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Home > News > Columnists > A K Verma

Benazir's death won't have long-term impact

December 28, 2007

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The tragedy of Benazir Bhutto's [Images] assassination will be felt at many levels.

For the liberal and secular sections of the Pakistani polity, it is hope extinguished, with no one of equally stellar stature to fill the void. For the nation, a leader unmatched in potential and popular appeal, has been cruelly taken out. For the United States, lately counting on her availability to protect their agenda in Pakistan, the loss is irreplaceable. For President Pervez Musharraf [Images], hell bent to keep power, she represented a viable opportunity to retain his chair.

Yet, her departure from the Pakistani scene, despite its multifaceted immediate consequences, may not amount to much in the long term.

Benazir had not cast much of a shadow over Pakistan, during the eight years of her exile. True, Pakistan has had very few charismatic leaders and she along with her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto would be included in this category. But the politicians in Pakistan have rarely been concerned with nation building or democracy.

Confronted always by the military and its awesome power, survival always remained the principal obsession of those who managed to reach the top at the national level. Intrigues, counter intrigues and building a 'nest' would take most of their time. The nation's development and progress remained a low priority.

Benazir's two terms as prime minister were in keeping with this pattern. Had she become a prime minister for a third term, with the larger than life presence of military by her side, nothing spectacularly different could have been expected or have materialised.

No individual leader in Pakistan has been a match for the accumulated problems of the country. Some of these problems have existed from the day Pakistan came into existence. A national identity, universally acceptable within the country, remains elusive. The polity and the ruling elites have not been able to reach a consensus on what should be the acceptable goals for the nation. Although the State is an Islamic republic, identifiable and articulate groups want it converted into an Islamist entity. The strength of such groups is on the ascendancy as Talibanisation creeps in on an incremental scale.

Benazir's assassination is the result of this phenomenon.

Benazir, as prime minister for the third term or just as the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, the most popular political party in Pakistan, in all likelihood, would have been unable to stem the tide.

The mutually antagonistic relationship between Islamist and non Islamist groups in Pakistan has reached a stage where no liberal and secular leader can be considered safe from risks such as faced by Benazir.

Benazir had created vast followings in the Sind and Punjab provinces but not in Baluchistan or the North West Frontier Province. In fact, no Pakistani leader has had popular support in all the four provinces simultaneously. An underlying cause is the absence of pervasive unity between different cultural and linguistic groups in Pakistan.

Language is often a major marker of identity of a group. In the absence of social justice and developmental equality, this marker acquires a deeper imprint. Even though emergence of Bangladesh from Pakistan as an independent nation highlighted this paradigm, Pakistan's politicians learnt no lessons. Every region of Pakistan places its own regional identity above that of Pakistan as a nation. The fact that she was Sindhi was a handicap -- most non Sindhis did not have a benign attitude towards her.

But her true Achilles heel was the military. A third time premiership would not have altered the equation. The military is so deeply entrenched in the country's economic and political life that no democratic entity in the country can survive a challenge from it. On both occasions in the past Benazir had been evicted from the prime minister's office by the machinations of the military.

All said and done, Pakistan has remained a state of the military, by the military, for the military. Musharraf has proved it time and again with is actions in the past few months. Benazir could not have made any difference to this stark reality.

It suits the United States to play this reality as it is. In fact, like Benazir, they also do not seem to have any option. But the US sheds no real tears over this situation. Instead it makes the best it can out of the bargain. It makes Pakistan serve its interests in the region against payment in the shape of aid and grants. The relationship between the two countries is entirely one of convenience and not conviction. One can make out that the services rendered by Pakistan are directly proportional to the payments received.

It is also doubtful whether Benazir could have had any impact on India-Pakistan relations. These are a legacy of the two nation theory which gave birth to Pakistan. As long as this theory is lionised in Pakistan, bringing in a new dawn in the relationship between the two countries is likely to remain an impossible dream.

A K Verma is a former Secretary, Research and Analysis Wing


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