Back in the line of fire
FORMER president Pervez Musharraf has played yet another gamble – this time by deciding to return to Pakistan at a time when the country stands just less than 50 days from the general elections. Any rational review of his war-inventory and battlepreparedness would reveal that most cards are decked against him.
To begin with, his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) is still a paper tiger. The APML is devoid of notable politicians and lacks organisational structure and political cadre. Most of the politicians who were patronised and cultivated by the retired general during his nine-year rule have already joined various traditional political parties. Those who are still with the former king’s party – the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam Group) – are in an electoral alliance with the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP). At the most, Musharraf will be able to attract some feather-weight politicians who have been unable to find any takers in the major parties. The argument that the APML needed Musharraf’s presence in the country to attract some big names in its folds and build a team carries weight, but the former president is landing in Pakistan a little too late for this. The electoral battle lines have already been drawn and there is hardly any time left to organise or reorganise the party.
Secondly, Musharraf’s hopes to forge an alliance with his former allies will also be a hard bargain to strike. His former allies, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), will have to think twice before offering him any tangible support. Under the changed political circumstances when the rightwing narrative dominates Pakistan, Musharraf with all his efforts for the UN-backed war on terrorism and close alliance with the United States, will prove more of a liability than a winning card. At the most, Musharraf may secure support for his own seat – which too will come with a heavy political price tag.
But the absence of a team and the dearth of political allies are not the only challenges the former military ruler faces. The bigger challenge will come from the superior judiciary, which is hearing a number of high-profile cases against him including those of the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto and Akbar Bugti, the Lal Masjid operation and the confinement of 62 judges. How Musharraf faces the heat of the court rooms will be a test of his endurance and nerves. The judges and the ex-general have a history and some bitter memories. The face-off would indeed be an interesting affair.
Yes, staging a coup and calling shots while in uniform is one thing and being a vulnerable civilian is totally a different ballgame. Musharraf will have to adjust and adapt himself to this changed, tough reality, which is indeed not an easy task. Although, conventional wisdom believes that the mighty institution of the army will not ‘tolerate’ its ex-chief being in trouble, Musharraf’s presence in Pakistan will be more of a headache than a relief for the military leadership in the current situation. Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in particular, would have preferred that his former mentor and boss remained happy and secure in foreign lands.
Many of Musharraf’s well-wishers realise that the number of his powerful foes on the home turf exceeds the number of his friends. Starting from Mian Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League to the disgruntled Baloch nationalists, and from the religious parties to the born-again democrats that include Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, the list of politicians who have an axe to grind with the country’s former strongman is indeed a long one. Musharraf will be an easy punchbag for them all, both literally and metaphorically.
But the opposition by traditional political rivals will be akin to a walk in the park for Musharraf if one considers the threat to his life, which comes from Al-Qaeda and local militants of all hues. Musharraf had several close encounters with death when he was in power. But perhaps militants will be breathing at his neck again more closely now as he is no more the army chief and president. Will his private security arrangements and the ones provided by the government be enough to keep him out of the reach of lurking assassins and suicide bombers? Pakistan of today is a much more dangerous and lawless place than the one Musharraf left in 2008. He will be practically walking through a minefield every day in Pakistan.
Given these odds, what chance does Musharraf have of keeping himself afloat in the murky waters of the country’s politics or of carving out a role for himself? Even some of Musharraf’s ardent fans and close aides are sceptical of his decision to return to the country, though they talk of behind-the-scene guarantees from the military establishment, Riyadh and even Washington.
But the hard fact is that similar guarantees were also given to former premier Benazir Bhutto. They could not save her from the bomb and gun attack in Rawalpindi weeks after the first suicide attack on her in Karachi on October 18, 2007. Who could know better than Musharraf what happened to Bhutto with whom he struck a deal and promised and delivered the National Reconciliation Ordinance? Ironically, Musharraf finds himself in a more or less similar situation today – but without the following of a mass party. According to one of his aides, the hurlyburly of elections offer the best opportunity to Musharraf to stage a return. The focus will not be solely on him. All his political opponents and foes will be busy targeting one another during their election campaign.