The manner in which former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was bundled off to Saudi Arabia on his arrival in Pakistan clearly indicates that 'genuine functional democracy' is not going to be ushered in Pakistan in the near future.
President Pervez Musharraf may be down but he is definitely not out, as the only institution that counts, namely the army, still backs him and as long as he enjoys the support of his uniformed colleagues, he can withstand any Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto -- US pressure on him notwithstanding.
It is probably this realisation that has led Benazir to sue for peace despite knowing full well that she will lose crucial public support, as the public ratings of General Musharraf are today even lower than that of President Bush. But Benazir reckons that Musharraf is not going anywhere at least for the next two years and therefore she wants to strike a deal with the military dictator ostensibly at the behest of the US. Even though it was a military dictator, who hanged her father, politics does make strange bedfellows.
Nawaz Sharif had realised that any deal between Benazir and the military would marginalize him as Benazir would try to occupy the secular democratic space and the conglomerate of religious parties, MMA, would take advantage of the overwhelming anti-Americanism prevalent in Pakistani society today to occupy the oppositional space. This could have led to the marginalization of Nawaz Sharif and his party, which would have found the political space shrinking for them. This actually forced Nawaz Sharif's hand and he had to publicly announce his return to remain relevant in Pakistan's politics.
Before coming to Islamabad, he did travel to the US to try to establish his moderate credentials with the US establishment, which has always perceived him to be a 'closet fundamentalist', after his attempts to bring in the Shariat during his last tenure as prime minister of Pakistan. Despite dressing up in a suit and making all the right statements, it does not seem that he was able to establish his moderate credentials with the authorities in the US.
From a purely tactical point of view, Musharraf has gained significantly by deporting Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, where the Saudis are unlikely to let him move out, nor will they allow him to continue his political activities unhindered. By deporting Nawaz, Musharraf has also thrown a challenge to the Supreme Court and it is for the court to pick up the gauntlet. The fact that the court did not take suo motu cognisance of the developments indicate that even the judiciary is weighing its options for the time being.
The government is likely to take a stand in the court that Nawaz has chosen to migrate to avoid prison and if the court still passes a stricture, Musharraf might put the blame on the government and even sacrifice Shaukat Aziz. As it is, the presidential spokesman has asked the media to quiz the government about the deportation of Nawaz Sharif, because the president had no hand in it.
However, if the court attempts to confront Musharraf head on, it runs the risk of being made irrelevant. The army might just force a couple of weak-kneed judges to resign, or may even lock up the court for a few days. As far as Nawaz is concerned, he is virtually out of the political scene for the next three years as the Saudis are unlikely to allow him to indulge in politics from their territory this time.
In his absence, his wife Kulsoom Nawaz and brother Shahbaz Sharif will attempt to galvanise the party's support base by reaching Pakistan at different times. However, if Musharraf manages to deal with the challenge effectively, like he dealt with Nawaz, he would have marginalized one major foe. The public reaction and the international response to the deportation might force Benazir to reconsider her deal with Musharraf and it is significant that she remains in the opposition so she does not let the MMA usurp the entire anti-Musharraf vote bank, at least at this crucial juncture.
There is no doubt that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will be able to mobilise the masses in Punjab province to some extent but in the absence of Nawaz they will find it difficult to build up a mass movement against Musharraf, who it appears has already made up his mind to contest the poll in uniform next month whether Benazir comes on board or not.
The reaction of the Supreme Court in Nawaz Sharif's case will allow him to judge the court's response to his re-election and plan his strategy. After the elections, if public discontent rises and international pressure increases, he might shed his uniform after appointing a new army chief and go in for negotiations with Benazir. This might give him some respite till the new army chief consolidates his position or is succeeded by the next one in 2010.
However, the most significant aspect of the recent incident is the foreign involvement. Reports emanating from Islamabad indicate that the Saudis insisted that Nawaz be sent to Jeddah to complete his 10-year tenure of exile. This indicates the discomfort of the house of Al Saud with any semblance of democracy in the Islamic world. It is significant to note that in the immediate aftermath, anti-Saudi Arabia slogans were raised by PML-N supporters who were mostly Sunnis, probably a first for Pakistan. Though some media reports have indicated that Saudis acted at the behest of the US, it appears to be unlikely as is borne out by the strong statement issued by State Department officials against the deportation.
Moreover, the US probably realises that such steps only strengthen fundamentalist forces. History indicates that in Islamic society, whenever autocratic regimes have denied the right of democratic dissent, the opposition to the regime has invariably emerged from the ramparts of the mosque. The denial of democracy therefore will only fuel extremism in Pakistan.
(Alok Bansal is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)