The assassination of Mrs Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007, has considerably embarrassed President Pervez Musharraf. This was because the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which comes under the Ministry of the Interior, had the over-all responsibility for her security and it was headed by Brig (retd).Ijaz Shah, a close associate of Musharraf, against whom she and her husband Mr.Asif Zardari had been repeatedly complaining ever since the first attempt to kill her at Karachi on October 18, 2007. Musharraf's perceived failure to address her concerns and to respond to her requests for better security have created a widespread perception of wilful negligence in protecting her.
There was definitely negligence in protecting her, but it is difficult to say at what level of the intelligence and security establishment. In the short term, Musharraf should be able to get over this embarrassment provided the street reaction to the assassination does not become widespread and uncontrollable. There have been violent street protests--particularly in Sindh, as expected, and in pockets of Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)-- resulting in the deaths of over 30 persons and extensive damage to public and private property. But, surprisingly, the street protests have thus far remained controllable and have been no more serious in Karachi than those witnessed earlier this year over the suspension of former Chief Justice Iftikhar MohammadChaudhury of the Supreme Court.
One had expected the whole of Sindh to blow up and rise against Musharraf after the assassination. Surprisingly, this has not happened so far--not even after the funeral of Benazir in her native village. The absence so far of uncontrollable street anger probably indicates a certain disenchantment with her attempts to make a deal with the Army before she returned from exile on October 18, 2007, and with her pro-US policies. Her strongly pro-US statements did not apparently go down well even in Sindh and this is reflected in the absence of massive protests so far.
The support for Musharraf from the Army is unlikely to be weakened as a result of the assassination unless the street protests become massive in the days to come, thereby making his position increasingly untenable. If the protests remain at the present level and show signs of losing steam in the days to come, he may be tempted to go ahead with the elections even in the face of a boycott by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Mr.Nawaz Sharif. The long-suppressed differences inside the PPP between the Zardari loyalists and the traditional loyalists are likely to sharpen. Sindhi leaders such as Makhdoom Amin Fahim have always had their own secret personal ambitions, though they remained loyal to her till the last. Now that she is no more, personal ambitions would increasingly play a more important role than party loyalty in influencing their behaviour and Musharraf should be able to exploit this to draw them into a coalition with the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam) engineered by him in 2002.
The removal of Benazir from the scene is unlikely to redound to the benefit of Nawaz Sharif in any substantial measure. Thus, the short-term political beneficiary of the removal of Benazir from the scene would be Musharraf and the PML (QA). Musharraf would find it hard to resist the temptation to exploit the situation to strengthen the political backing for him by going ahead with the elections.
The US is in a dilemma. It realises the folly of uncritical dependence on Musharraf. Had Benazir been there and done well in the elections, she would have provided it with another card. With her gone, the US is back to its pre-October 18 position of having only the Musharraf card. It would not like to throw away this card for the present. The US has reasons to be alarmed by indications of the spread of Al Qaeda's tentacles to Rawalpindi. Countering Al Qaeda is more important in its eyes than really nurturing democracy. Pro forma support for a transition to democracy and carrying along with Musharraf despite all that has happened till an acceptable alternative is on the horizon will be its policy. For this purpose, it would want Musharraf to go ahead with the elections even if their credibility had been weakened.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.