Bhutto’s Legacy

Indian Express , November 28, 2007

The return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to a popular welcome after seven years of exile, on a special plane provided by the King of Saudi Arabia, serves as a reminder of the folly that is military intervention in politics.

Sharif should have been allowed to return to his homeland when the Supreme Court ruled that he had an inalienable to do so. But soon after the Supreme Court’s judgement, the government unlawfully bundled him out of the country.

Having failed to implement the law of the land, General Musharraf has belatedly enabled the same outcome that would have resulted from implementing the apex court’s ruling. Quite clearly, international factors are more important in the eyes of Pakistan’s ruling generals than Pakistan’s own institutions.

General Musharraf took power in a 1999 military coup after toppling Sharif. After first jailing and then exiling the ousted prime minister, the general vowed that he and another popular former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, would never be allowed to return to Pakistan’s politics.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on October 18 to a tumultuous welcome and now Sharif has also returned. Apologists of military rule ridiculed this columnist — and many others — for repeatedly advocating the return of both major party leaders. Now it is our turn to ridicule those who think that a coup-making general’s ‘vision’ trumps the fundamental rules of politics.

Politicians with a support base can never be kept out of a country’s politics forever. If only Pakistan’s generals and the oligarchy that supports them understood that, Pakistan would actually get on with normal politics with all its flaws and weaknesses and get somewhere. Right now, we are simply going around in circles.

Sharif’s return should end the unjustified attacks on Bhutto for negotiating her return to the country. Every politician must know how to negotiate and Sharif has leveraged himself with the help of his mentors just as Bhutto effectively deployed western public opinion in her favour to create political space.

It is already apparent that at least one segment of the Pakistanis establishment now wants Sharif to work towards reunification of the two factions of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Sharif might be less acceptable to Musharraf personally but there is greater acceptance among Pakistan’s conservative military-intelligence establishment for him than for Bhutto and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Bhutto’s welcome rally was targeted for a suicide terrorist attack and the government has yet to investigate that crime. Fortunately, Sharif faces no extremist threats and the civil-military bureaucracy appears keen to look after him.

If Sharif can avoid the temptation of trying to upstage Bhutto and stay true to his new image as the establishment’s rebel, the Charter of Democracy signed by the two major party leaders last year can be implemented.

If, on the other hand, the establishment is able to work its magic and revive the spirit of IJI or calls for PML unity, the traditional pro- and anti-establishment divisions in Pakistani society would stand revived.

As important as the domestic dimension of Sharif’s return to Pakistan are, external factors are quite obviously at play in Pakistani politics. Since its inception, Pakistan has been mired in global great power politics at the expense of building up domestic institutions and internal cohesion.

Pakistanis must learn to conduct their politics within their country. Then, Pakistan could emerge as a normal country with predictable patterns of political change. And the rulings of Pakistani courts as well as the wishes of Pakistani voters would carry more weight than the intervention of foreign diplomats and potentates.