Benazir Political Mettle On Test

Can Benazir, like her father, play a significant role in pulling Pakistan’s politics out of the current destructive cycle it appears to have plunged into ? However controversial Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s politics, he gave ‘a shot in the arm’ in 1972 to a demoralized people who had lost half their country ?

Where are we today ? Confronted with a growing list of martyrs…of shaheeds… from the army, from the innocent citizens killed in Waziristan, from the struggling Baluch fighters, from the talibaan fighters, from the Lal Masjid students, from the PPP jialas. The shades of struggles were never more diverse and never in a greater number. The fault-lines cut in just too many ways ;as does the chaos in the games of the power wielders and the politicians.

Against the backdrop of this chaotic scene should then the arrival of Benazir Bhutto, criticized for her Musharraf deal and Washington-connection, give us any hope for initiating an end to this chaos ? Many in Pakistan’s middle class have after all been skeptical of her democratic and political bridge-building potential. Yet here is why this question would arise. See how events have shaped Benazir’s actions and image after her October 18th arrival in Pakistan.

First like a lightening rod she triggered a political revival. Hundreds of thousands who arrived to receive her from across the country instantly raised her political stature. Then the tragic attacks, the dozens of dead and hundreds injured plus the emotional state that that hit the entire nation prompted Benazir to undertake all that makes a compassionate God fearing a peoples’ leader. With death dancing around her, she first visited the injured in hospitals, went to the condole with the families of the dead, briefly addressed her supporters on the streets of Lyari and honored the families through her speeches and then held a Quran Khawani at her own home.

All of this gives some hope because it indicates the return of genuine politics. It is not Benazir’s persona which is central to our salvation but it is the revival of genuine democracy. That is not possible without the return of Nawaz Sharif and without setting up a credible interim government.

There are interesting issues that have been raised. One why did she return when she knew she would be attacked. So that actually she caused the death of ordinary citizens for her own "theatrics" using people as her "pawns." The rationale of this assertion and neither the objective are clear. So are we saying that a terrorist threat should encourage people to stay away from public space, that we cede public space top those ready to kill?

So, should the Nehru scions decide to abandon popular politics and sit indoors petrified because Rahul Gandhi’s father and grandmother both died as a result of terrorist acts?

Fate has moved Pakistanis and Benazir towards our moment of reckoning. Do we stay indoors all seeking protection and ceding public space to either those misguided members of the Pakistan Family or to external agents who seek to achieve their goals through violence and the fear factor? The question therefore at present is not Benazir, Musharraf, or Nawaz Sharif, instead it is the system the steps that we need to that will help the paradigm shift within peoples hearts-especially those who feel frustrated and are attracted towards violent politics.

The first correct step was Benazir’s return and we saw how it generated a collective peoples’ strength that stood for democracy, for unflinching commitment to peoples’ rule and no less for a leader that they believe will deliver to them their basic need : ‘roti kapra aur makaan.’

The next crucial requirement is Nawaz Sharif’s return. For that Benazir must insist. let it not be said by historians say what they said about her father in the seventies-that he espoused democracy but he did not ‘go the extra mile for it.’ That Mujib’s right to rule Pakistan was denied to him. Whether it was Bhutto caught in an act of omission or commission is a debatable question. The act of omission was of him not demanding sufficiently clearly that Mujib be given the chance to rule.

At this point Pakistan faces a grave threat of civil war; one that can erupt in the garb of religion and hence potentially far more terrible than anything we have experienced before. It is time for the politicians to pull themselves by their boot straps and become 10 feet tall. And the onus is now on Benazir to show how tall she can be. Her courage is unmatched. By arriving in Pakistan despite the death threats Bhutto’s daughter has walked straight into the mouth of death. By refusing to be deterred by the attacks that nearly killed, in sheer courage Benazir has proved to be a cut above the rest.

Her father walked away from his own known arrogance to serve a national cause. To get Wali Khan (or Mufti Mahmud)’s signature on the Constitution he arrived at the room `Rawalpindi InterContinental. This grand gesture of Bhutto left Pakistan with the most invaluable possession – the Constitution of 1973 the basic sacred document according to which we must function as a Nation.

At present we are dealing with two related issues – the need for democracy and the end to violence in our public space – whether in the form of suicide bombings, destruction of girls schools attacks on music shops and barber shops, attack on innocent citizens whether by the State or by militias, attacks on law enforcement agencies and killing of soldiers.

Her credentials for tackling the threat of an impending civil war within the country were weak – a US brokered deal, her articulation of a anti-terrorism policy that sounded not very different from that of the US. It failed to appreciate the complexity of the problem, its external dimension, the need for change in Washington’s policies etc.

But Benazir 48 hours after her arrival has been positioned in a different mode. Her articulation of the threat that we face is clear. Pakistan’s issue is not religious extremism and the term itself is illogical and incomprehensible. Instead those who refuse to dialogue their way through differences, those who refuse the other’s right to differ and those who will use violence to settle their differences, those who will violate the law of the land to have their own way are using extreme means. They are, depending on their crime, law breakers and political extremists. Only the force of dialog, compassion, reason, true spirit of Islam and of State coercion can together address this problem.

Meanwhile politically it seems the attack will bring Musharraf and Benazir closer. The common challenge now stands amplified. Benazir has been not to enter the blame game. She has registered and correctly two very obvious security lapses. One the street lights were off and despite the PPP’s own flood lights still provided the cover of darkness to potential attacker. And second that the jammers, meant to prevent remote control bombs from going off. There is no clear response from the government as yet.

Meanwhile as the outrage among certain groups against Benazir’s corruption gets louder it may well be wiser, at this juncture, to let the matter of corruption take a back seat. That will be dealt with in the course of a democratic process, an increasingly independent judiciary and a questioning media. Now the country needs the willing among the popular leaders, the traditional representatives, the religious parties and the Establishment to work together to prevent the violence and intolerance from spreading.

It is unlikely that the horrific tragedy of October 18 may go down in Pakistan’s history as the day when Pakistan’s parasitic politics turned a new leaf, when the country’s leading politicians broke away from their old thinking of only self interest and power grabbing to work collectively to save the Pakistani State and society through enlightened politics. The unprecedented bloodshed that followed a genuine high-mark of Pakistani politics, Benazir’s arrival rally, could well be the sacrifice that would transform our pygmy politicians to giants that Pakistan needs. Like the March crisis began the transformation, with the help of the lawyer community, of an otherwise seemingly pliant judiciary.

The ball is now in Benazir’s court. While her raw courage has yet again been proven, her political mettle is now on test. Pakistan needs a collective political response, not an individualistic one. Benazir’s challenge is also to reach out to other politicians, while remaining engaged with the Establishment.