Benazir Bhutto’s fourth death anniversary was commemorated by a mammoth, emotionally charged rally in Garhi Khuda Buksh, with the imposing Bhutto family mausoleum as a backdrop. President Asif Zardari’s address on the occasion had been eagerly anticipated, with some observers convinced it would be explosive. As it turned out, however, the hype may have been exaggerated. That is not to say the speech did not have incendiary remarks and references littered through it, but it was basically a reiteration of the ruling PPP’s concerns and claims. Poignantly, it reminded many throughout the land of the late leader’s loss and the seeming inability of the government to bring justice and closure to the issue. Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani separately stated that the murderers were by now known since the investigation into the murder was complete. Further than this he could not be drawn. Intriguingly, the president during his speech at the rally hinted that the names of the perpetrators (by which it can be presumed he meant not those ostensibly charged and in prison, but others) had not been revealed on the request of someone unnamed, and would be revealed at the proper time. Four years on, during which the PPP has been in power almost throughout, that ‘proper’ time is still not visible on the horizon. PML-N and its chief Nawaz Sharif also delivered themselves of their thoughts on the occasion, the former by circulating a questionnaire of 15 intriguing questions related to the affair, the latter by vowing to punish the murders of BB whenever his party came to power.
Moving on to the content of the president’s speech, he made the following points. Zardari vowed to foil conspiracies against democracy, defend the constitution, and, as a son of the soil, not allow any damage to the federation. All this would be pursued through democratic struggle a la Aung San Suu Kyi. He warned against “tailor-made” democracies being promoted, presumably, by the usual cast of suspects. He was dismissive of those jumping fences as those having no significant achievements to their credit.
The president questioned the Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan regarding the slow pace in BB’s case. Ironically, on the same day, the CJ asked the same question of the government. All this is of questionable merit, since it does not help advance the cause of getting to the bottom of BB’s assassination one wit. The president implied that the Supreme Court was taking up cases out of turn that put the government in the dock, while ignoring its concerns re the BB and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cases. This is a reflection of the present state of ‘estrangement’ between the executive and the judiciary, a dangerous divide that needs to be bridged rationally at the earliest.
The president took pains to praise and support his (seemingly) embattled PM, reiterating once again that all ‘forces’ were under parliament, the PM represents the federation and the people and all powers have been delegated and rest with the PM and parliament. Democracy, the president argued, needed time to flourish. Meantime he claimed he had given the Pashtuns and the Baloch their rights, advising the latter to struggle along the lines of his party within the ambit of the federation (advice that is subverted by the repressive policy of the military). He also supported the idea of a separate province in southern Punjab as the right of the people of the region to demand their due from Takht Lahore (the seat of power).
On foreign policy, the president expressed the new, assertive tone adopted by the government since the Salala incident. He asserted Pakistan would no longer be part of any international war game, trade with who it pleased (an oblique reference to Iran, particularly the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline) and expand the ambit of trade to China, Russia and Central Asia.
For those who consider the president and the government embattled in the light of the ‘stand-off’ with the judiciary and strains in relations with the military, Asif Zardari’s speech was defiant, hard hitting without being offensive, and an attempt to rally the troops of the PPP for the challenges ahead. Interestingly, the prominence and importance given to hitherto estranged PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan at the rally has set off a new round of speculations regarding a critical role for the redoubtable Chaudhry in days to come. A space to watch, this…