Sunday, October 21, 2007

One Day that Shook Pakistan

One day that shook Pakistan by Ghazi Salahuddin
The News, October 21, 2007

Before midnight of that fateful Thursday, all seasoned observers must have sensed that Benazir Bhutto was vindicated. That old magic of the Bhutto phenomenon had prevailed, with its surprising resurgence in the autumn of 2007. This impression was hard to discount in spite of that surge in resentment among many longtime supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party over the 'deal' that Bhutto had made with President General Pervez Musharraf.

And when that terrifying explosion overwhelmed our senses a few minutes after midnight, another serious manifestation of the present crisis of Pakistan changed the focus of the nation's attention. If you look at it carefully, it would seem that both tales of one city have a symbiotic relationship. A populist movement, rooted in the charismatic as well as conflict-ridden leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, must contend with the ruling ideas in times that have become so much more violent.

To complicate this linkage, there is this induction of an expedient alliance between the PPP and the establishment. How this relationship will now evolve will depend on the moves made by both Bhutto and Musharraf, against the flaming backdrop of the global situation in the context of war against terror. Until Thursday, Musharraf was seen as the lead player in Pakistan. At the centre of stage now is Bhutto. Her second homecoming has also demonetised, with one stroke, an entire crop of politicians nurtured in the hothouse of military rule.

But let us return to the events of October 18. Before Bhutto landed in Karachi, federal minister Shaikh Rashid was dispensing his wisdom on all our television news channels to interpret the political significance of Bhutto's homecoming. Two points that he was insisting on were: her welcome would not be as large and as lively as it was in Lahore in April 1986 and, after her arrival, Bhutto would have to deal with the ground realities of Pakistan she was now aware of.

Whether the reception Benazir got in Karachi on Thursday was bigger and better than in Lahore two decades ago is, perhaps, not that crucial. The overall impression seemed to be that the crowds in Karachi were bigger. One great difference was that now we have independent TV channels to tell the story. But we are never able to make a factual assessment of a crowd. Its size remains in the eye of the beholder. What matters is the tempo that is generated and Thursday became historic because of how a new generation, brought together from all corners of the country, echoed the joy and the fervour of the almost forgotten rhythm of PPP's populist credo.

As for Bhutto's encounter with ground realities of Pakistan, Shaikh Rashid should have realised that her homecoming would in itself change these realities. That has happened. Politics is a new ball game in Pakistan. A massive political demonstration provokes its own chain of reactions. How the most devastating act of terrorism in Pakistan's recent history of violence affect the initial impact of a glorious day of political celebration is not easy to decipher. However, the press conference that Bhutto addressed on Friday was a very good demonstration of how she can rise to an occasion in the face of our mounting uncertainties. It is in the nature of charismatic leadership that it thrives on crises.

It has to be conceded that the PPP was able to stage the show that it did on Thursday as a consequence of the contentious 'reconciliation' with the present administration. Otherwise a military or an autocratic ruler is understandably loath to allow any popular political demonstration. We know that Musharraf had tried to delay this homecoming until after his presidency is secured. It would be instructive to look at how the present government has repeatedly suppressed its political opposition and has not allowed people to gather for a demonstration.

You may refer to the lawyers' movement after March 9. It did matter that this movement was not led by a political party. But the triumphant journey that the chief justice made to Lahore by road from Islamabad in the first week of May had obviously rattled the administration. That is how Karachi had to suffer the great tragedy of May 12. Also relevant is the thought that the judgment of July 20 that reinstated the chief justice was facilitated by the massive civil society support that the lawyers were able to demonstrate.

Thursday's suicide bombing, one may say, was foretold. Benazir was aware of this threat. But she must also have realised that a huge popular demonstration of the kind that we had seen in Lahore was politically crucial for her strategy. As a brave leader, she took the risk. Her welcome, it should be noted, was very well organised, though the PPP is not known for such meticulous planning and event management. The whiff of power in the near future should have prompted the prospective candidates of the party to do their best in mobilising the people.

Be that as it may, Thursday's reception was remarkable. One noticed the high proportion of young people in the crowd. They have received their baptism of fire. The midnight tragedy would also contribute to their memory of an event that will survive almost as folklore in all parts of the country, sustaining the appeal of the PPP in a large section of our population. How will the adversaries of the party, often as passionate in their stance as the supporters, respond to the emerging situation?

The irony of it all is that the PPP in its tumultuous past was never able to win the trust of the establishment. Consider the hints that Bhutto has dropped about who she thinks could be responsible for the suicide bombing in which she has narrowly survived.

If Musharraf, with whatever compulsions, has made a deal with the PPP can he deliver without creating a rift within the establishment? On her part, Bhutto is able to handle the dissidents within her own party. Besides, a charismatic leader can generally get away with such indiscretions. Can Musharraf retain the confidence of the establishment after he retires from his army post? In short, can he survive?

What I am saying is that intense uncertainties are lurking in the political domain, not excluding suicide bombers. Bhutto is seeking a moderate alliance and free and fair national elections in the coming weeks. That will require Nawaz Sharif's return to Pakistan and the shuffling of the entire pack.

It will be interesting to see where the religious parties belong in the emerging lineup. But for the moment, we need to mull over the impact and meaning of the events of Thursday, October 18. The likes of Shaikh Rashid should also need some tuition on what populism and the longings of the ordinary people are all about.

The writer is a staff member. Email:

Also See:Benazir must take responsibility for blast deaths: niece: The News, October 21, 2007

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