For the next deal

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The dormant political scene of Pakistan comes alive again. And there is a quickening of the pace in the war of nerves between the Pervez Musharraf government and the chief contender to power, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

WILL she? Won't she? And if she will, then when and how? Above all, will they let her?

Such questions have dominated the political debate in Pakistan ever since former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left for a safe haven in Saudi Arabia in December 2000. The military set-up is meanwhile desperate for an acceptable democratic face while holding on to the reins of power.

Benazir Bhutto. Is she the Prime Minister-to-be?-MICHAEL SPRINGER/GAMMA

The self-exiled former Premier, Benazir Bhutto, might be the only alternative possibility, but politics in Pakistan is not easily predictable. And she faces too many obstacles in any journey back to the Prime Ministerial office.

And yet the guessing game goes on. Political intrigues and military machinations comprise the daily diet of analysts in Islamabad. Every small event, comment or even a published interview kickstarts speculation about a possible return of the "prodigal daughter" to the "Land of the Pure" to deliver it from the dictatorial yoke and to democracy.

The quickening of the pace in the war of nerves between the Pervez Musharraf government and the chief contender to power, Benazir Bhutto, over the past few weeks has added to the conundrum. The Supreme Court judgment favouring Benazir Bhutto almost coincided with Musharraf categorically ruling out retirement. There followed a spate of articles and interviews with the former Prime Minister in which she criticised the army right and left. Then came claims from the government about having retrieved 22,000 documents from the United Kingdom concerning wrongdoing by her.

While the cynics dismiss all this as an endless and fruitless engagement, optimists still believe in the battle against the iron grip of military rule. Pakistan is under military rule for the third spell in the 53 years of its existence. The khakis, as Army personnel are generally referred to in the country, have been at the helm of affairs for more number of years than all the civilian spells put together. But the people still seem to grab at every chance that promises a break. Ironically, the yearning for change is the same whether it is the military or the political class that is at the helm of affairs.

After a long time, there was some public enthusiasm when the Supreme Court set aside the corruption charges against Benazir Bhutto. The highest court of the land quashed the conviction by the Lahore High Court of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader. Of course, the apex court also ordered a re-trial, but a re-trial means another day for the 'Daughter of the East'.

So the brief Supreme Court order has breathed new life into the dormant politics of Pakistan. Close on the heels of the order, Benazir summoned the top PPP brass to London, where she has been living, for consultations. Immediately, the index of expectations soared. Does she really mean to end her self-exile this time? Is she planning to confront the military whom she has been criticising in interview after interview and article after article or, as the cynics would have one believe, has she struck another deal?

After all, 'deal' is a special word in Pakistani politics. Former Prime Minister and the supreme leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), Nawaz Sharif, struck a deal with the military when he chose a safe exit to Saudi Arabia even as his party was negotiating another deal with the PPP as part of the now aborted Alliance for Restoration for Democracy (ARD). Benazir has herself claimed that her last government was dismissed as part of a deal between the military and the then President - after which Nawaz Sharif was brought to power in rigged elections. Before that, insiders believe and she herself has admitted that she came to power, at least for the second term, as part of a deal with the military.

Against this backdrop, the word ironically evokes little response from the person on the street. Gen. Musharraf had appeared to be safely ensconced in his dictatorial chair when the Supreme Court verdict almost cleared the way for Bhutto's possible return. Whether it was an engineered one, as in the case of the previous verdicts that framed her as the tapes released by her earlier this year showed, is another question.

General Pervez Musharraf. It is clear that his government would do everything possible to keep Benazir Bhutto away from the domestic turf.-VAN DER STOCKT/GAMMA

A twist in the tale came with the government's claims in the second week of April that it had managed to get those bundles of incriminating documents against her from the British courts. The charge was promptly questioned by the PPP as the leaders of the party regrouped in London to rethink strategy. The next few weeks promise to be exciting as Benazir Bhutto plans her moves. That the Musharraf government would do everything possible to keep her away from the domestic turf is evident from the way it organised the moves that led to the latest decision of a British court to hand over details of the bank accounts of the Bhuttos.

A FEW clues to the tangle that is Pakistani politics today can be found in a latest published article by Benazir Bhutto. Here she claims that the Chief Executive has plans to become the President of Pakistan and assume far-reaching powers to alter the Constitution, override the Prime Minister and even dismiss one almost at whim. Benazir wrote: "Planned first is the election of military ruler Musharraf as President. Planned second is to arm him with a formidable array of weapons. These include dismissing a Prime Minister, as opposed to the Assembly, according to his discretion. Given that five Assemblies were dismissed in the last 14 years, Pakistan can look forward to a repeat of the past."

Is that the scenario one should expect to unfold in the weeks to come? After all, Gen. Musharraf is due to retire in October. And in that case, is Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister-to-be?

Maybe. If she can manage to counter the other corruption charges against her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari and if she can sort out her differences with the sundry power centres in Pakistan whom she has antagonised.

In the five years since she left the country, Pakistani society has become more indifferent and polarised. The all-powerful Army, the intelligence agencies and the religious fundamentalists have grown greatly in power and clout during this period. Her views on the Taliban and the Kashmir problem make her unacceptable to these lobbies.

She is seen as a pro-West and pro-U.S. leader, while in Pakistan as a whole over the past few years the American influence has diminished greatly and there is a perceivable anti-West feeling, especially among the fundamentalists.

It is not enough for Benazir Bhutto to be on the right side of the General. She should be prepared to make the necessary compromises with the all-powerful intelligence apparatus, the fundamentalists and the dreaded Taliban. After all, there is total convergence in the worldview of the military and the religious and militant organisations based in Pakistan when it comes to the Taliban and Kashmir. And the logic dictates that anyone who differs with these powerful forces has little chance of capturing power. Even according to Gen. Musharraf, the number of religious bigots in Pakistan is around one per cent of the total population. Statistically it sounds comforting. But when translated into reality, it means a mind-boggling figure of 1.4 million extremists.

Theoretically it can be argued that the majority of 99 per cent of Pakistan is on the side of Benazir Bhutto. But the majority is silent in the face of gun-wielding extremists. The harsh reality is that the former Prime Minister is no longer the darling of the masses, particularly after her two stints in power - 1986-88 and 1993-96. She has nothing spectacular to show, certainly not anything like the impressions left behind by her illustrious father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The shrewd politician that she is, Benazir Bhutto is conscious of the odds she faces in realising her dream of getting back into the saddle.

That explains her blowing 'hot and cold' against the military regime. Benazir Bhutto has sent enough signals of her willingness to compromise with the military top brass.

She knows that Gen. Musharraf has come to stay and would not vacate the chair easily. In the Urdu daily Ausaf, Benazir Bhutto said that she would have no problem if Gen. Musharraf were to take over as President. In a previous interview she was quoted as saying that any day she would prefer Gen. Musharraf over Sharif.

But the trouble is that Gen. Musharraf is totally identified with the policies of the military on the twin issues of Afghanistan and Kashmir. In a lengthy article in the English daily The News, published a day after her interview to the Urdu daily, Benazir Bhutto virtually accused Gen. Musharraf of paving the way for a take-over by fundamentalist forces in Pakistan.

And so the game goes on. The outcome is anybody's guess.

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