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Benazir, Sharif cry: Pervez Hatao

London, May 15: Just as the Opposition in India once united around an “Indira Hatao” campaign, so also implacable Pakistani foes of yesteryear, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, met in London last night, signed an eight-page “Charter for Democracy” consisting of more than 30 clauses and came up with effectively a one-point programme ' “Musharraf Hatao”.

Although the document raises more questions than it answers, the significance of the occasion was the meeting itself, which took place at the residence of one of Bhutto’s aides.

The two former Prime Ministers said they would go back to Pakistan in time for elections scheduled for next year, although Bhutto faces arrest if she does. Sharif, who was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia after being deposed in 1999, intends to live in London for the time being.

He cannot go back home without the agreement of Musharraf. Bhutto will have to divide her time between London, where she is free to pursue political activities, and her home in Dubai, where she is not. “We don’t think the time is ripe for us to return,” they said. Last night’s charter takes further the agreement reached in February in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

India did not figure very much in the charter, though there was an agreement to try to resolve the Kashmir dispute through the UN resolution and self-determination by the people of Kashmir.

“How is that different from what successive Pakistani governments have said over the last 50 years'” observed a Pakistani commentator.

The two leaders said that free and fair elections could not take place in Pakistan so long as President Musharraf was in charge. They demanded a “neutral caretaker government” as a prerequisite.

They also promised they would observe the principle of seniority in making appointments in the military. The two leaders also stressed that the military would not be invited again into the arena of politics. “A lot of hopes were expressed for the future,” added the commentator. The body language was intriguing, the commentator noted.

Sharif gave the impression of a man willing to acknowledge he had made mistakes in the past, such as putting Musharraf in charge.

“But Benazir came across as a woman who was as haughty as ever. She was a Bhutto and the Bhuttos do not make mistakes,” the commentator said.

The question of what would happen if Musharraf was removed was not explored. “The problem with a one point agenda is that there was no thought given to what would happen on day two.”Among issues not explored was whether Bhutto and Sharif would be prepared to serve in a coalition government. Bhutto told the BBC: “It’s true that there were major differences between the two parties in the past.But we have both been victims of military dictatorship and so we have an understanding of the larger picture.”

She considered the charter a milestone in the struggle for real democracy in Pakistan.

“We discussed issues related to Pakistan’s security such as provincial autonomy and the situation in Baluchistan and Waziristan,” she said.

The two were clear that “we will not accept elections under President Pervez Musharraf’s government”.

Bhutto and Sharif exchanged their pens after signing the charter. “The charter will be presented to the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy’s meeting in London on July 2,” said Sharif.

Sources in London said that the Musharraf government, which has disparaged the charter, was, nevertheless, “perturbed” by the Bhutto-Sharif meeting. The British government has so far not expressed an opinion on the merits of the charter, although, like the Americans, it considers Musharraf an invaluable ally in the “fight against terrorism”.

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