP has made up its mind to go against the judiciary. There are many cases against the party and its chief lying in the courtrooms. And there is also a good possibility the verdicts will not be in their favor. This is the only reason they have chosen to stay out of the presidential election, I am sure of it. Have you heard what some of their politicians are saying on talk shows? It can easily fall in the category of contempt of court. But then, again, I don’t have any personal vendetta against the PPP. I can work with them as president. I will remain neutral, I will not work for the [PMLN] but for the country, which is my responsibility.
Why is your name associated with food?
Let me clarify this once and for all: I do not own any catering business. I can barely cook. My family was in the business of shoes and I am in work in the garments sector. But, yes, my in-laws have a food connection. My father-in-law owns Fresco Sweets in Karachi.
Hussain is the cover subject of our next double issue, out on newsstands ahead of Eid.