What next for Pakistan?
The sad truth about politics on the Indian sub-continent is that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was so utterly predictable. The list of slain leaders is as long as it is depressing – from Benazir’s own father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, executed in 1979; the first two leaders of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, killed in 1975, and General Zia Rahman, killed in 1981; and the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, assassinated in 1984, and her son Rajiv, blown up by a suicide bomber in 1991.
The list teaches us two important lessons: one, that dynasties count for a great deal more than democracy in the region; and two, that jihadists are not the only people who murder national leaders. (Mrs Gandhi was shot by her Sikh bodyguards, Rajiv was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber.)
And on the subject of dynasties, by the way, the two most powerful leaders in Bangladesh today are Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, and Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia Rahman. Both are currently in detention.
Pakistan now becomes the most dangerous of all current global flash-points. It is a nuclear power; and it harbours jihadists who in the past have played a major role in the disintegration of neighbouring Afghanistan and have offered finance, training and organisational infrastructure to bombers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
That’s why Western diplomats will be working round the clock over the coming days to come up with a post-Benazir strategy. The plan was to finesse a Musharraf-Bhutto partnership that would keep Pakistan from spiralling into anarchy. That plan is now dead and will be buried with Benazir.
So what next? Well, Nawaz Sharif will now inevitably take centre stage as the most influential political leader not in uniform. Don’t be surprised to see former cricketer Imran Khan raising his profile, either – although there is little sign that he has any significant following in Pakistan.
Sharif, however, is not much trusted in Western capitals: he is facing serious corruption allegations (as was Benazir Bhutto) and is regarded as too close to the Islamists for the taste of Washington or London. In any case, as things currently stand, he is disbarred from being a candidate in the parliamentary elections, although as we saw with Bhutto, these things can be sorted out quite quickly if regarded as politically expedient.
The immediate priority, surely, will be to reassure the people of Pakistan that their country is not about to disintegrate. The responsibility for offering that reassurance is largely President Musharraf’s, but it won’t be easy, given that so many Pakistanis now want to see the back of him. Western governments can offer support in the short-term, but need to do so as discreetly as they can. And the army needs to keep in the background too.
In India, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, there were real fears that the country would be unable to survive the trauma following her death. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred in revenge attacks in the days after her killing. Yet look at India now, one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Pakistan is not India. It is difficult, I admit, to see anything other than trouble ahead following Bhutto’s death – yet assassinations need not always tip a nation over the edge. Over the coming weeks and months, it won’t be only the people of Pakistan who will be holding their breath and hoping.