No Big Deal

Indian Express, April 11, 2007

Each time General Pervez Musharraf comes under pressure at home or abroad, his minions float rumours of an impending deal with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Musharraf’s emissaries fly to Dubai, meet Bhutto, and then both sides deny that a deal is in the making.

Bhutto’s willingness to keep open channels of communication with all political forces in Pakistan is abused by the Musharraf regime to create the illusion of a deal without actually pursuing one.

Over the last few weeks, General Musharraf emerged as an increasingly ineffective military ruler facing widespread resentment at home and growing international ridicule. There is only one thing worse than a military strongman running a country and that is a strongman who is clearly weak. Even Musharraf’s American armour has started to show some chinks.

As if to defuse the pressure, the rumour of a deal with Bhutto was spread. To make the rumours plausible, the government abolished the cell that was supposedly investigating the foreign assets and offshore bank accounts of some politicians, including Bhutto. The impression was given that this was part of “confidence-building measures” preceding a Musharraf-Bhutto deal.

But the substantive issues such as guarantees for a free and fair election and the restoration of civilian rule were not addressed, as they have remained unaddressed before.

A deal between Bhutto and General Musharraf would suit the United States, and is supported by the liberal segment of Pakistan’s oligarchy. Bhutto would bring popular support for a power-sharing arrangement and could provide Pakistan’s army with an exit strategy. Through a deal, Musharraf could phase himself out of power in a predictable and planned manner, avoiding uncertainties that have followed past military rulers in Pakistan’s history. What, then, prevents a deal?

Whether it is the handling of India and Afghanistan or relations with the political opposition, Musharraf negotiates not for a deal but to buy time. Once the immediate crisis is over, he feels no need for a deal and the negotiation process falls by the wayside until the next major crisis. Furthermore, Musharraf is willing to give immediate payoffs but is unwilling to bargain over the near-divine right of army chiefs to rule.

In case of negotiations with Bhutto, the two sides are far apart on fundamentals. Musharraf considers changes in his (and the Pakistani intelligence machinery’s) relentless pursuit of Bhutto and her family as major concessions for which Bhutto should be grateful.

From Bhutto’s point of view, the cases against her constitute persecution and an end to persecution is the precondition for talks, not the desirable outcome. She wants negotiations to focus on political and constitutional matters, such as Musharraf’s uniform and guarantees for a free and fair poll. The cases against Bhutto and her husband have lost their significance and, though still an inconvenience, do not have the same leverage they might have had a few years earlier. Fewer people around the world believe in the validity of the charges, which have largely remained unproven after almost eleven years. Just as Musharraf and his military-intelligence machine use the rumours of a deal for advantage, the corruption cases too are proving to be illusory.

Why, under such circumstances, does Bhutto not agree to a grand alliance between Pakistan’s mainstream political parties, including the Islamist Mutahhida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and use violent protests to oust Musharraf?

Bhutto has clearly been weighing the pros and cons of joining an agitation, which runs the risk of being hijacked by the Islamists and their structured organisation. She has to take into consideration the network of Islamists within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

After all, liberal politicians, notably Air Marshal Asghar Khan, contributed strongly to the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) campaign of 1977 only to find General Zia-ul Haq ready to take over and rule for eleven years with the help of the Islamists within the PNA.

Bhutto is ready to return to Pakistan and to lead the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in a free and fair election. She is also clear that she wants to pave the way for the army’s withdrawal to the barracks and the emergence of a functioning democracy. She will not take hasty steps that might perpetuate khaki shadows over Pakistan.