Benazir will live for ever in the hearts of millions of Pakistanis. Like her father, she had two outstanding attributes, unmatched by any Pakistani politician: Universal appeal and personal courage.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was able to reach out to all sections of (West) Pakistani society. His appeal transcended class, provincial, linguistic, ethnic and religious divisions. He was able to inspire international leaders, and rural peasants, with equal ease. The lasting devotion that he earned, however, was from the Pakistani working class. He was the first national politician to give them hope, inspiration and realisation that that things could improve. Although People’s Party abandoned it’s socialist agenda, fairly early on, the Pakistani working class has never given up it’s allegiance to the Bhutto name, and it’s loyalty to his party.
Benazir’s greatest asset was the Bhutto name. She had her father’s universal appeal. She was charismatic, a great communicator, and able to reach out to all sections of Pakistani society. She had also inherited her father’s personal courage. Her father refused to appeal for mercy to the military dictator, who eventually hanged him. Benazir went to address political meetings in all parts of Pakistan, inspite of repeated attempts on her life. She has paid the ultimate price for this courage.
Benazir’s worst liabilities were her corruption cases and her husband, Asif Zardari. 2007 was the worst year of her politics. Her mistakes were throwing a lifeline to Musharraf, when he was all but finished after the debacle of the CJ movement, and associating too closely and openly with the Americans.
Because of the blind American support for Israel, invasion and destruction of Iraq, and invasion of Afghanistan, there is widespread anti American sentiment in large sections of Pakistani society. (Although there is commonality of interests as well). It was madness for Benazir to issue pro-American statements on extremism in Pakistan, AQ Khan, and invasion of Pakistani territory by the Americans, while sitting in New York and at a time when the Lal Masjid operation was at its height. It also shows the intellectual bankruptcy of the Bush administration, to openly support Musharraf and Benazir deal. Since 9th of March, 2007, Musharraf is undoubtedly the most hated figure in Pakistan. The only conclusion to be drawn form Benazir’s inexplicable behaviour was that she was counting on the Americans to bear down on Musharraf to drop her corruption cases. This conclusion was drawn by the Punjabi urban middle class and the PPP support was wiped out at least in this social class.
Benazir’s brutal murder has changed everything yet again. This is the 9/11 of Pakistani politics. There is surge of PPP vote in the urban middle classes. The wavering PPP voter is likely to come back. Whereas before 27th of December, Nawaz Sharif would have won a free and fair election, now it is likely to be the PPP. It will be much more difficult now for the ISI to rig the polls, as the public anger will spill over and lead to widespread agitation. In either case Musharraf’s days are numbered.
The PPP has handled the succession issue quite well. The Bhutto devotees have got a symbolic leader in Bilawal. Zardari must keep a relatively low profile, as he is widely seen as corrupt and venal. On the other hand, his statements in response to Nawaz Sharif’s overtures have increased is stature. The PPP is in a much better bargaining position, after 27th of December. They can refuse to put up with a rigged election. They can demand that the current election commissioner be sent home, and a neutral commissioner appointed. They can insist on a neutral caretaker Government. They can put the restoration of the sacked judges firmly back on the agenda. They can refuse to put up with any delay in the election. They can make a united stand with Nawaz Sharif, even an electoral alliance, so that when they form the government, they can easily repeal the 58-2b, and the 17th amendment, and have real political power, rather than be the President’s stooges.
They have done well to turn the public outrage against Musharraf and his league of quislings.
Musharraf is in a no win situation, if he holds a free and fair election, the resulting setup will throw him out sooner or later. If he tries to rig the election, as planned, there will be widespread turmoil, which he won’t be able to control. The army will not come to his rescue, as he will be seen as an increasing liability for their corporate interests.
It is also time for the Americans to drop Musharraf. He is damaged goods, and is doing incalculable harm to the American interests in the region, in his personal struggle for survival. They best course of action for the Americans is to stay out and wait for the new political dispensation to emerge. They can help, not least their own interests, if they clearly and openly support the democratic process and not a travesty, that is a fig leaf for Musharraf’s incompetent and brutal dictatorship. The Pakistani mainstream voter is liberal and secular. They should not be afraid of an open election. In the words of Hina Jilani, we say ‘no to the militants, no to the military’