WHEN the PPP boycotted the 1985 election held by Gen Ziaul Haq who had deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it helped the general bring in a government, even a parliament, sanitised of the PPP and Bhutto’s followers. By the next election in 1988, the PPP had learnt the error of its ways and also gained from the fact that Zia was no longer holding sway over Pakistani national space. Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Aslam Beg — whose appointment as vice chief of army staff was not one Ziaul Haq was said to have been too happy with — took the quick decision to hold elections as scheduled, paving the way for the PPP to win. And the Supreme Court allowed the parties to contest.
One can conjecture what the election would have looked like had Zia lived on. He may not have allowed parties to contest or handed over power, however ‘moth-eaten’, to Benazir Bhutto and the PPP. Despite being committed to the election, the aversion to the PPP meant that Beg green-lighted the creation of the IJI to prevent the PPP from sweeping Punjab and he, along with Ishaq Khan, ensured BB didn’t tinker with foreign and economic policies.
Can those who engineer a deposition forget what led to the removal and allow a return to glory?
But despite their distrust of the PPP, Ishaq Khan and Aslam Beg were not as reluctant as Zia may have been, had he been alive. For their distrust of the PPP was not personal, as was Zia’s; he after all was the man seen as responsible for Bhutto’s hanging.
The simple fact is that Benazir Bhutto’s ascension to power began with the demise of Zia.
Fast forward another decade. Another military coup and another dictator in power. This time around it was Gen Pervez Musharraf who deposed Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and held elections in 2002. From this time onwards, it is said that he negotiated with the PPP, time and again. It happened immediately after the elections — remember the chance meeting of Musharraf with Amin Fahim at a restaurant at Pir Sohawa — but the talks didn’t get very far. Soon after the Patriots came into being and Musharraf was able to form a government to his liking. But the communications didn’t stop.
According to a report in the Guardian the British foreign office got in touch with BB in 2004. “… Mark Lyall Grant ... flew to Dubai to convey a message to Bhutto from Musharraf … her husband was to be released from jail. Perhaps she should now consider working with him?”
BB was wary but two years later even a list of demands was exchanged. By 2007, the Americans had entered the picture and by the summer of that year, Musharraf and BB met in Dubai. In October, she returned to the country.
Many an account has been written about these negotiations and none of this is secret but each time I read something about this period, the question arises; why BB and not Nawaz Sharif?
Partly this was because of the overall environment. International forces were battling the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan while Pakistan was seen to be succumbing to militancy and extremism. Western powers, backing Musharraf, wanted to shore up the liberal, progressive forces in Pakistan against right-wing extremists — the PPP fit the bill and the PML-N didn’t.
But more than that, Musharraf wasn’t going to talk to those he had thrown out. His nemesis was Nawaz Sharif and not Benazir. He was willing to reach out to the PPP in 2002; and in 2007, when he was talking to BB about a power-sharing deal, he foiled Nawaz Sharif’s bid to come back in September. The PML-N head was allowed to return only after Benazir Bhutto came back and that too after Musharraf was pressured to do so. It’s noteworthy that Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan two days before Musharraf retired from the post of chief of army staff and Ashfaq Kayani took over. (Like Aslam Beg earlier, Kayani had been elevated to vice chief of army staff in October 2007).
Perhaps this is because the equation between Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif was more personal and acrimonious than the one between Musharraf and BB in 2007. Nawaz Sharif had tried to throw Musharraf out; Musharraf had managed to throw Nawaz Sharif out of power, jail him and then exile him. There was no such history with BB.
Musharraf was to the PML-N what Zia was to BB. The long struggle back to power for BB and for Nawaz Sharif turns a chapter only with the death of Zia and the retirement of Musharraf from the army chief’s post. In each case, the institution’s policy of hostility was tempered only after a change of command. In other words, a party thrown out of power in Islamabad doesn’t return till there is a change in those residing in Pindi.
And by now, in case any reader is wondering why they are being subjected to this boring account of history, let’s turn to the present. While Imran Khan is ruling, rumours are rife that the PML-N (with Shehbaz Sharif at the helm officially) is about to seal a deal with the establishment. The PTI has failed to govern and hence, the PML-N, under its more reconciliatory head, will tone down its rhetoric and improve its troubled relationship with the powers that be. And then it may be allowed to come back to power — in Punjab or the centre and fix the mess made by the PTI.
I have no clue how accurate such rumours are for I have no access to what is happening behind the scenes and neither do sources in high places talk to me. But I wonder if personal acrimony is a thing of the past. Can those who engineer a deposition forget what led to the removal and allow a return to glory?
But then we are told this is not the country of the 1980s or 1990s. The balance of power has shifted. The PTI and Imran Khan are very troublesome. It is hard to sustain a bad decision. And perhaps we have evolved so much that individuals no longer matter as much as they once did.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2021