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J. Sri Raman: The Return of Benazir Bhutto

The Return of Benazir Bhutto

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

She came back, she was seen, she conquered - that might have served as the wrap-up line for the repeated footage on South Asian television channels of a former prime minister's return to Pakistan on Thursday. The summary, however, would not have stated the exact truth about the event.

It was not just the bomb blasts that made it a horrendous homecoming for Benazir Bhutto. At least 135 lifeless bodies, bloody and torn, were strewn around her some ten hours after her triumphant return. She landed in Karachi, capital of Sindh, her home province, to a tumultuous popular reception around 2 PM. Alighting from her plane, she raised her hands in gratitude to God at the end of her eight-year-long exile, before setting out in a protected truck for the mausoleum of Pakistan's founder Mohamed Ali Jinnah and a proposed public rally.

It turned out to be a journey from prayer to panic, from dramatically emotional scenes to dreadfully benumbing ones. The 25,000 security personnel deployed in the port city could not stop the two explosions around midnight, which left about 500 seriously wounded as well. The question Pakistan now faces is about its larger and longer political journey.

What the eventful day showed, above all, was there was no easy return for the country to democracy. After a disaster without precedent in Pakistan, it will be foolhardy not to expect further threats to the process from forces determined to the point of desperation.

The whodunit of it remains hard to crack. There is some evidence against every suspect, and none of them has a convincing alibi. Was it the terrorists, of al-Qaeda or any other variety? Very possible. Taliban leader Haji Omar had, only the other day, proclaimed Benazir would not be spared because she had "made a deal" with the US. Was it Islamabad? The possibility can't be ruled out. Had not President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz repeatedly "advised" Benazir against an early return despite the deal with her?

Benazir's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who is also a leader of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), was quick to blame the tragedy on Pakistan's intelligence agencies. He asked, making a point, "Why would the terrorists target her [Benazir] even before she came to power, and not those in power right now?" Benazir herself demanded the sacking of the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Significantly, neither she nor Zardari attacked either Musharraf or his government frontally. She, in fact, had a telephone conversation with Musharraf who, in a statement, condemned the blasts as "a conspiracy against democracy."

The hand behind the crime may still be hidden. It is clear, however, the Benazir-Musharraf deal is very much intact. It is also clear the events of the bloody Thursday have given an advantage to Benazir. It is too early to say, however, that they have done the same for democracy.

The PPP is now a proven political force. The hundreds of thousands who turned out to receive the party supremo left hardly any doubt that the support base created by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father, who died at the hands of military dictator Zia ul Haq, has suffered no serious erosion. The day's events not only illustrated but also increased Benazir's famed charisma.

As eminent Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi puts it: "If the ruling party [Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League Quaide Azam] tries to repress the crowds, she will become defiant and heroic. If she is attacked by the extremists, she will become a living martyr. It is a win-win situation for her, right now at least."

The proposed public rally has, of course, been canceled. Benazir has, in a manner of speaking, been placed under house arrest with authorities asking her not to venture far out. The entire episode, however, has raised her stature immeasurably overnight. She shines all the more by contrast with the other former Prime Minister Nawas Sharif who, too, attempted a triumphant return on September 10 but beat an ignominious retreat.

Informed sources say some unsettled details of the Benazir-Musharraf deal are to be negotiated in the coming days. But, even if and when complete, it won't be a deal for full-fledged democracy.

The deal, at best, only envisages a military-civilian halfway house to democracy. It will be yet another version of the mishmash that, as we have seen in these columns before, is being cooked up for Bangladesh. That, as every child knows, is the road map guiding the third but dominant party to the deal - Washington, which has to combine its crusade for democracy with the one against "global terror."

The mixed solution may work better, some might argue, in Pakistan in view of its past experience. As Pakistani political researcher and anti-militarist campaigner Firoz R. Khan wrote in June 2003 (when Musharraf was at the peak of his popularity): "... politics in Pakistan is a symbiotic relationship between the politicians and the military. Like the ying and the yang, both need each other and one, without the other, is handicapped. The average Pakistani may loathe both the politicians and the military, but the military and the politicians understand that like a 'good cop/bad cop routine', they are indispensable to the nation."

Khan added: "They are a dyarchy and together, they constitute the government of Pakistan, and every time the Pakistanis get tired of military rule, they are given democracy and when they complain that democracy is not working, the military rule is re-imposed over a thankful nation and the Pakistanis line the streets to welcome the conqueror on his pale white horse, and thus the endless cycle continues."

Observers are agreed a series of terror strikes are a serious possibility in Pakistan in the run-up to the elections, currently scheduled for January 2008. If they are directed against Benazir and the PPP, they will only elicit increased sympathy for both. That, however, is only one side of the coin. Violence and chaos of such creation may also make the role of the military appear more important and even indispensable. In such a scenario, no one can be sure the elections will be held according to schedule or that an emergency will not be imposed on the country.

The months ahead will show whether, and to what extent, Benazir was right when she said a week ago she was returning to Pakistan and to democracy.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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