Pakistan's destiny derailed, yet again
I will steer clear of what Benazir Bhutto's assassination means to the U.S. and the war on terror. The ramifications are just too obvious. Being an Indian and Pakistan's neighbor, however, I can't help feeling sorry for the common Pakistani. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, for 60 years, India has watched (and dealt) with some apprehension, some incredulousness and largely helplessness, as her neighbor and brother-separated-at-birth swung between shaky democracies and determined dictatorships, and now, a growing militancy.
I don't envy the position that Pakistan finds itself at today. While a section of the country is being run over by radicalism, another part of the society -- especially the youth and the moderates -- are itching for modernization and democracy like never before.
From a governance point of view, Bhutto has severe critics in Pakistan (and India), who don't see her as an able and incorruptible leader. But everyone, by and large, recognizes her legacy as a Bhutto, her stature thereof, and her passionate commitment to the cause of democracy. Much like the Gandhi family in India (former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated), the Bhutto family has lost members to tragic assassinations and murders. And much like the Indian Congress Party that has heavily depended on a Gandhi family member to keep it united, Benazir Bhutto's name and stature have become synonymous with her Pakistan People's Party.
Bhutto's death has left a gaping hole in Pakistan political scene and future. (Which also leaves President Pervez Musharraf as the only dynamic face in the political battlefield, but that's another matter).
With Bhutto gone, who will be the next PPP chief?
The country is observing a three-day mourning. But if Pakistan and PPP are determined to make good on Bhutto's promise to her people, they need to step on the gas immediately, select a leader and stand unitedly behind him/her. They have to push for free and fair elections more vociferously than ever. Chances are high that the elections will be postponed, but the people need to keep at it.
This is the right time to give democracy another chance: the country is in turmoil and needs strong leadership, the West is watching and willing to help, and Pakistanis are not only tiring of autocracy, but also their relative failure to establish democracy and a thriving economy, especially when compared to neighboring India.
These are troubled times and no Pakistani leader is going to have it easy. As policy experts have voiced before, Pakistan's most important challenge to democracy is to decouple the army from civil governance and make it subservient to decisions made by civil leadership, something that India has been able to achieve with great success.
However, given the reports of chaos in the country following the assassination, I seriously doubt the army is going to take the backseat anytime soon.
But persistence pays. Rome wasn't build in a day and neither is a democracy. Watching the Indian democracy shape up and grow roots, I can assure that it is going to be one tough task for Pakistan, but not impossible to achieve.
A few thoughts about the assassination:
For those of us following the news on Pakistan and the assassination, Bhutto's death comes as a shock but not a surprise. She feared for her life and publicly said so on several occasions. She survived a serious attempt on her life last October soon after her return, an attack that killed over a 100 of her supporters. Despite her own fears, she went ahead with her plans to return to Pakistan, campaign for and fight the elections.
Some people have raised the question whether she should have returned to Pakistan at all at this time, and, secondly, if she should have taken the risk of standing out of the sunroof of her car to wave and greet her supporters, an act, which many say, finally killed her.
Both these questions appear a little naive to me:
First, Bhutto, like her father, is a leader and an openly committed person to the cause of a democratic Pakistan. How can she not return to lead her country in its time of need? For a person who has claimed to be passionate about putting Pakistan back on the democratic path, did she have a choice? The sub-continent has a history of taking despotic rulers head-on. We had to fight the British, remember? That's the only way out.
Second, about her sunroof: If that seems odd to anyone, you haven't seen an election campaign in the sub-continent. Put yourself in Bhutto's shoes. She is standing there as an agent of change amongst an ocean of her supporters. She is asking her people to wake up and fight for what they think is right. She returned to a Pakistan at time when the country was nothing short of a minefield. She was standing at the crossroad of her country's destiny.
This is a hugely emotional and historical moment. How can she not respond to that? How can she not want to look out of her sunroof and greet and touch the people she claims to be fighting for? Would I have done the same despite threats to my life? Yes! Yes! Yes!
As an Indian, I understand how this can happen. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE (Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers) suicide bomber during a political rally in 1991. Gandhi too was aware of the threats to his life.
But a campaign rally is probably the only time a leader will directly connect with his/her constituencies and vice versa. Staying put in a bullet-proof vehicle or glass cubicle is not an option. The idea sounds almost alien to me.
Whatever her political shortcomings, Bhutto's death is tragic beyond words, especially for a family that has always accepted Pakistan as their only destiny. I'll wrap up with this quote from All Things Pakistan:
At a human level this is a tragedy like no other. Only a few days ago I was mentioning to someone that the single most tragic person in all of Pakistan - maybe all the world - is Nusrat Bhutto. Benazir’s mother. Think about it. Her husband, killed. One son poisoned. Another son assasinated. One daughter dead possibly of drug overdose. Another daughter rises to be Prime Minister twice, but jailed, exiled, and finally gunned down.
Today, in shock, I can think only of Benazir Bhutto the human being. Tomorrow, maybe, I will think of politics."
A few sub-continent bloggers talking about the assassination :