Last week, Sheikh Rasheed, the veteran parliamentarian from Rawalpindi, was busy leaking information about meetings of opposition politicians with the military’s top brass. Such disclosures were meant to expose the duplicitous behaviour of opposition politicians, he said.

The timing of the disclosure was key. It came just on the heels of the All Parties Conference in which opposition politicians urged free and fair elections, without any meddling from outside, demanded the prime minister’s resignation and warned of a protest march towards the capital. But these politicians are two-faced, Sheikh Rasheed said. They meet the powerful figures in private and plead their cases. In public, they show a different, defiant face. This will not do, he thundered.

These leaks have set off a political scandal. Sheikh Rasheed certainly knows how to work the media. In his recently published autobiography “From Lal Haveli to United Nation”, Sheikh writes about his early days in politics and how he used to sit late at night in newspaper offices, ensuring his news was printed. One of his brothers worked briefly as a sub-editor at Nawa-i-Waqt, the sister publication of The Nation. Now, in the age of electronic media, Sheikh has kept himself relevant through spicy, witty one-liners and political predictions on television.

While he traded barbs with opposition politicians over their secretive meetings with the top brass, Sheikh himself takes pride in such associations. He has mastered the art of speaking with a forked tongue. He likes to throw names of powerful figures in uniform, claiming close bonds, often suggesting that he is speaking on their behalf. It is a perception that Sheikh has built and propagated over the long years in politics. ‘Gate no. 4’ of the General Headquarters figures repeatedly in his speeches and television appearances. If he could have his way, he’d say that he holds the key to the venerated entrance.

Sheikh Rasheed’s first encounter, in his own words, with a spy chief, was with Lt Gen Akhtar Abdur Rehman in the early 80s. He says he impressed the spy chief in the first meeting, which was arranged through an acquaintance Col Trimzi. Sheikh used to be summoned by the late general for a meeting every two to three months. “He used to call me Rommel of politics,” Sheikh Rashid writes on page 104 of his autobiography. (Erwin Rommel was one of Adolf Hitler’s celebrated generals. A military theorist, he was known as ‘desert fox.’)

The remaining part of the autobiography is silent on his subsequent meetings with other intelligence chiefs. Surely, there must have been other interactions. I wish Sheikh had shed some light on these. Interestingly, on some occasions, Sheikh is critical of the political ambitions of two former chiefs, Gen Aslam Beg and Gen Asif Nawaz Janjua (Page 187). With Musharraf, however, Sheikh struck a close friendship. Gen Musharraf endearingly called him “Sheikho.” They often played badminton together—and shared the love of Cuban cigars.

Sheikh Rasheed claims he also knows COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa very well, especially because the Chief also studied from Gordon College, Rawalpindi, the alma mater of the veteran politician. It is a curious claim, given the age difference between the two—Sheikh being much senior to the army chief. But the army chief is certainly kind towards him. Sheikh himself acknowledges that his life was saved earlier this year from Covid-19 because he was admitted to the military hospital on the directions of Gen Bajwa.

This reminds me what Sheikh Rasheed told me once when I interviewed him during the Panama court case hearings in 2017. He said: “Remember, friendship or enmity should be just with the ‘number one’.”

Sheikh Rasheed leaks put PML-N on the back-foot. The interview by DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar further put pressure on PML-N. The party supporters thought the base was energised after the London speech by Nawaz Sharif. But disclosures that Khawaja Asif had no qualms to seek the army chief’s help on the night of the 2018 elections and Muhammad Zubair’s meetings with the army chief pleading the case of both Nawaz and Maryam dented the party’s narrative.

However, such backroom meetings and interactions are an essential staple of politics. Not all political conversations take place in the glare of the public spotlight. Such meetings have taken place in the past. They will continue in the future. It’s only embarrassing when they become public.

Salman Masood

The writer is Editor, The Nation. He can be reached at salman@nation.com.pk and tweets @salmanmasood.