On the cusp once more - Mahir Ali - January 5, 2011

Source : www.dawn.com

WHATEVER may lie ahead, it hasn’t been a happy new year for Pakistan’s ruling party.

Should the hectic efforts to salvage what’s left of its coalition and to bolster it sufficiently to fend off potential parliamentary motions of no-confidence come to naught, perhaps the likeliest outcome will be another bout of direct military rule.

That has always been a profoundly unpleasant prospect. It was particularly so in 1977, when Gen Ziaul Haq’s coup pre-empted a formal truce between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government and its political opponents, and led to the murkiest phase in Pakistan’s history, whose appalling repercussions continue to reverberate. But even in 1958 and again in 1999, when sections of the population welcomed military intervention as a form of temporary salvation from the shenanigans of self-obsessed politicians, the consequences were largely unsalutary.

Most Pakistanis ought to have realised long ago that if Pakistan has a future — and it’s arguably a bigger ‘if’ now than ever before — it lies in consolidating civilian rule, establishing a coherent modus operandi for coexistence with India, and easing out of the clutches of the US without conceding ground to violence-prone obscurantists.

It’s a tall order, no doubt, and the task is obviously confounded by the calibre of the politicians Pakistanis have to contend with. But there are no other feasible options. Direct military rule — and the deliberate implication in describing it as ‘direct’ is that the army has effectively never been completely out of power since 1977 — would be a case of two steps back without a face-saving one step forward.

At the same time, it ought to be acknowledged that the PPP’s political rivals offer little scope for comparative advantage. The MQM accurately accuses Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the PML of having been created by the military, but in doing so overlooks the circumstances of its own genesis in the early 1980s under a more ethnically specific nomenclature, when its emergence was facilitated by a regime that welcomed civil strife on the basis of ethnicity as a distraction from political challenges to its legitimacy.

Both these parties have evolved since then, but hardly in directions that could be deemed politically desirable. Much the same could be claimed about the PPP, of course. Notwithstanding its transformation within the first decade of its foundation in 1967 from a potential vehicle for social democracy into a profoundly personalised political entity characterised by autocratic zeal and a high degree of opportunism, circumstances in the late 1970s propelled it into the role of a pro-democracy force. The popular enthusiasm that greeted Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan in 1986 must have caused the spontaneous soiling of more than one pair of khaki pants.

She lost little time, however, in demonstrating a tendency to imbibe the wrong lessons from the nation’s recent past. She had seen how her father had incurred the wrath of Uncle Sam by ploughing his own furrow in the field of international affairs, and by openly pledging to build a Pakistani nuclear deterrent after India had carried out a test in 1974. Although there are no WikiLeaks cables to substantiate the claim, it is widely believed that the US was complicit in Bhutto’s overthrow in 1977 and put up no meaningful resistance to his judicial murder two years later.

At the very least, one would think a certain wariness of Washington ought to have been the logical response of a bereaved daughter. She evidently decided, instead, that the only feasible route to power in Pakistan passed through Capitol Hill. And the extent to which she was willing to ingratiate herself is demonstrated during a particularly cringe-worthy movement in Bhutto, the documentary produced by her lobbyist-publicist friend Mark Siegel, when in an audio-clip Benazir seeks to clarify that Henry Kissinger’s notorious threat to ZAB, to the effect that a “horrible example” would be made of him should he persist with his nuclear ambitions, was in fact “a friendly warning”. She evidently couldn’t bring herself to suspect — or at least to say — that the US could do any wrong.

Which helped, of course, to propel her to power in 1988, after Zia got his comeuppance in midair. Perhaps ‘power’ is something of an exaggeration, given that the PPP did not have a parliamentary majority, compromised on continuity (with a hostile president and a military-affiliated foreign minister), and left hardly any discernible marks on the political landscape. The credibility of Benazir’s return to office in the following decade was compromised when her husband was appointed minister for investment, of all things, and a bitterly public estrangement with her mother ensued over the return to Pakistan of Murtaza Bhutto.

Murtaza’s murder in 1996 at the hands of a police posse on the streets of Karachi, just metres from his home, effectively sealed Benazir’s political fate for the time being. Her mortal fate was sealed 11 years later, at least partly on account of her willingness once more to be a pawn in the hands of powers she appears never to have fully understood.

Her political and personality flaws do not substantially detract from the intensity of the tragedy on Dec 27, 2007. In the film Bhutto, though, the attempts to strike a balance are somewhat superficial and ham-handed. A proportion of the sound bites are allocated to detractors, though, including Fatima Bhutto — whose visceral reaction to those she deems responsible for the assassination of her father, Murtaza, is much more human than that of her aunt. The movie provides a momentary counterpoint to the official narrative on this score with the image of a clean-shaven Asif Ali Zardari at a condolatory function in the aftermath of his brother-in-law’s demise.

A considerably more poignant clip — unlikely to have ever been seen before — depicts, all too briefly, ZAB in his prison cell. It serves as a reminder of what has been lost since the fleeting period back in the early 1970s when there were grounds for being optimistic about Pakistan’s future. Who on earth can bring back that feeling?


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