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In death, Benazir bridges ethnic divide

If the sentiment sustains, the PML (Q) and its backers in the establishment will be the worst affected in the February 18 polls, reports Vinod Sharma.

world Updated: Jan 07, 2008 21:35 IST
Vinod Sharma

There was a time when local bards at election rallies of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif would warn "fellow Punjabis" against the seductively charming Benazir Bhutto: "Aai Bibi akhan de khed wakhaondi aa, uthth Punjabi sathiya, aai koyi nawan sawang rachondi aa."

Punjab versus Sindh has been a recurrent theme in Pakistan's electoral politics. But in death, Benazir symbolizes unity. Sharif now is a self-declared ally of the PPP. The grief, the sorrow that has overtaken the people is felt from Khyber to Karachi.

If the sentiment sustains, the PML (Q) and its backers in the establishment will be the worst affected in the February 18 polls. Barely surprising that its leadership seeks to tap what it calls the "anti-PPP vote" in Punjab.

Does any such vote exist in the province accounting for 148 of the 272 directly elected seats in the 342-member National Assembly? Old timers maintain the anti-Bhutto or anti-PPP constituency converted long years ago into a positive PML (N) vote that saw Sharif making a clean sweep of Punjab in 1997.

They say the Q League's game was to whip up ethnic sentiments by spreading stories of Sindhi mobs attacking Punjabi-settlers in the southern province. Proof of this is the party's offer of relief to "ghair (non)-Sindhi" victims of rioting after Benazir's murder.

PML (Q) leader and former Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Ilahi disagrees: "The anti-PPP vote is intact on the ground. We are its sole claimants. Nawaz lost this constituency the day he befriended the PPP."

From the way Lahore mourned Benazir, a Punjabi upsurge against Sharif or the PPP seems unlikely. The Q League's only hope is to steal a verdict wherever possible with the help of police and local bodies, alleged a journalist who did not want to be named.

He drew attention to a PPP document detailing the "rigging plans" of elements in the establishment and the PML (Q). Be that as it may, civil rights activists have lost little time in trying to clear the air of any ethnic distrust.

Khadim Hussain Soomro, well-known writer and associate of late Sindhi nationalist leader G M Syed, has issued a written appeal against the Q League's parochial propaganda. "There was no ethnic angle to the violence in Sindh. I urge Punjabi intellectuals to educate public opinion against any divisive poll plank or agenda," he told HT.

On the positive side, the entente that binds the PML (N) and the PPP is a reflection of popular sentiment. Observers here trust Sharif for his promise to set up a post-poll coalition with the party at whose behest he withdrew his call for boycott of polls after the fatal gun-and-bomb attack on Benazir.

One can accuse Sharif of seeking to partake of the sympathy vote in Punjab and elsewhere. But there could be little argument over his change of heart, his anxiety to join forces with his one-time rival to give Pakistana popularly elected government.

He is acting on the premise that the country's two major mass-based parties need to hang together to avoid being hanged separately, The meeting of minds between Sharif and the PPP became evident when Asif Ali Zardari declared that all those who died with his wife were his friends from Punjab.

But Pervez Musharraf is the issue on which they differ: Sharif wanting him out; Zardari deliberately ambivalent.