ISLAMABAD, April 20: It is already being called by some people as the mother of all deals. Some others — from both the ruling and opposition parties — say it amounts to a great betrayal. And most politicians — from the prime minister to many veterans of Pakistani politics — are either in a state of denial on the issue, or are nervous, confused, shocked or even outraged.

But the fact is that secret negotiations between the two sides started nearly three years ago. And after having gone through a roller-coaster ride and change of interlocutors, they have reached a point where it can be said with authority that the decisive phase has begun.

It is also true that so far there is no ‘deal’. In fact, those closely involved in the secret talks say even when an agreement is reached between President General Pervez Musharraf and the main opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, it may not be on paper, and may never be referred to as an agreement or ‘deal’.

According to them, some conscious moves by the two sides, like Ms Bhutto’s support for the women’s protection bill or Gen Musharraf’s decision to remove the main anti-Bhutto investigator Hasan Waseem Afzal from NAB (National Accountability Bureau), and a kind of ‘restraint regime’ being followed by the two top leaders by avoiding harsh language against each other, has already created a conducive atmosphere.

And they say once an agreement is reached, actions on the ground leading up to the next elections and the formation of the future government would automatically bring into focus the broad parameters of such a ‘deal’.

It is now being said with an element of confidence that the ‘deal’ will most certainly go through as not only the West (read the US) is interested, but the two sides are also finding out that they seem to be ‘natural allies’ in the post-9/11 world. The aim now is to work towards drawing new battle-lines in the country’s political arena between the so-called moderates and extremists. In this final phase, more emphasis is on fine-tuning of the major points.

But this is not to say that there are no serious issues to be resolved. Then, further delay is being caused by the current judicial crisis. Against the backdrop of the unexpected reaction by the lawyers’ community, being a shrewd politician, Ms Bhutto has decided to assess the changed realities before giving a final commitment.

Side by side though, these sources say, the two sides have decided not to abandon, or even postpone, their negotiations to remove all possible irritants.

Based on a series of background interviews with some senior politicians and insiders from the two sides, it’ll be safe to say that both camps have already started the difficult exercise to convince their respective friends and allies on the matter. Most recently, the president personally briefed the Pakistan Muslim League leader, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, on various aspects of the likely ‘deal’, expecting him to prepare the ground within the ruling party for a future partnership with Ms Bhutto’s party.

And the self-exiled leader of the Pakistan People’s Party is soon expected to convene a meeting of her trusted colleagues to take them into confidence.Although already aware of some of the developments, Chaudhry Shujaat was said to be somewhat surprised, but sources say his cousin and Punjab chief minister, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, was visibly shocked. So were many other members of the ruling clique who later came to know of it. Even though some of them may already have been exploring a decent redundancy package.

So, if there is a ‘deal’ in the making, what are its contours? More importantly, what are the motivating factors to bury the hatchet and become friends and allies? And, should this be considered a temporary arrangement, or does it mark the beginning of an entirely new and permanent alignment in Pakistani politics? More so, is there going to be a guarantor to underwrite pledges made by the two sides under such a ‘deal’?

In simple terms, the ‘deal’ (or ‘arrangement’, as some of those involved in the process would like to call it) is certainly the outcome of the way the world has changed after 9/11. But a serious attempt to discuss future cooperation between Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto started about three years ago after the need was felt to block what was described as the rising tide of Islamic extremism in Pakistan. By then Gen Musharraf had already distanced himself from the Islamic groups and had started a crackdown against religious extremists. As a result he had become a major target of the Islamic militants.

Ms Bhutto, being desperate to get rid of the Sword of Damocles in the form of corruption cases, particularly the Swiss and Spanish ones, and also to oblige the Americans, warmed to the idea. Still, she wanted to negotiate directly with the military side of the establishment rather than the civilian side. So, in the initial phase the person who worked keenly and closely to break the ice with Ms Bhutto’s camp was no other than the-then head of the military intelligence, Major General Nadeem Taj.

It was Gen Musharraf’s way of sending the message that he meant business. But those in the know of things say the issues, ranging from the corruption cases to Asif Zardari’s fate and General Musharraf’s uniform to his own role in future set-up, were too serious to be resolved so easily. Hence, at one point the two sides decided to put the process on hold.

THE THIRD PARTY: During this period an indirect, but more firm, process started through a third party. By now it is hardly a secret that the former British High Commissioner, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, got so deeply involved in an attempt to broker a deal that at one point he not only met Ms Bhutto, and also Nawaz Sharif, but in Islamabad circles came to be known as the principal mediator.

The US Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher, also reportedly met Ms Bhutto in Dubai. This meeting was taken as an indicator of Washington’s desire and keenness for a political arrangement involving all the liberal and moderate political groups. However, the Americans are understood to have made it clear to everyone that they would still like to see Gen Musharraf as the president, with or without uniform.

As aptly described by a ruling party senator, the Americans still trust him, but through such an arrangement they not only want to put a check on Islamism, but also to give a certain legitimacy to Pakistan’s role in the ‘war on terror’.

The process was revived in a big way over the last year. Although contacts between the two top leaders had remained through various back channels, now the interlocutors were the president’s most trusted aide, Tariq Aziz, and BB’s controversial aide and former FIA chief, Rehman Malik.

Knowledgeable sources on the two sides say all irritants and almost every aspect of a future ‘deal’ have been discussed at this level. They have also been able to overcome most of the problems, and barring a few crucial points, a near agreement is on the table.

FIRST TEST: Sources say the ‘deal’ envisages a post-election arrangement and not an electoral alliance. If the ‘deal’ comes through, its first test would be in the present national and provincial assemblies, when Gen Musharraf seeks a second term as president while remaining in uniform. It is being said the PPP will protest but, unlike the Jamaat-i-Islami, its members will not resign. Instead, they will abstain. A similar strategy could be adopted by other ‘moderate’ groups like the ANP. Some architects of such a move say there is also a possibility that even the JUI of Maulana Fazlur Rehman may prefer to abstain, thus giving a clear passage to Gen Musharraf to get himself elected by a simple majority.

A final formula is yet to be worked out, but in the next phase a kind of level playing field will have to be provided to all political parties in the general election. However, there has still not been any agreement on Ms Bhutto’s return, and some top government leaders are deadly against allowing her to campaign for the elections.

Once the elections are over, it is being suggested, a broad-based government is likely to be formed with a major role for the PPP. It is also being proposed that such a government should be a headed by a person who is acceptable to all the groups, with the PPP having the slot of deputy PM.

Some people say it also suits Ms Bhutto as she may not like to see the emergence of another candidate for premiership from her own party. Along with the government’s formation, General Musharraf would be expected to relinquish the post of the army chief and, through a vote of confidence, will be accepted as the civilian president.

Sources say the issues that are still being debated include the insistence by Ms Bhutto to be allowed to return and contest the elections. In fact, some say, after the judicial crisis, she has raised her demands, and is asking for the necessary constitutional amendment to allow her to become prime minister.

The timing of President Musharraf’s retirement from the army also remains an unresolved issue. And, of course, a major issue that stands in the way of a formal deal is the trust deficit which, despite some high-level contacts between the two sides, remains as both Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto look towards each other with suspicion, and not without reason.

As regards the PPP’s alliance with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, very little is being said at the moment. But in case the deal comes through, Mr Sharif’s party is most likely to part ways with the PPP.

These are indeed dramatic developments, and clearly show that neither there are permanent allies nor friends in Pakistani politics. A few years ago nobody could have even imagined Gen Musharraf and Ms Bhutto negotiating a deal. And after she signed the ‘charter of democracy’ with Mr Sharif, most people thought a clear division had emerged between the military and the parties led by the two former prime ministers. But then Nawaz Sharif started to drift towards the Islamists, and Ms Bhutto started to look for commonalities between her political philosophy and that of Gen Musharraf’s regime.

It will be interesting to see how things shape up in the weeks to come as without knowing the outcome of the judicial crisis, Ms Bhutto may find it quite hard to strike a deal with Gen Musharraf. But if such issues are out of the way and a deal is struck then, analysts say, the new ruling alliance may give legitimacy to a military-guided democracy for many years to come.



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