The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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With Saudi Arabia’s support, general buys time
Smart strategy

New Delhi, Sept. 10 : Pakistan’s most famous commando, President Pervez Musharraf, has lived to fight another day.

He has done this by allowing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif into the country for a few hours, arresting him, sending him half-way to Mianwali and back in a helicopter, then bundling him into a waiting plane and deporting him to Saudi Arabia. But the former Prime Minister did not live up to the standard expected of a rambunctious, South Asian politician, by giving in gamely to Musharraf’s well thought-out strategy.

Instead of making a fiery speech at Islamabad airport, in the manner of many a grassroots Indian politician, or adopting the “dharna” or “satyagraha” method popular on this side of the border, the Pakistani politician allowed himself to be unceremoniously sent off to Jeddah — where he was subject to a tight-lipped, icy welcome.

At the end of the day, foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee predictably pointed out that Nawaz Sharif affair was “an internal matter of Pakistan’’, and that India wanted a “stable, prosperous neighbourhood’.’

But Mukherjee’s remarks could not hide a grudging admiration by most Indian analysts, and even government officials, for Musharraf. Whether Sharif’s lawyer and a former judge, Fakhruddin Ibrahim, succeeds in getting the Pakistan supreme court to demand that Sharif be summoned to court tomorrow, the fact remains that, today, the political victory belonged to Pervez Musharraf.

And yet, analysts also pointed out that Pakistan had changed since Musharraf overthrew Sharif on October 12, 1999. Even if Sharif failed to make an impact today because of the absence of a grassroots political party that failed to mobilise support, the supreme court and the Pakistani media have substantially changed national perception in favour of a democratic alternative.

Musharraf’s deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, being brokered by the US , also survives another day.

According to this negotiation, Bhutto will become Prime Minister of Pakistan after elections are held in January 2008 and Musharraf will shed his uniform so that he is re-elected President to make sure that he can still call the shots. Today also belonged to the overweening influence displayed by Saudi Arabia and the US in Pakistan’s internal affairs. A Saudi member of the royal family was in Pakistan over the weekend to show support for Musharraf. It was the cajoling of three Saudi diplomats in Islamabad airport that finally persuaded Sharif to go to Jeddah.

Sharif had begun the day by re-injecting hope of the revival of democracy within Pakistan. He ended it by showing that he was, at best, a paper tiger and, at worst, a puppet on a Saudi-US string. Clearly, too, the Saudis would have never taken such strong action without permission from their ally, America. “Pakistan has always been governed by three factors: Allah, Army and America. Today’s developments show that America is even more closely involved than was imagined,’’ one analyst said.

In Pakistan, Sharif had raised hopes within his Pakistan Muslim League (N) party that his unprecedented return was only the beginning of things to come. The party would go from strength to strength, said his supporters, and oust Musharraf’s party from power.

But Nawaz’s particular lack of political enthusiasm at Islamabad airport, where, instead of transforming the moment into a democratic movement, he allowed himself to be dictated by Musharraf’s script, will crush the PML(N).

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