As Pakistan burned in the angry aftermath of former premier Benazir Bhutto's assassination, a chorus arose in the capitals of powerful Western countries: howsoever grave the crisis, Pakistan must hold elections as planned. The trans-Atlantic panegyric for democracy may have seemed curiously out of place to many in Pakistan in their hour of incomprehension and grief, but it did not arise out of nowhere.
Having scripted and backed 54-year-old Bhutto's return to Pakistan and insisted on democracy at all costs in a country on the brink of collapse, western leaders led by George Bush in the United States and Gordon Brown in Britain had no option but to press on for elections, even in Pakistan's darkest hour.
A day after the shock of the Rawalpindi slaying, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke to US President George Bush, his closest ally, and newly-elected Australian Premier Kevin Rudd. He also called up Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and urged him to "stay the course" of elections planned for Jan. 8 next year.
"What's important is that the democratic process in Pakistan continues. What's important also is that President Musharraf maintains his commitment that there will be elections," Brown said.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Bush urged Pakistanis "to honour Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life".
Curiously in the country that is more likely than any other to be affected by developments in Pakistan, not a word was muttered about democracy. Instead, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India stressed the "common dangers" of terrorism.
Likewise, in Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry emphasised the need for stability. And in Kabul President Hamid Karzai, the last world leader to meet Bhutto Thursday morning, spoke of the need for "peace and stability."
The response of Western leaders to the murder of Bhutto reflects their strategy for Pakistan, and how they think the menace of terrorism ought to be tackled in this key nation.
According to sources who were close to Benazir Bhutto - seen as a progressive and pro-Western democrat in Washington and London - was picked by the United States administration as part of its post-9/11 war against terrorism.
"The thinking was that Musharraf could be killed any day, and that a democratic government should come to power if he goes. Therefore the need to start talking to Musharraf," the sources, who were closely involved in the talks, told IANS.
Two sudden attempts on the life of Musharraf in a single fortnight in December 2006 seemed to vindicate the decision to return Bhutto to Pakistan after an eight-year self-imposed exile. Musharraf's growing domestic unpopularity, combined with the perception that Bhutto enjoyed genuine grassroots support, was another factor in the decision to pressurise Musharraf into accepting a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto.
Could the over-emphasis on Benazir Bhutto have contributed to factors that brought about her assassination?
"The way she was shoe-horned into Pakistani politics by the Bush administration left little doubt about her pro-American proclivities in a country, where anti-Americanism is running deep," said Dilip Hiro, London-based author and international affairs analyst.
"She too oversold herself and was seen as a slave of the US. Her life would have been in danger even if elections had been held and she had won and become prime minister of Pakistan," said Hiro.
"Benazir told Bush that Musharraf had created the Kashmir militants. And that he was sympathetic to militants because of this background." By contrast, Bhutto came across as the articulate, English-speaking and Harvard- and Oxford-educated political moderate that Pakistan needed.
"The thinking in Washington was that the rough edges of Musharraf could be rounded off by Benazir, with the Americans playing the matchmaker," Hiro added.
Bhutto flew back to Pakistan Oct. 18. On Nov. 19 - exactly a fortnight after Musharraf had declared national emergency and been roundly condemned by London and Washington for his anti-democratic steps - India gave the clearest indication yet that New Delhi could more than just live with Musharraf.
"We know that Pakistani territory is used by groups that engage in all sorts of activities that include terrorism. That is different from saying Pakistan is doing it. These are groups in Pakistan that promote various forms of instability," Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said.
Asked to comment about the situation in Pakistan, where Musharraf had jailed thousands of lawyers and political activists, Menon said: "We hope for a stable and peaceful Pakistan, in our own interests. We would like to have a friendly neighbourhood."
Democracy for Washington, London and, increasingly, Paris is a non-negotiable weapon in the war against terrorism.
But suddenly, the key to this game plan - Benazir Bhutto herself - is missing, her exit having created a dangerous political vacuum in an unstable country that was least prepared for democratic elections in the first place.
With no democratic institutions to speak of at the grassroots; with religious seminaries churning out thousands of Islamic radicals every year, and with large parts of the country untouched by Islamabad's tenuous rule of law, the West's attempt to parachute democracy on to Pakistan was flawed from the very start.
With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, this plan may have backfired - not just on the West, or even Pakistan itself but on the global war on terror.
(Dipankar De Sarkar can be contacted at email@example.com)