Vinod Mubayi

Just nine weeks ago, Benazir Bhutto received a tumultuous welcome in Karachi from hundreds of thousands of supporters on her return to Pakistan after a decade in exile. She narrowly escaped death on that occasion when a suicide bomber struck her cavalcade and killed several hundred innocent people. Her assassination at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, despite the “hundreds of riot police manning security checkpoints with metal detectors” according to press reports, demonstrates the extent to which self-destructive and, ultimately, self-defeating violence has entered Pakistan’s political processes. No amount of American aid, military, financial, or political, dedicated to “defeating terrorism” seems likely to be able to reverse this downward spiral. In fact, it may, perversely, be tending to accelerate it.

Benazir, despite her many failings, was undoubtedly the single most popular political figure in Pakistan. Her party, the Pakistan People’s Party founded by her late father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself the victim of a judicial execution masterminded by the late military dictator Zia ul Haq, is the single largest political party in Pakistan and would likely have gained a majority in free and fair elections. She had been in extended on-again, off-again negotiations, brokered by the U.S., with the Pakistan President, General (recently retired) Pervez Musharraf. It is significant that the jehadists targeted her rather than the other ousted ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, as she may have been perceived to be closer to both the Americans and Musharraf. Her death, however, leaves a chasm at the very heart of Pakistan’s polity, leaving ordinary Pakistanis wondering in Faiz’s words: “zindagi kya kisi muflis ki kaba hai jis men har ghari, dard ke paiwand lage jate hain” (Is life like a beggar’s robe, which, at each moment, is strewn with patches of pain?)

Next month’s elections were supposed to have been a means of restoring a semblance of democracy and stability to Pakistan’s politics but, even if they are held on schedule, which currently seems doubtful, the question of their legitimacy will remain especially in the absence of Bhutto. In that case, they are unlikely to serve their purpose of transitioning Pakistan from a military dictatorship to a stable, democratic, civilian rule.

The mess that Pakistan currently finds itself in is partly a product both of America’s designation of it as a “front-line state in the global war on terror” and, earlier, of Zia’s rancid legacy of Nizam-e-Mustafa, itself partially a result of America’s anti-communist crusade against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The blowback against America’s adventures, which earlier helped to bring such luminaries as Osama bin Laden to prominence, combined with the failures of the feudal-military elite, which has ruled the country for most of its existence, has, unhappily, victimized ordinary Pakistanis most of all. This includes those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder who have been neglected and ignored by the state and scorned by the elite. While the results of elections have shown that a large majority of Pakistanis do not vote for avowedly religious parties, a small fraction have been induced to become suicide bombers at the behest of religious fanatics. America’s continuing wars in and on the Muslim world, from Iraq to Afghanistan, will no doubt continue to encourage this extremely retrograde trend. At the same time, the elite of Pakistan, most importantly the military has been getting billions of dollars in U.S. aid in the last several years, but this, paradoxically, has resulted in Pakistan becoming perhaps the most anti-American country on the planet, as measured in polls carried out by U.S. institutions, in recent years. The depth of anti-Americanism was commented upon in the New York Times very recently in a news story that pointed out that the head of U.S. AID in Pakistan had been unable to visit schools and clinics in rural areas built with U.S. funds even though she offered to wear a full, head-to-toe burqa; her Pakistani hosts were afraid that her “style of walking” would reveal her as a foreigner and make her vulnerable to assault.

India, being a neighbor and a country which looms large in the region, is naturally very much affected by the dastardly act. Benazir, despite occasional tough talk, was generally well-regarded in India and her untimely death has been mourned and condoled by almost all shades of India’s political leadership, including the left parties. In particular, the Bhuttos and the Nehru-Gandhis (Indira and her offspring) shared a certain feudal-populist charisma peculiar to South Asia in terms of the adulation they received from the masses. Benazir’s lamentable and mournful demise at the hands of a dastardly assassin is not only a tragedy for her family, including her three young children; it leaves a gaping hole in Pakistan as there is simply no other politician who has the kind of adoring crowd appeal she exerted because of her origins and her slogans.

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