We arrived at the hotel where we were staying in Islamabad late at night, after taking the connection from Lahore. We were a bunch of journalists visiting Pakistan shortly after the Army coup that had ensconced General Pervez Musharraf as the President of the country. We walked into an atmosphere of merriment with our hosts from SAFMA – journalists of some repute in Pakistan— waiting with drinks (definitely not non-alcoholic)in hand – to welcome their Indian colleagues. Openly, even in the lobby of the hotel. We were astounded as most remembered the bread baskets carrying bottles of liquor being sent secretly by hotel managements to the rooms on previous visits. What has happened since? What has changed now?

“Musharraf '', our friends crowed in delight.

President Musharraf was not like other Pakistani leaders. For one, he was rumoured to like his evening tot or two. He was visibly fond of dogs, and was photographed carrying his pooches much to the horror of the extremist right wing groups in Pakistan. He had no time for overt religion or frills, and unlike Zia ul Haq put his uniform and ‘professionalism as a soldier’ on display. His casual clothes out of uniform struck a chord or two with some liberals of Pakistan,but the more discerning like the late Asma Jahangir were not at all convinced. That he was a creature of the Pakistan Army was a sufficient black mark against the general for those seeking democracy and rights in that country.

But Musharraf was a journalist's delight simply because he was a little crazy and unpredictable. And was accessible. India had first hand experience of the Musharraf quirkiness in the early days, at Agra. But that is a story in itself so I will leave it out of this article, except to say that he did want peace with India not because of any love lost, but because he did want to get a place in India-Pakistan history as THE peacemaker. In his desire to do so, he often lost sight of the reality of tense relations, and the fact that the push and shove that worked within Pakistan was seen as aggressive and hostile by the Indians.

Our first encounter as a huge delegation of Indian journalists with Musharraf was at a press conference in Islamabad. He loved it. He loved taking on difficult questions and answering them in detail. He never lost his cool, and enjoyed the challenge. This particular press conference went on for two hours with no sign of it coming to an end. Questions were exhausted as were most of the journalists but not the general. It was in the evening and I along with a few others from India started getting restless as our deadline to file the story was closing. And we could not leave until the President did.But the questions (most of them repeats by now) and the answers continued we started getting desperate. As there were so many newspoints but what good was it if we could not get our stories out. So I stood up and as politely as possible said, “Mr President we appreciate the time you have given us, but we have to file our stories and would be grateful if you would end the press conference.” There was silence in the packed hall as all eyes turned to Musharraf for his response. He was quiet, then smiled and said , “okay the last question.” The sense of relief was palpable.

At another meeting several former Generals and politicians had accompanied journalists for a large conference to Pakistan. One of our retired and well respected generals told me that he was the Indian Director General of Military Operations at the same time as Musharraf was DGMO from the Pakistani side. That was exciting as both were to meet, of course as part of the delegation. I thought this would be a great story and after the lowly ones like us were introduced to President Musharraf I hovered close by for the VIPs to meet. Our general met Musharraf, shook hands, and reminded him of their posts. I had expected Musharraf to be expansive, but instead he froze. The smile disappeared and after a quick handshake he turned away. Another Indian retired general who had been watching as keenly asked me later, “was it my imagination or did Musharraf turn away when told about the DGMO positions”. We could not figure it out, except for the fact that the handshake had reminded him of Indian democracy where our Army does not breed Presidents and Prime Ministers. A retired DGMO travelling economy like the lowly journalist, and another retired DGMO ruling a country!

Another time I was in Pakistan with a former foreign secretary and veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar. I am not naming the bureaucrat and the army officer as I am not sure whether they would like to be identified. We journalists don’t care. So Kuldip Nayar, at my insistence, used his formidable contacts and got us a meeting with President Musharraf. Just the three of us, a reporter's dream come true. It was a long meeting in which the general outlined his now famous peace plan for India and Pakistan, in some detail. We were clearly the sounding board. And the chosen vehicle to convey his new thought process to New Delhi. Of course my newspaper at the time carried it as a front page banner, but the government of the time decided not to jump at it —- as a senior bureaucrat told me shortly after — and let the same be communicated through more formal channels. But it was a very interesting meeting, to the point with the commas and full stops all thought out.

As an aside on the way back we had a days stopover at Lahore with of course, no visas. As journalists we were not deterred and in the past too had sneaked into the city without the visas, and returned in time to catch the flight to Delhi. This time we had a former foreign secretary to contend with. Well to cut a long story short, he joined us on the expedition. More so after we told him that he would earn notoriety for posterity, as if was caught the banner headlines would be, “.... Caught Roaming Around in Lahore Without a Visa”. It was like persuading a bunch of our Members of Parliament to go with us journalists to Rawalpindi, the military capital of Pakistan for which we never got official visas. Some of the more adventurous did make the journey, quite excited and apprehensive at the same time! Many, however, chickened out.