(As this article was written a few hours before the suicide bombing at the PPP cavalcade, I have not had time since then to change anything but the title. But on rereading it before it goes to press, I find it still relevant.)

BENAZIR Bhutto’s return has united the chattering classes as few things could have done. From the wild right to the woolly Left, columnists and TV talk show panellists are united in condemning both the National Reconciliation Ordinance, and the negotiations that preceded it.

But whenever there is such unanimity in the ranks of the commentariat, I try and find other angles for viewing the same phenomenon. So let me play the devil’s advocate, and ask what were Ms Bhutto’s options? Here is the ambitious leader of Pakistan’s biggest political party, in exile for the last eight years. Cases against her and her husband have kept them abroad, together with their children. She now wants to return and play a role in the country’s moribund politics. What’s she supposed to do?

I know the legally minded will reply that she should have faced the charges against her, and not negotiated with a military dictator. But if she has not been found guilty in Pakistan of any wrongdoing, despite the passage of 11 years of hostile governments, surely there should be some cut-off point. And during this period, Asif Zardari has spent eight years in jail. How many well-known Pakistani politicians have been jailed for this length of time?

Ms Bhutto’s arrival, and her tumultuous welcome by hundreds of thousands of her supporters from all over the country, tells a different story. Their verdict varies sharply from that of her drawing-room critics. And let’s not forget that very few columnists and TV panellists actually go out and vote, while political workers do.

The truth is that Benazir Bhutto has carried some heavy baggage ever since she entered politics: she is a woman, a Sindhi and a Bhutto. For all these reasons, she has remained anathema to the establishment. A generation of army officers have been brainwashed into blaming Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the 1971 defeat that led to the creation of Bangladesh. They conveniently forget that another military dictator was in charge then.

As a woman, she is unacceptable to the religious right. Even for so-called liberals, her sex makes her fair game for crude jokes. The other day, a well-known lawyer asked me: ‘What happened during her one-to-one meeting with Musharraf?’

Don’t get me wrong: I have little doubt that Benazir Bhutto profited from her two stints in office, although I don’t buy the vastly exaggerated figures floating around. However, whatever the exact amount, I am not for one second suggesting that she is innocent of all the charges against her. My point here is that like it or not, she is a force to reckon with in Pakistani politics, and it is right that she should be here to play a role.

I was critical of her for throwing Musharraf a lifeline when he was at his weakest a couple of months ago. But I did not take a moral position on her talks: the point I made was that she should have let him stew, and taken advantage of his vulnerability.

And yes, the NRO is a deeply flawed law. By leaving Nawaz Sharif out of its ambit, it is not providing political parties a level playing ground in the next general elections. And by releasing criminals in Karachi and Hyderabad with blood on their hands, the NRO is endorsing terrorism.

The one thing our commentators have not touched upon in their endlessly loud and self-righteous salvos is that Ms Bhutto has won a major electoral concession from the government. How far this will ensure fair elections is hard to judge. But the fact that the Election Commission will now have to hand over certified copies of the count to candidates or their representatives within 24 hours will reduce the more blatant kind of rigging.

The more I think about it, the more puzzled I am by the selective morality Ms Bhutto is being subjected to. ‘Deal’ has become a four-letter word. And yet, deals are at the heart of every functioning democracy. Of course agreements are reached every day between power centres and political players.

In the American Congress, Republicans and Democrats make deals all the time, as do Labour and the Tories in the UK.

For some reason, the morality brigade is appalled by the notion that Ms Bhutto should negotiate with Musharraf. Welcome to the real world, folks! In politics, you negotiate with your opponents all the time. When there is common ground and mutual benefits to be gained, two parties do talk.

The same people who are up in arms over Bhutto’s corruption charges were not as appalled over other scandals that have taken place in Pakistan. Who today is outraged over the billions of rupees in bank loans written off for the benefit of the Sharif industrial empire? Or the cooperative bank scam run by the ruling Chaudhries? The MMA’s support of Musharraf and its connived electoral success in 2002 was all part of a deal. And does anybody think for a second that there has been no corruption under the present dispensation? So why is so little said in the media about these scandals?

One reason why I, for one, would like to move on from the past is the real and present danger we face from religious extremism. As we have seen these last few years, and in particular over the last few months, the terrorist threat is growing rapidly. As the government has grappled with constitutional and legal problems while fighting for its survival, the local Taliban and their supporters have been gaining strength. We cannot afford the luxury of endless power struggles as the real enemy takes over large parts of the country. Already, the tribal areas and several settled districts in the NWFP are under siege.

For the last couple of days, Karachi has resembled a carnival city, with PPP flags and Ms Bhutto’s portraits visible everywhere. And the faces of the PPP jiyalas are animated and full of hope, a far cry from the bored and sullen faces one sees at PML-Q and MQM rallies. As I drove to Jinnah’s mausoleum on the evening of Ms Bhutto’s return, I saw lots of people waiting for their leader. Many of them were dancing and singing. In a country with so little to celebrate, galvanising thousands of people is surely worth something.

So, on her second homecoming, and at the risk of a fatwa from my fellow columnists and flak from my readers, I would like to welcome Ms Bhutto back, and wish her luck. She’s going to need it.

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