The Benazir mission

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

PRIME MINISTER Atal Behari Vajpayee may not be in favour of a meeting with Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf at this juncture, but that did not prevent the Indian government from rolling out the red carpet for former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was on a "private" visit to Delhi in the last week of November. She was officially the guest of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). However, she spent more time meeting important political personalities both in the government and in the Opposition than talking about business matters. Benazir, who hopes to return to power, was given wide coverage by all leading Indian newspapers as she gave her opinions on contentious issues between India and Pakistan.

Benazir had planned a visit to India earlier in the year, but the Agra Summit in August between Vajpayee and Musharraf forced her to put if off. Benazir and Musharraf were then engaged in a war of words and a visit by her to India just before Musharraf's would have sent wrong signals to Islamabad. Benazir's visit has raised some eyebrows, especially as it comes at a time when bilateral relations have soured considerably.

There were signs that the military government has softened its stand on Benazir and her party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). In New Delhi, Benazir Bhutto was careful in her choice of words while criticising the military government and its policies. All the same, the views she expressed were not well received in Islamabad; some pro-establishment commentators characterised them as "anti-national".

Shireen M. Mazari, who is known to be close to the military regime, has said that Benazir Bhutto's pronouncements in Delhi on issues ranging from Kashmir to Afghanistan, were anti-Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto had laid all the blame for Pakistan's present discomfiture over Afghanistan to the policies pursued by the military government and its immediate predecessor, the democratically elected Nawaz Sharif government.

The meteoric rise of the Taliban started when Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan in the mid-1990s. Nasrullah Babbar, the Interior Minister in her Cabinet, was alleged to be the key architect of the Taliban, which started out as a small, armed movement of former madrassa students. Babbar was a mentor of sorts to Mullah Mohammad Omar, who went on to head the Taliban. When the Taliban movement took on the Afghan warlords, the Pakistan Army put its ammunition dump in Spinboldak at the disposal of the Taliban, leading to the chain of events that eventually saw the Taliban ensconced in Kabul.

During her visit Benazir Bhutto even claimed that Osama bin Laden played an important role in her unceremonious ouster from power during her second term in office. She claimed that the current predicament of Pakistan resulted from the flawed policies that were implemented after her ouster.

Benazir Bhutto has been quoted as saying that immediately after her departure from office, the "Taliban was hijacked by Al Qaeda and the Pakistan government". She characterised the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as a "state within a state" and added that even when she was Prime Minister, her conversations were monitored by the ISI. She blamed the military for encouraging Pakistan-based militant organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Harkatul Mujahideen to be active in the Kashmir valley. She said that during her tenure the government had ensured that no outside militant group hijacked the movement in Kashmir. Benazir Bhutto regretted that Kashmiri political organisations such as the All Parties Hurriyat Conference had been sidelined.

According to Benazir Bhutto, the army had planned a military adventure in Kargil for quite some time, with Musharraf as the leader. (The PPP later sought to clarify that her reference was not to the Kargil invasion. However, it said Musharraf had suggested a theoretical war game plan, which Benazir rejected as Prime Minister.) However, she made it clear that her basic stance on the Kashmir issue had not changed. She wanted the Kashmiri people to be allowed to determine their future freely. "There is a wide gulf between the two countries on Kashmir but there is convergence on issues like trade and the WTO," Benazir Bhutto said.

Benazir Bhutto emphasised the importance of keeping the dialogue process between the two countries going and suggested that the Sino-Indian relations could be a "political model" for Indo-Pakistan relations. "We should focus on conflict management if we cannot find a solution to the Kashmir dispute," she said. Benazir Bhutto also underlined the threat posed to the subcontinent by nuclear weapons.

Benazir Bhutto conceded that some of her remarks in New Delhi would no doubt have angered Musharraf. But she added that she was in India to improve relations between the two countries, which was also the stated goal of Musharraf. Benazir Bhutto is involved in the "Dubai process" that is now promoted by the U.S. to encourage rapprochement between Islamabad and New Delhi. There have been contacts between Indian officials and Benazir Bhutto in Dubai.

With politics in a state of flux in Pakistan, very few people dare to hazard a guess about the future course of Pakistani politics. But if there is a transition to democracy, Benazir Bhutto could once again emerge triumphant, given the paucity of political leaders of stature. Her position in favour of peace and goodwill in the subcontinent will earn her political points in Washington and New Delhi. She has declared that she would be the PPP's prime ministerial candidate if and when elections are called. Benazir Bhutto said that the U.S. and India, as the two biggest democracies, had "a role in facilitating" the return of democracy to Pakistan.

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