Gridlock on Pakistan's road to change
By M K Bhadrakumar
The unlikely combination of the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and
Lebanon are the four countries at the forefront of promoting democracy in
Britain played a key role in charting Pakistan's democratic transformation, and
was prescient enough to realize three years ago that the house that President
General Pervez Musharraf built in dramatic circumstances in the 1999-2000
period might be in serious disrepair.
But with an ally across the Atlantic that was still rooting for Musharraf,
Britain had a job on its hands. It needed London's
persuasive skill to get Washington to see the point that unless the Pakistani
regime was recast with an infusion of credible civilian content, the "war on
terror" in Afghanistan itself would be thrown into jeopardy.
Former British foreign secretary Jack Straw undertook the delicate mission
first to sound out exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto about reaching a
political understanding with Musharraf. Straw's three-year mission is expected
to come to fruition this weekend.
The Musharraf-Bhutto deal, at its core, contains three key elements. Bhutto
will be allowed to contest general elections scheduled for next year; she will
enjoy immunity from prosecution for any misdeeds while in power as prime
minister (1988-90 and 1993-96); Bhutto, in turn, will support Musharraf's game
plan to amend the Pakistani constitution to allow him to be re-elected without
any fear of judicial review. Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999
and has since refused to relinquish his uniform and his post of chief of army
The deal anticipates that when the dust settles, the Musharraf-Bhutto duo will
be ensconced in power in Islamabad with all the trappings of a practicing
democracy, including a brand-new Parliament constituted through "free and fair"
general elections. This would represent the coalescing of the "moderate center"
in Pakistani politics.
The underlying assumption is that such a regime will have the moral courage and
authority to cleanse Pakistan of the "jihadi" culture, and put it on the course
of an enlightened, moderate Muslim country.
In the Anglo-US plan, while London provided the brain, Washington undertook the
tough assignment of persuading Musharraf to change horses midstream. In turn
cajoling, threatening and conciliating, Washington softened up the general over
the past several months.
US think-tanks and media played a useful role. The general's mishandling of the
Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) crisis this year in which troops stormed the radical
mosque and his disastrous political misjudgment in confronting the Pakistani
judiciary weakened him considerably, and that helped Washington's task
But Washington also kept in view that it ultimately has to deal with the
Pakistan Army as its principal interlocutor in Islamabad, and there is none
more dependable than Musharraf. Bhutto was virtually ignored by the US
administration until recently. Bhutto may have her uses, but there is no
indication that Washington respects her. At any rate, she is simply not in a
position to annoy the US.
The looming threat to the Musharraf-Bhutto deal is that it could be confronted
on the streets of Pakistan. The lawyers' movement has shown in recent months
that the popular mood is ripe for agitation. That focuses attention on another
former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was recently cleared by the Supreme
Court to return from exile to Pakistan. Sharif was ousted in Musharraf's coup
Musharraf wants Sharif to stay away from Pakistan, as he fears that his
power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto might unravel under Sharif's expected
Why is Sharif so important? His sustained campaign against army rule has found
resonance in Pakistani public opinion. A sure sign is that the perennial
time-servers in Pakistani politics, the powerful Chaudhry clan ruling Punjab
these past five years as Musharraf's surrogates, have begun edging closer to
Sharif in recent weeks. It is rumored that as many as 21 members of Parliament
belonging to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) have put out feelers to
Sharif for political accommodation.
Musharraf and the PML that supports him also don't see eye to eye on the deal
with Bhutto that Washington wants. The PML would rather have the post-2002
alliance with the six religious parties (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal) continue.
There is an inherent contradiction here, which has begun to surface. The PML
fears, rightly, that the general's deal with Bhutto will weaken the alliance.
But Musharraf cannot countenance the continuance of the alliance with the
religious parties, as that would militate against his "enlightened moderation
agenda" and would tarnish his modern, reformist image in Western capitals.
Besides, Sharif is forging alliances with some of the Islamic parties.
The irony is that there are several reasons Sharif ought to have been
Washington's man in Islamabad. Sharif can handle the menagerie of Islamists. He
arguably possesses the right political pedigree to squeeze the jihadist culture
out of Pakistan. Second, for the average Pakistani, Sharif is a desi neta
(native leader). He has gained in credibility as a nationalist.
People have chosen to forgive him for his previous notoriously corrupt
administration and his mercurial style of governance. Bhutto, on the other
hand, is tarnished politically by her deal with Musharraf as well as her
proximity to the US. She is yet to realize that her aura in Pakistan is turning
out to be very different from her aura in the US or Britain.
Third, Sharif is genuinely pro-market and is friendly to large capital. He has
taken care not to be branded as pro-US, but he isn't reflexively opposed to US
interests, either. For him, modernization is something independent of
Americanization. Indeed, despite his conservative rhetoric, Sharif has a proven
record as a pragmatist.
Yet if Washington has opted for Bhutto, the considerations are obvious. Sharif
will refuse to be a participant in America's "war on terror". He understands
that the US is the primary issue in Pakistan. He has sized up that the public
expects him to be the marker of the beginning for Pakistan's "post-US era", no
matter what his own gut instincts tell him. Least of all, Sharif's experience
with Washington during his last term as prime minister was far from happy.
Equally, Musharraf would see Sharif as opportunistic, authoritarian,
dangerously maneuvering, personality-cultish and incessantly plotting to extend
his influence. There is no naivety about Musharraf. He knows his days as
president are numbered if there is a popular uprising against army rule. And
Sharif is a skillful agitator, especially in the heartland province of Punjab,
which accounts for 56% of Pakistan's population and happens to be his political
Sharif introduces fluidity into the situation for Bhutto as well. Her Pakistan
People's Party (PPP) faces a potentially serious internal dissent over her deal
with Musharraf. The dissidents may include parliamentarians who consider the
deal to be a sellout of the PPP's ideology and principles.
This raises the question whether Musharraf can any longer be certain of his
ability to press ahead with the requisite constitutional amendment required for
him to contest the presidential election penciled in for this year or early
next. An amendment requires two-thirds support in the 342-seat Parliament. If
all the parliamentarians of the ruling coalition and its allies and Bhutto's
PPP vote en bloc for a constitutional amendment, it works out to support
by 255 members as against the required magical figure of 229.
This may seem a happy state of affairs at first glance. But it may turn out to
be a close call, given the chances of large-scale defection to Sharif's camp by
members of the ruling coalition. From present indications alone, there is a
question mark over the loyalty of as many as 15 members belonging to the ruling
party. These are early days, and Sharif is yet to return to Pakistan.
But neither the US nor Britain has been able to moderate Sharif's
uncompromising stance against Musharraf. Sharif insists that Musharraf must
leave office after handing over to a caretaker administration that will be
entrusted with the task of holding new elections. Washington and London lack
the influence to persuade Sharif to compromise.
This is where the Saudi and Lebanese ruling families have entered the fray.
Without naming Sharif, Musharraf said on Wednesday, "He entered into a written
agreement with a very eminent personality, a great friend and well-wisher of
Pakistan, and this personality has given him a message not to violate this
agreement." Musharraf was referring to an agreement seven years ago, reportedly
guaranteed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whereby Sharif was sent into exile
in the kingdom.
According to reports, prominent Saudi-backed Lebanese politician Saad Hariri
(son of the late former prime minister Rafik Hariri) has also undertaken a
mediatory mission on behalf of Musharraf. Hariri is a close friend of the
Sharifs. He apparently met with Sharif's brother recently and made the same
request that Sharif must stay away from Pakistan, at least until Musharraf is
re-elected as president.
Sharif's close associates have made it clear that the prospect of him buckling
under Musharraf's pressure tactic is virtually nil. Sharif calculates that
given the prevailing popular mood in Pakistan, he has a ready-made platform if
he were to campaign on an anti-US, anti-Musharraf platform. It was in Punjab
that the suspended (and then reinstated) chief justice of the Supreme Court,
Iftikhar Chaudhry (a fellow Punjabi), mobilized the most rapturous mass support
in his public campaign against Musharraf's authoritarian rule.
Sharif estimates that he can call the general's bluff threatening to detain
him. He could even secure an anticipatory bail from the court. Once his
juggernaut gets going from Punjab, he knows Musharraf will be left with no
means to block him. Sharif counts on the Supreme Court to ensure that a level
playing field is available at the next general elections.
He doesn't think Musharraf any longer has the option of imposing emergency
rule, as the courts will frustrate such a move. The only exit route for
Musharraf will then be to declare martial law. But that is uncharted territory.
No previous military dictator in Pakistan dared to take that route in the face
of popular opposition to army rule.
Sharif expects that Musharraf will cave in and call an all-party conference to
discuss the modalities of constituting an interim government entrusted with the
task of overseeing Pakistan's democratic transformation. Given public opinion
and an increasingly assertive judiciary, this no longer looks like blind
Certainly, no matter what Washington has prescribed for Pakistan, the genie of
democracy has leaped out of the bottle. Musharraf's re-election looks
increasingly fanciful. There may be no way of saving the regime except by
imposing harsh emergency rule or even martial law.
In essence, Washington seems to have repeated the mistake it committed in the
Middle East by not taking into account the non-state actors. In comparison,
Britain, which has historical memories of South Asian tribes, traditions and
customs, has been thoughtful enough to keep a line open to Sharif - just in
case a need arises.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).