Benazir Returns to Pakistan and Pakistan to Genuine Politics

Unflinching loyalty, the milling crowds pouring in hundreds all joining to make a sea of human support for their self-exiled leader landing in their midst after eight long years. The Bhutto magic still works. And Pakistan’s people still remain vibrant and deeply political. When public space is safe and welcoming they demonstrate their political genre; weaponless and rejoicing they vehement support for their national leaders; elderly women climbing airport gates, young men arriving the night before to welcome their leader, jam-packed roads making all movement impossible and party workers covering distance between cities on foot. Political fever in democratic Pakistan is catching on. And fast. Nawaz Sharif’s return will generate the same energy too. This is the Pakistan we want to return too. Away from armed violent and hate-ridden politics.

Politics though linked, is an activity apart from national management, from institution building, and from rule of law. Politics is the X factor; one that mobilizes, unites, energizes and excites. People need it. And yet it’s the framework within which it is conducted, the context within which it evolves must be dictated by rule of law, by a way of being….like the Constitution of Pakistan. That is alone what can discipline politics-rules of the game. Nothing else; no command performance or no selective application of rules, can ‘clean’ politics. As we well know in Pakistan.

Back to the great arrival, which rests on interesting facts. One –” Clearly, Benazir Bhutto would not have returned without an agreement with the government; without the withdrawal of the cases. She did not want to risk imprisonment on return. She also wanted to get herself cleared in the foreign courts. Seems the government has already made a move on that front. Two – The US planning, the Musharraf-Benazir rapprochement, notwithstanding, the Bhutto name retains the Midas’s touch. It remains a crowd puller. The Bhutto charisma lives on.

Three – while we may have no way of being sure that these milling crowds will translate into electoral support for the PPP in this period close to the election and a sense that the Establishment supports the PPP there maybe men with constituency control which may want to join the PPP ranks. There is however the other side constituency politics. There is the feudal dimension that dictates control of the majority of the constituencies. Hence unless the feudal lords controlling the constituencies are with the PPP, it may not matter in electoral politics how many million support BB’s return on the streets.

Four – Pakistan may well return to the two national party systems like in the nineties. PPP will not manage a clean sweep. For example in the Punjab the two PMLs have a solid support base where PPP won’t get a solo and easy home run in the elections. Five the sea of public support notwithstanding BB will still be held accountable on the NRO. Even if in the street courts she is forgiven, the media will keep questioning her and the Courts may seek some amendments.

Although the fact is that as part of the Sharif-BB and other parties Charter of Democracy agreement, the two leaders apologized to each other for filing cases against each other. So all the outrage in the PML-N ranks maybe an afterthought and also a little misleading.

Also the question is what is the bigger problem for Pakistan –” the mostly legally unproven corruption of the politicians or the completely destructive polarization which prevents the blossoming of anything democratic. Accountability indeed of those with power such an exercise is imperative. Yet in Pakistan, as we have seen in the last decade and a half, retrospective accountability has not worked. We need to set rules and institutions to prevent large scale robbery by ruling rotten ones for the future

Another fact obvious after today’s sea support for PPP is that Benazir’s engagement with the military President did not markedly minimize her political support. People both have blind faith in their leader plus may as well engagement as a necessary step forward. What is also clear is that the perception and reality of BB as an American supported politician and an Establishment supporter and collaborator has not, at least in Sindh, undermined her street support.

For Benazir her policy of engagement has paid off. In Sindh at least she has been catapulted in the center of Pakistan’s street politics as a queen of hearts. While the show of support came from the party alone it was teh Establishment that facilitated her return and her security. The Establishment ‘s attitude too was a contrast with September 10 policy when Nawaz Sharif arrived in Islamabad. Then there was a massive crackdown, arrests of hundreds of PML-N workers and blockade of all routes to Islamabad. The support from the MQM administration too was a striking contrast to the MQM’s May 12 confrontation. MQM , maybe guided by the Establishment, showed great maturity.

What does all this mean for Pakistani politics? The road to Constitutional democracy is irreversible; the Establishment can no longer call unilateral shots. First it was the lawyers, then the judiciary and now a massive political force, all forces that would hold the Establishment accountable.

Benazir’s return undoubtedly opens the doors for Nawaz Sharif’s pre-election return. After the Supreme Court’s likely pro-Nawaz verdict the government will find it difficult to prevent the return of Pakistan’s other national leader Nawaz Sharif. Transition from military-led democracy to civilian democracy has already begun. Nawaz Sharif’s return will also mark the beginning of genuine National Reconciliation.