A replay of ’92 drama

November 10, 2007

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CALL it the irony of Pakistani politics, but the more you try to change it for the better, the more it looks the same. The striking similarities between the events outside the residence of Benazir Bhutto on Friday and those of 15 years ago on the same street of Islamabad were enough to prove the point.

Indeed there was a sense of déjà vu all over as I stood on the Kohistan Road in the capital’s F-8 Sector. There was a huge force of riot police, who had laid several layers of barricades along the two entry and exit points to Ms Bhutto’s residence. Watching from the other side of the barricades were scores of reporters and photo-journalists, spending frustrating hours, and occasionally battling to capture images of a handful of Pakistan People’s Party supporters being picked up, thrashed and whisked away in waiting prison trucks. These scenes were enough to revive my memory of the events that took place 15 years ago --- Nov 18, 1992, to be precise --- when on the same Kohistan Road I was witness to Ms Bhutto and a handful of her supporters battling with several hundred police. Then it was done on the orders of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Yes, then too, Ms Bhutto wanted to leave her house (in those days on Street 2) to go to Rawalpindi to address a rally at Liaquat Bagh, and later march on Islamabad.

It was for the first time when barbed wires were introduced in Islamabad’s street politics. The idea, which since then has remained in vogue, was to prevent the PPP leader from leaving the area. Yet Ms Bhutto defied the orders, came out with a few dozen of her party activists, and despite a heavy baton charge, somehow managed to get into a vehicle to force her way to Rawalpindi.

She was blocked close to Liaquat Bagh, arrested and forcefully deported to Karachi.

This time the police were not as brutal, but much bigger in numbers and certainly more organised. The manner in which it laid the siege on and around Ms Bhutto’s residence, it made it almost impossible for anyone to leave the area. The PPP leader still made a few attempts to leave, and at one point also tried to march through the barbed wires along with several senior party members.

For many foreign correspondents and television crews, who had specially flown in to follow her return to the centre-stage in Pakistani politics, it was an amazing sight. Here was a woman opposition leader trying to defy orders of a military ruler, and speaking from behind barbed wires, giving a call for civil disobedience.

However, for many others,

especially those who have been following Pakistan’s politics for the past many years, it remains to be seen if Friday’s open defiance by Ms Bhutto will wash away the accusation that her return to centre-stage was a direct result of her secret negotiations with Gen Musharraf.

PERVASIVE SCEPTICISM: The scepticism among many of her supporters, also reflected in a meek, muted response by the otherwise anti-establishment PPP activists, has not been without reason. Many of them are yet to be convinced that this time her call for agitation was out of a genuine love for democracy.

Back in 1992, she was accused of launching the campaign after arriving at some kind of understanding with the then army chief, Gen Asif Nawaz. This time she is being accused of ending her eight years in self-imposed exile after a US-brokered deal or understanding with Gen Musharraf.

In 1992, the Nawaz Sharif government, by crushing the opposition’s campaign, had managed to earn a few more months for itself. The sudden death of Gen Asif Nawaz had also helped in changing the equation between the three pillars of the so-called troika --- President, Prime Minister and Army chief.

But subsequent events proved that Mr Sharif’s government was unable to wish away the crisis, and eventually Ms Bhutto’s threat of a ‘long-march’ from Lahore on Islamabad sucked in the new army chief, Gen Wahid Kakar, who ‘persuaded’ both President Ishaq Khan and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to step down, and pave the way for general elections.

This time, too, Gen Musharraf is not likely to be cowed down by small demonstrations, even if they are being called by a big political leader like Benazir Bhutto. But it’s also true that President Musharraf’s extra-constitutional move to impose a state of emergency, issuance of his own Provisional Constitution Order, and forcible removal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and a host of other superior court judges, has suddenly changed the political equation.

Although it has certainly earned Gen Musharraf more time in power, it has also provided Ms Bhutto the reason, if not the excuse, to hit back at him and lay before him a new and more stringent set of demands, including the lifting of emergency and restoration of the pre-emergency judiciary.

However, the big question that remains unanswered is about the way out of the current crisis. President Musharraf is determined to hang on to power for as long as it takes, and with top military commanders on board, it’s nothing more than a wishful thinking of a few that an internal dissent in the army can ever lead to a change at the top.

Nevertheless, some mixed, and rather confusing, signals have started to come out from various sections of the establishment in Washington, with some elements questioning the thesis that his role in the war on terror makes him an indispensable ally. Ms Bhutto is aware of all strands of thinking in the US, and she knows well what various political groups and classes are thinking within her own country. She also knows that during her absence from the country, particularly over the last eight months, a new brand of educated, city-based agitators has emerged, and they have been making the cause of the judiciary as the rallying point.

Many observers say that in such a situation, her biggest challenge is not only to mobilise her own party workers, but also to restore her credibility by distancing herself from any future arrangement with President Musharraf.

Some maintain that she has already started to make moves in that direction, and her Friday’s reiteration of the demise of a ‘deal’ was one such indication. But whether she would like to, or is capable of, creating enough fuss in the form of street protest to force a change of guard at the top remains unclear. Those who have followed Ms Bhutto’s politics of the last couple of decades say she even when she excels in the art of agitation, the PPP leader has never shied away from the politics of compromise or adjustments. Also she never has any hesitation in dropping an ally, only to make another to achieve the ultimate goal. At this stage as an astute politician she seems to be weighing her options by raising the ante. This battle of nerves may go on for a while, but no matter in what direction it goes, for the moment, she doesn’t look like to be a loser.