Within hours of President Pervez Musharraf saying he would not allow Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan till the national elections, Bhutto has responded that she is bent on returning much earlier, come what may.
She has been lately meeting a number of her party leaders - exiled, like herself - in London and Dubai to chalk out her return schedule, and also - if possible - broker a few alliances, sources close to her told the Hindustan Times. "But even if no alliance is stitched together she will go it alone," said Wajid Shamshul Hasan, a former Pakistan High Commissioner in Britain who is now her close adviser.
The tentative plan is for her to fly from London with a large team of over 150 people: including journalists, MPs, political analysts and human rights activists as soon as election schedules are announced. The present National Assembly's tenure will end in October and elections, as per the Pakistan Constitution, have to be held within 90 days after that. "It means she may go in September or October," said Hasan.
Where she will land is still not decided. But it will not be kept a secret. "We want a million people to come out to greet her," said Hasan. And since she intends to take a regular flight, and not a chartered one, it will not be possible for the military regime to refuse the aircraft permission to land.
But HT has learnt that landing at Karachi or Islamabad is ruled out, given the recent carnage in Karachi and the likely clampdown in Pakistan's Capital. At the moment Peshawar appears to be the favoured destination.
There are political compulsions and ground realities that make it imperative for her to return. Her Pakistan's Peoples Party (PPP) won the maximum votes in the last elections in October 2002, with people turning out defiantly in her support even though she was far away. But reports are that this round they may not support her as much unless she is physically present.
Bhutto also knows that, once she lands anywhere in Pakistan, Musharraf cannot deport her. He can only take her into custody and that may prove to be the last straw for the people's tolerance of the general. The country may plunge into chaos, which surely his backers like the United States and Britain would not want. The British High Commissioner there has already said that Musharraf must restore full democracy and choose between his uniform and civilian outfit.
Bhutto is ready to dare Mushrraf to detain her while suggesting that he should call a round table conference of all political leaders including Nawaz Sharif to evolve ways for a fair and transparent election.
Meanwhile Sharif, who is these days in London, has also showed his inclination to return before elections, even if he is arrested. But the problem is that, as a source pointed out, there is an agreement signed between him and the General. Under its terms Musharraf can deport him back to Saudi Arabia whenever he arrives.