Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Bhutto killing will create chaos

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s charismatic opposition leader, was shot dead on Thursday evening minutes after she had addressed an election rally in Rawalpindi. As Bhutto, chairperson of Pakistan’s People’s Party, was about to get into a van, two gunmen on a motorcycle rode by pumping bullets into her. A suicide bomber standing close to the vehicle detonated himself, spreading terror and panic, and plunging the country into a deep political crisis.

This assassination comes less than two weeks before the January 8 Parliamentary elections and just weeks after Pakistan President, General Parvez Musharraf, lifted the emergency.

Bhutto, who was 54 when she was killed, became the first woman in the Islamic world to lead a modern country. That was 1988. For three decades before and after 1988, she steered Pakistan through violence and uncertainty.

She called herself “daughter of Pakistan” and was twice elected Prime Minister and twice expelled on charges of corruption. She ultimately went into a self-imposed exile in Dubai and London, returning home just two months ago, when she escaped a murderous attack that left many dead and wounded. Daughter of Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, she met her father just before he was hanged in April 1979 by the then Pakistan ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq. Interestingly the last meeting with her father took place in the jail that she demolished later to build a park. It is in this park she addressed her last meeting on Thursday, and died soon after, her life’s ambition unfulfilled. She had vowed before her father that she would avenge his death by outwitting the military generals.

Two consequences will emerge out of this murder. One, there is bound to be a prolonged fight between Musharraf and the opposition. Already the country’s other important political leader, Nawaz Sharif, has said that he will not contest the coming elections, because he feels it will be unfair. And Benazir Bhutto’s party is now leaderless and in complete disarray. With horrible antigovernment riots in Pakistan, Musharraf is grappling with a situation that can go well beyond his control. “I see a lot more trouble for Musharraf in the near future,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political analyst.

Last month. Musharraf, under America’s pressure, stepped down as army chief and became a fulltime civilian president. Although the Pakistan army is headed by generals who are Musharraf’s favourites, nobody is quite certain how they would now behave. It is also not clear whether they would support him in case the current events slip into a major political crisis or upheaval.

Two, Washington’s efforts to bring about a semblance of balance in Pakistan’s deeply divided political scenario now appear even more difficult. President George Bush was probably hoping that Bhutto would lead her country from a military dictatorship to a duly elected democracy. With her death, America’s hold on Pakistan seems to be slipping.

On Thursday, just a few hours after the killing, U.S. officials were trying to reach out to Sharif’s supporters and trying to build bridges there. Before Thursday, Washington was hardly inclined to have a dialogue with Sharif, considered in the West as one bonded rather heavily to Islamic forces.

At a time when Bush has begun to trust Musharraf less and less, largely because of his inability or reluctance to tackle terror, the American President finds himself in a fix with no leader in Pakistan that he can fully rely upon.

Analysts feel that Bhutto’s assassination has checkmated Bush’s aims at introducing democracy in Pakistan, an important segment of the Muslim world, and driving out Islamic militants, who have doggedly refused to quit the country.

It is now apparent that Bush and the U.S. are still not masters in manipulating Pakistan’s internal affairs. They did support Bhutto, but that support often seemed half-hearted. Sure enough, it caused Musharraf’s popularity to dip, but it did not ultimately save Bhutto from death. Had American support for her been 100 per cent, would she have lived? This is a question that is bound to trouble Bush and his advisers in the weeks to come.

Pakistan continues to remain important for the U.S., and the chaos now being witnessed in that country will be unnerving for Washington. It is imperative that Pakistan rulers embark on the democratic path and reign in terrorists, who are all set to have a free run. An unrest of the kind we see in Pakistan now, if allowed to continue and worsen, will help Al-Qaeda and other terror organizations to make the word an even more dangerous place to live.

(Webposted December 28 2007)