Event ReportsPublished on Jan 05, 2008
At an Interaction of the ORF Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 5 January 2008, Mr K J M Varma, until recently the Special Correspondent of the Press Trust of India (PTI) at Islamabad, spoke on 'Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto'
Post-Benazir Pakistan may turn militant

At an Interaction of the ORF Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 5 January 2008, Mr K J M Varma, until recently the Special Correspondent of the Press Trust of India (PTI) at Islamabad, spoke on ‘Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto’

Mr. Varma observed that Pakistan had not seen a complete democratic government through the past sixty years of its existence. It was only in the last few years that a vibrant civil society was getting noticed in the country. He attributed this as a direct result of the 9/11 incidents, and said the economic policies of the Musharraf regime had triggered the creation of a middle class. Until 2001, the Pakistani society comprised the rich and the very rich on the one side, and the poor and the very poor on the other. There was a noted absence of the middle class till then. The rise of the middle class has changed the way domestic politics worked in Pakistan today.  Though there was substantial Press freedom after General Pervez Musharraf took over as the military ruler, it was only after the emergence of the middle class voice that lent meaning even to such democratic concepts. He attributed the public protest against the sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury in May 2007 to the rise of the middle class, and said that the jurist could well become a focal-point of the future political scenario in the country.

The feudal gentry continued to form the decision-making class in Pakistan and firmly entrenched. The situation was vastly different from one prevailing in India, where democratic socialism as the guiding force of the Government in the years immediately after Independence led to land reforms and other pro-active measures, with immense influence on the way future generations thought and worked. In Pakistan, power continued to be concentrated in the hands of 40-50 feudal families from across the country. They controlled the electoral process and also the life and living of the rest in individual communities. This has had its studied influence in lifestyle and religious beliefs, political inclination and ideological leaning. Religion was so firmly imposed that it has had a numbing effect on the people. Ideologies were so channelled that leftist concepts were kept under check and decimated.
Apart from socio-political changes on the domestic front, Pakistan witnessed progress in bilateral relations with India during the Musharraf regime.  The remarkable increase and improvement in people-to-people contacts have changed the way the average Pakistani saw India. The reverse was also true. There was great respect for Indians on the streets of Pakistan. Citizens from that country returning home after a visit to India carried with them images of India’s all-round growth and development, which were all visible. The four rounds of composite dialogue have contributed to the easing of tensions both along the border and otherwise, too. The misnomers and stereotypes of the past have been changing, though there was scope and need for further improvement. In this context, Mr Varma pointed out how India could erect sophisticated fences all along the border with Pakistan without being challenged by the security forces of that country. So changed had the situation become that India-Pakistan cricket matches had lost their political edge in both countries, in recent times.
Mr Varma commended successive Indian Governments, under different political leaderships, for taking forward the dialogue process with Pakistan, despite the ‘Kargil War’ and the ‘Kandhahar hijack episode’. The peace process that was initiated in 2002 had done a great deal of good to the two countries. However, a long-term solution required a strong political will in both countries, which however was absent. He attributed it to various causes. In India, the emergence of coalition politics had done both service and dis-service to the process of consensus decision-making at the government-level. The unstable political system in Pakistan, which swung from civilian and military rule, was the problem across the border. Even when the going seemed to be good for Musharaff, the recent unrest had resulted in his becoming unpopular.
Mr Varma contexualised the relevance of the slain Pakistan People’s Party leader, Ms Benazir Bhutto, to this milieu. He said Benazir Bhutto was expected to fill the void between the military leadership of the nation’s political administration that was getting increasingly discredited, and the civil society. Her assassination has restored that vacuum, which was now hard to fill. With Benazir Bhutto out of the picture, Pakistan once again was facing political turmoil. She was an intellectual in her own right, and retained the mass-base of the PPP that her late father, Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto had built, by appealing to all sections of the Pakistani society. Another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharief, lacked the vision and political acumen of the Bhuttos, and counted on hard-line Islamist parties for political support. He had since been identified with these groups and their political ideologies. Former cricketer Imran Khan continued to be a political lightweight. Other political groups were dominated by elements of the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose second and third rung leaders were considered to be supportive of the Al-Qaeda. In this, there was scope for an outsider like Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury to strike roots.

In a world of feudal lords that was Pakistan, militant Islamist groups already enjoyed a strong support-base, system and network. These groups were a threat to Pakistan and the world, though it need not necessarily imply the possibility of the Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands. According to information, the US and China had worked out a plan with the Pakistani leadership, for carting away the Pakistani nuclear weapons for safe-keeping in China, if threats of their falling into the hands of non-State actors emanated.
Citing other reports, Mr Varma said that Pakistan owed the present situation to Three A’s – Allah, Army and America, not necessary in that order. This had now translated in to Three M’s – Mullah, Masjid and Military. Pakistan was a complex and complicated country that faced many problems. To understand them all and to find a possible solution to them was a tough bet. However, they could be solved through a proper understanding of the situation. But if militant and jehadi elements were not kept in check, it was a powder-keg, waiting to be lit.

In a Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto, or beyond Benazir Bhutto, the question for India was this: “With whom in Pakistan should political India do business?” The question, Mr Varma said, remained unanswered, and would remain so for some more time to come.

Points made during the discussion:

  • The chances of the military staging a coup against President Musharaff was not serious, as he had addressed the concerns and interests of a wide cross-section of the armed forces as military ruler over the past years.

  • The US influence on Pakistan was high, and implied a certain degree of ‘outside control’ over the State apparatus. In a country where the Army had a nation, and not the other way round, this was saying a lot.

  • Musharraf’s decline would change the political firmament internally.

  • The civil society in Pakistan was becoming vibrant, and could be expected to tether the powers-that-be.

  • India cannot afford to mortgage national security and national concerns to humanitarian concerns pertaining to the people across the borders, in Pakistan.
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