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PPPortent for the future

There are few people in this world who can count themselves as lucky as Benazir Bhutto. It is seldom that anyone gets two opportunities in just a few weeks to make history, writes S Akbar Zaidi.

india Updated: Nov 06, 2007 23:00 IST
S Akbar Zaidi

There are few people in this world who can count themselves as lucky as Benazir Bhutto. It is seldom that anyone, leave alone a politician, gets two opportunities in just a few weeks to make history. Politicians wait years for a chance to change the future of their country. But Bhutto, who was offered such an opportunity a few weeks ago, again holds the cards to change Pakistan’s course into the future.

Bhutto ruined her first chance because of her desperation and opportunism. When the lawyers’ movement was at its peak during the summer, Bhutto sat on the sidelines. Worse, she was making deals with Pakistan’s General-President to make a lateral entry into the country’s politics and to have all cases against her withdrawn. The so-called National Reconciliation Order promulgated by President Pervez Musharraf, while supposedly benefiting over 500 politicians and bureaucrats, was thought to have been specifically designed in order to withdraw the numerous cases of corruption against Bhutto. Estimates in the press suggested that she would have gained $1.5 billion through this deal.

It was this short-sightedness, albeit worth $ 1.5 billion, and the opportunity to come back into politics after almost a decade that resulted in Bhutto selling her soul to the military and the General. At a time when Musharraf was down and out, with a substantial section of the society supporting the lawyers and Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Bhutto was making a deal. At a time when she could have endorsed the lawyers’ struggle, given one last push to the crumbling military edifice propped up by Musharraf and got rid of him and his praetorian democracy, Bhutto thought it better to save her personal fortune.

Bhutto was taken to task by her own party and by many independent analysts for selling out to the General. She let him off the hook and gave him another lease of life at a time when one could see the beginning of a popular movement against Musharraf in Pakistan. It was Musharraf who desperately needed her at that time, not the other way around. The deal allowed them both to re-invent their political futures.

However, while not coming out in support of the popular movement was bad enough, probably the most anti-democratic step taken by Bhutto and her party and one that surely saved Musharraf’s political career then was her party’s decision to go along with the President-in-uniform vote in the National Assembly. One cannot say what would have happened if that script had been played out fully. Yet, history has allowed Bhutto another chance to either push for real democracy or again save Musharraf’s political future.

Pakistan is now under martial law. Its Constitution is in abeyance, its media have been strangulated and, so far, a few thousand lawyers and other activists have been arrested. Numerous politicians are under house arrest as are members of the highest judiciary. The one person of any significance who is free is Bhutto.

Despite her opportunism and anti-democratic stance, Bhutto has emerged as the face of hope in a new political set-up. She is already seeming prime ministerial, what with the British Foreign Secretary talking to her, as also other foreign officials. She is making the right noises in press conferences about the damage that could be done to Pakistan if the Emergency continues indefinitely. She has also condemned Musharraf, albeit in a soft manner. But it is apparent from Bhutto’s statements that she is still playing the waiting game, hoping that something will give without her having to make a decision. Soon, though, it will be clear how she and her party play their cards.

In all this excitement, even though Pakistan is without its Constitution, we must remind ourselves that the country still has elected parliamentarians and an elected prime minister. Shaukat Aziz’s term as PM and that of the National Assembly runs out on November 15. Under the immediate circumstances, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is perhaps the most important constituent of that National Assembly. The last time, her party ensured the re-election of a serving military man as Pakistan’s President. It is to be seen what role Bhutto’s party will play when the National Assembly is summoned again before November 15.

With information sporadic and the rumour mills working overtime, it is difficult to separate fact from speculation. For example, most Pakistani newspapers say that Bhutto will proceed with her previously planned visit to the heart of civilian and military politics, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, in the next three days. There are also reports saying that Bhutto ‘will be invited’ to Parliament House to address envoys from 70 countries. If this isn’t prime ministerial, what is? In the last 72 hours, there have been dozens of reports suggesting that not only was Bhutto informed in advance of the Emergency, but that a meeting between her and the ‘presidency’ is imminent. Moreover, of the many activists arrested, PPP activists are conspicuous by their absence.

There is no doubt that more than Pakistan, it is Musharraf who is facing his severest crisis. It is clear that the Emergency was imposed simply to save his skin — and his uniform — before the Supreme Court issued its decision on whether he could (even after he had already done so) run for the office of President. Three days into the Emergency, Musharraf is facing pressure not just from the lawyers in Pakistan, but also from foreign governments, which have informed him of their displeasure about the turn of events. At this juncture, Musharraf needs all the support he can muster. Who better to turn to than Bhutto?

It is likely that Bhutto will be offered the greatest deal of her life. She could be the choice for an interim caretaker PM (perhaps for a year), with a uniform-less Musharraf as President. This arrangement would suit them both. President Musharraf could fulfil many of his promises and live to fight for many years, while Bhutto could make her comeback into Pakistani politics. She, too, will justify her decision just as Musharraf did three days ago — all for the national good. Little does she realise that such an arrangement may not work.

A hard-headed President and an equally hard-headed Prime Minister, both dependent on each other rather than on any semblance of popular support, are unlikely to be able to work together for long. Yet, that is probably the last thing on their minds at the moment.

For Bhutto, there is an alternative that could truly make her the champion of democracy in Pakistan, and not just the next interim caretaker PM. At this critical juncture, she can side with the popular struggle against Musharraf and military rule and lead Pakistan to a more meaningful form of democracy than it has seen in the past. If she has anything to learn from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — and sadly, she has learnt little — it is to know when to serve a General, and when to break free from his apron strings and to make one’s own destiny. One will not have to wait long to know what choice she makes.

(S Akbar Zaidi is an independent Karachi-based analyst)