Even the most cold-hearted critic of Pakistan could not have remained unmoved by the bloodbath in Karachi. The angry red flames that set the streets ablaze, the lifeless bodies lying scattered about the dusty sidewalks like forgotten garbage, the screeching sirens, the desperate, overcrowded hospitals, the defeated pleas for help and the inevitable pandemonium. And then, Benazir Bhutto herself, barely unhurt and finally forced to face the new realities of the land that was once her home.
To watch these images on late-night television was to be a mute witness to a country standing at a horrible, dangerous crossroads — a country fighting for life itself.
Ironically enough, the audacious assault on her was what everyone feared and expected — everyone, except Bhutto herself. I met her in Dubai just two days before she boarded the fateful flight back to Pakistan. Wasn’t she scared, I asked, by the gamble she was taking with her life? After all, the Taliban had threatened to send suicide bombers to greet her at the airport. She glared at me with characteristic defiance and, with a declamatory wave of the hand, said that suicide bombers were enemies of Islam; she was sure she would be safe.
At that time, I thought it was just the natural rhetoric of political performance — a sort of practised bravado. But looking back, and on deeper thought, I wonder — as have several commentators in the last 24 hours — whether she was perhaps genuinely out of sync with how deeply Pakistan had slid down the rabbit hole of fundamentalism in her absence.
And did she not fully understand that by piggybacking a ride home with General Musharraf, she was in fact stepping straight into quicksand that could easily ensnare her and leave her gasping for breath? It was obvious that the very pact that had enabled her to return home had simultaneously endangered her future forever.
After all, by making a ‘deal’ (it’s a word she rejects) with the General, she had made enemies on both sides. She had disillusioned many within her own constituency — especially the enlightened middle-class — who accuse her of selling out to a dictator.
At the same time, her vow to dismantle the “structure assembled by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies” made the military establishment she was negotiating with very nervous. They had allowed the genie out of the bottle, but now worried that it had acquired a life of its own. Their (unsuccessful) pleas for her to postpone her return were one sign of this lack of confidence.
And then there was the perception that the United States had mediated the talks between Bhutto and Musharraf, with Condoleezza Rice and Richard Boucher playing postmen. In a country seething with hatred for America, Bhutto is seen as secular, pro-West and a liberal. Throw in a degree from Oxford and she is The New York Times dream come true; and anathema for the religious orthodoxy back home.
It hasn’t stopped her, though, from being candid about the changes she imagines for Pakistan. Her critics will point out that she has conveniently forgotten her own complicated history with the Taliban. But whether it’s pragmatic and self-serving re-invention or a genuine ideological shift, she seems keen to leave the past behind. In Dubai, she didn’t hold back on her criticism of terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba or the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Their politics, she told me, were dangerous for all of South Asia.
Listening to her, what struck me was the paradox of being Benazir Bhutto — in many ways, she was both fighting against the General and fighting on the same side as him. It’s a paradox that may soon have to define India’s response to the turbulent politics of Pakistan as well.
For a while now, we have watched the unpredictable and volatile developments with horrified fascination. We may not come out and say so in as many words, but there is a silent sub-text to how we view Pakistan. We believe they had this coming to them. For decades, we have watched Islamabad export terrorism to our land. For years, we have warned against placing religion in the hands of mercenaries and maniacs. The peace process has spluttered and coughed up blood with alarming regularity precisely because the disease of doublespeak has never allowed any real healing. And now, as we watch Pakistan tumble into self-destructive decline, we can’t help but feel vindicated.
This covert gloating may be natural in the short term, but is entirely myopic and foolishly passive for India in the long run. The storm within Pakistan cannot leave us unscathed much longer.
Musharraf’s government is in serious danger of losing the war in the tribal belt of Waziristan. The Taliban is clearly winning the fight in Afghanistan, with its cadres now beginning to infiltrate the safe haven of Kabul as well. And the Lal Masjid stand-off in the heart of Islamabad was evidence, if any were needed, of just how weakened the Pakistani State is in the fight against fundamentalism.
But here’s the question: can India afford for Pakistan to lose this battle? Aren’t Pakistan’s enemies also opponents of the secular politics we believe in? Strategically speaking, once they are done wrecking havoc within, won’t we be next? India can no longer just stand by and watch the chaos next door with a thinly-disguised sense of satisfaction. On the contrary, we have reason to worry that the General’s war will soon be at our doorstep.
Bhutto has already spoken out against Islamabad’s policy of “strategic depth” within Afghanistan. This is diplomatic-speak for how Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have encouraged militant groups within Afghanistan just to remain competitive with India’s influence there. It may have been unthinkable once, but perhaps it’s now imperative that India take the lead in fostering a peace initiative in Afghanistan, with Hamid Karzai and Musharraf taken along as allies and partners. It may be the first step towards cleaning up the rot within a State where religion, politics and the army have mixed seamlessly into a poisonous cocktail.
India has to take the same dangerous gamble that Bhutto has with Musharraf. We have to treat him both as a potential opponent and a possible partner. For, this is no longer just about the neighbours; this could well soon be about us.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7