General Pervez Musharraf can be accused of anything but cowardice. It wasn't so much the hope of democratically regaining power in Pakistan that made him end his self-imposed exile. It was the anxiety to live down the image of a commando running scared for his life.
His fledgling All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) might capture some talking space in the poll campaign. But it's unlikely to make a difference in the essentially triangular contest between the Pakistan People's Party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaaf in the upcoming polls.
The general could at best aspire to enter the National Assembly with the help of Altaf Hussain's Muttahida Quami Movement, the Sindh-centric party of Mohajirs he patronised in his heyday. That perhaps explains the reason why he landed in Karachi from Dubai. The port city's an MQM stronghold that many believe could be his springboard to electoral politics.
"Where are the people who said I'll never return home?" he asked upon returning. The point the general wanted proved instantly was that he wasn't about to walk into the sunset anytime soon. But his "Save Pakistan" slogan met with muted reverberations in the city where street violence is an everyday phenomenon.
Having usurped rather than earned the power he wielded until being forced out of office some four years ago, the General's first real brush with electoral politics could be a chastening experience. That he has problems coming to terms with defeat was evident when he telephoned Atal Behari Vajpayee in the middle of a tea party hosted by the late Chandrashekhar after the NDA's 2004 debacle. "Yeh kya ho gaya? (how could this happen?)," he exclaimed. I happened to be present and could overhear the BJP veteran tell the then all powerful Pak leader that victories and defeats were all part of democracy: "Jamhooriyat mein aisa aksar ho jata hai general saab."
The Pakistan to which Musharraf returned bears little or no resemblance to the one in which he was the last court of appeal. Its economy is in shambles, the army is fighting a defensive war against terrorism and the polity is so divided that the elections under a caretaker regime could throw up a badly hung House.
Finding regular allies in the poll battle will be an uphill task for Musharraf. Having permitted drone attacks by the US in Pakistan, he's more of a fifth columnist than a hero among a vocal section of the electorate. The ultras led by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have threatened to send suicide bombers after him to avenge the military raid on gun-toting Islamists in Islamabad's Lal Masjid and the killing of Baloch nationalist Nawab Akbar Bugti under his watch.
The antipathy against the former Army Chief is compounded by his treatment of the higher judiciary, restored after a massive civil society initiative spearheaded by the lawyers' community, and his other follies - such as the declaration of emergency in November 2007 - have since been categorised as subversion of the constitutional scheme.
The emergency saw massive muzzling of the electronic and other media he had helped expand in the early years of his rule to show himself as a benign dictator. That proved to be his major undoing together with the crackdown he ordered on the higher judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary.
The higher judiciary now in place includes judges arrested by Musharraf but restored by the PPP-led regime. Their role will be crucial in determining the deposed President's political future. The bail orders he secured before arriving in Pakistan are but a temporary reprieve. The legal challenges he faces might take a lifetime to resolve, especially in a country where the protection of democracy against the Army's intervention is a plank that binds the political class.
To make matters worse, Pakistan's still smarting from Musharraf's militarist approach in fighting terror. His one-time popularity with the US and Western powers is, in fact, his biggest handicap in the country where America is deeply despised. There's no love lost between him and the mainline PPP and PML (Nawaz). The pro-Army PML (Q) is keeping its counsel and his erstwhile admirer Imran Khan's apologetic for having supported the general after he wrested power from Sharif.
The Army helmed by his former understudy Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has its own set of dilemmas. It cannot countenance a former chief arrested or done in by militant groups. Either way, it will be a demoralising precedent for the forces that hold the country together.
In some ways, Musharraf can rightly claim to be a progressive dictator: he left a relatively robust economy, scrapped the separate electorate system and gave women reservation in legislatures. But his return isn't celebratory for his countrymen. It's mostly reminiscent of actions that pushed Pakistan into a morass of conflicts among institutions and communities, conflicts it still finds itself in the centre of today.