Benazir's Assassination has Dangerous Portents
The assassination of former prime minister and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto is indicative of the rapid stride Pakistan has taken on the path of extremism under General Pervez Musharraf.
The fact that the militants managed to assassinate Benazir despite the security provided in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, which also houses the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army, as well as fire at the convoy of Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, indicates the deep penetration of Islamic militants in Pakistani society. It also shows that under Musharraf's eight-year rule, Pakistan's slide to anarchy has been phenomenal.
Benazir's assassination totally derails the American sponsored plans in ushering in democracy in Pakistan.
In the absence of Nawaz Sharif, who has been barred from contesting the polls, the January election will loose whatever the modicum of credibility it might have had and should ideally be postponed.
The West had hoped that Benazir would provide a secular alternative to Musharraf and facilitate to channel the opposition to Musharraf's regime through a secular political party rather than the fundamental forces as has been the case.
Benazir's assassination would generate a huge wave of sympathy for her party. Unfortunately there is no one in her party who can capitalize this groundswell of sympathy into lasting support. Her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who is powerful within the party, is not popular with the masses and is incapable of harnessing this support. There is no other leader in PPP who has the charisma and can take all sections of the party along.
Maybe, the largest political party in Pakistan may have to go in for a totally new leader like Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association who has been spearheading the lawyers' movement for the restoration of judiciary.
The party may even attempt to bring Sanam Bhutto, sister of Benazir Bhutto who has assiduously avoided politics, to head the party because it desperately needs a "Bhutto" tag to succeed.
The assassination also indicates that the fundamentalist forces realize that ushering in democracy will marginalize them. They are committed to ensuring that the population of Pakistan does not get a democratic option to express their dissent. The absence of right of democratic dissent helps to radicalize the society and thereby provides ready recruits for jehad.
The assassination has put the Musharraf government in the bind. If it goes ahead with the elections in the absence of Benazir and Nawaz as candidates for the post of prime minister, they will not have any credibility. On the other hand if it cancels them, it will be a major psychological victory for the militants.
The best option would be to postpone the elections and seek fresh nominations so that Nawaz and Shabaj Sharif can contest.
Ideally, a time has come for Musharraf to yield a bit on the restoration of judiciary. But for a military mind, that too of a commando, that is going to be indicative of deceit and hence unacceptable.
Assassination of arguably the most popular leader of Pakistan is extremely dangerous for the Islamic state. It shows that the state created on the basis of an exclusivist ideology that abhorred pluralism is finding it extremely difficult to make a transition to a democratic moderate state.
It is time that the West realize the dangers of failure of a nuclear-armed Islamic state where the society is increasingly being radicalized. The ideal prescription for Pakistan would be a genuine federal democratic structure. Because after Benazir, the only political parties capable of taking on the fundamentalist forces seem to be the secular nationalist parties representing different ethnic groups like the Balochistan Nationalist party, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Quami Movement. The West will do well to force Musharraf to restore an independent judiciary and to make the state structure more federal.
(Cdr Alok Bansal is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studied and Analysis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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