The murder of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto was interpreted by many as a signal that Pakistan would implode. But the nation has surprised everyone by not only coming through the tragedy but also putting itself on a positive trajectory. The key players — President Pervez Musharraf, PPP leader Asif Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) chief Nawaz Sharif — appear to have put aside differences to work towards a more democratic order.
On his part, Mr Musharraf has climbed down from his authoritarian stance that he must play a key role in the transition period. The sticking point among all three was the issue of reinstating the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf. This has now been solved after a constitutional package has been worked out which includes dilution of the general’s powers. The aim appears to be to allow Mr Musharraf to function with ‘dignity’ and chose a time for his exit from the scene.
At the moment, given the still overwhelming influence of the army on Pakistan’s polity, it would be unwise for the parties to push Mr Musharraf aside. He still remains the key interlocutor with the US in its fight against terrorism and this cannot be overlooked by the new government. Of course, the PPP and PML(N) still differ on several issues. But both seem to be willing to make the best of the circumstances that have propelled the two together. For India, the signals are encouraging. Mr Zardari has expressed his intention of visiting India. He has, of late, made positive statements that suggest that he is looking to upgrade ties with New Delhi.
Mr Sharif has been more circumspect. But he too realises that the past policy of cross-border terrorism will rebound on Pakistan. With elections looming large, New Delhi’s response has been muted so far. While this was a good counter to Pakistan’s previous India-bashing, now we need to be more proactive in engaging with democratic forces in that country. India has a huge stake in Pakistan’s experiment with democracy. For a change, Pakistan is holding out the olive branch. If we seize it, a new era of stability could be in the offing for the fractious South Asian region.