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Elections now a distant dream in Pak

After Benazir's assassination, the January 8 elections have become purposeless, reports Vinod Sharma.

world Updated: Dec 28, 2007 02:02 IST
Vinod Sharma

When alive, Benazir Bhutto would often say her country had just two institutions — the People’s Party of Pakistan and the fauj. The boast wasn’t quite far from truth; the PPP, with its pan-Pakistan presence and matchless Bhutto charisma, being the only moderate political force that cut across provincial divides and sub-nationalities.

Pakistan without Benazir is like India without Indira. The comparison isn’t out of place. In an interview some years ago to a house journal of the London School of Economics, she named three role models — father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi and the Joan of Arc.

It remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s best known dynasty would, like the Gandhi family, have a scion goaded into public life. For the present however, the January 8 elections have become purposeless. To the many tragic similarities between the Bhuttos and the Gandhis, one more has got added. Like Benazir, Rajiv Gandhi too was killed by a suicide bomber while campaigning for his party in 1991.

The other Pakistani institution, the Army, is as much in a shambles as the PPP. But its role in keeping the country orderly and united seems to have increased manifold. President Pervez Musharraf cannot absolve himself of the security lapses that brought about the tragedy. Yet, post-Benazir, he’s the only surviving Pakistani face with some acceptability in the US and the West.

As a woman in politics, Benazir was forever the target of the Islamic fringe. What made her a greater anathema was her proximity to the US. Former state department official Richard Armitage saw perhaps the writing on the wall when he cautioned Washington against doing anything that made Benazir look like “America’s girl.”

For her part, Benazir justified her participation in elections under an increasingly unpopular Musharraf on the ground that Pakistan required a transition at the current juncture.

Her removal from the scene makes even that baby-step towards popular rule seem a distant, almost unachievable dream.

In Pakistan, Benazir personified democratic values. It isn't hard to imagine what lured her to Liaquat Bagh in the heart of Rawalpindi. The park, where Pakistan's first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan fell to an assassin's bullet in 1951, was the venue of many memorable PPP rallies.

The multitudes Benazir attracted would rise and fall wave-like at her command. For the PPP's hardcore supporters, who go by the name of jiyalas, she was the Daughter of the East--the sole custodian of the legacy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In fact, at Rawalpindi and in Peshawar in 1993, I heard poet Habib Jalib sing to an adulatory crowd: "Tum hamain is liye bhi achchi lagti ho hei Benazir, ke terey chehre main hamain Bhutto nazar aata hai."

Jalib wasn't alone in seeing Zulfikar's reflection in Benazir's persona. Hers was the face that launched democracy in Pakistan in 1988, almost a decade after Zia-ul-Haq hanged her father in 1979.

With destiny again being cruel to the Bhutto name, the fate of the PPP and thereby of Pakistan hangs in balance. One cannot rule out the possibility of the family's fourth generation led by her eldest child Bilawal taking the centre-stage.

It was Zulfikar who schooled his daughter in politics and diplomacy. Fate has willed similarly for Bilawal, whose grooming is now the responsibility of his father Asif Ali Zardari, who hasn't just lost his spouse but someone he'd often refer to as "my leader."

After the father-son duo appeared at a press conference in Dubai in 2005, a senior PPP official told HT that Zardari was keen to see Bilawal, who bears a striking resemblance with Zulfikar, in politics. But the idea wasn't greatly appreciated by Benazir.

A brief conversation I then had with Bilawal was about his last visit to Pakistan. "I haven't been there lately. But there isn't any ban on my entry," he said. Hundreds and thousands of Benazir's devastated admirers could soon force Master Bhutto to be in their midst-- breaking all barricades.