Benazir Bhuttos death adds one more bloody chapter to the subcontinents history of political assassinations that started with the unresolved public murder of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan nearly six decades ago. With the employment now of suicide bombers and unseen snipers, it becomes even easier for the trail to lose the scent.
Bhuttos assassination in the present extremely fraught political and security scenario in the country is doubly unfortunate for Pakistan. It took a long struggle to persuade President Musharraf to put away his uniform and put the army in the barracks, where it should always have belonged.
Even at the best of times, there would have been a shadow on the credibility of the forthcoming elections. Not only would the credibility now be vastly reduced, the coming days would have to show if the elections would, indeed, be forthcoming.
President Musharraf, already embattled, would also now have to provide convincing explanations with regard to the security provided, or not provided, to Benazir Bhutto.
The task becomes both necessary and urgent as the assassinated leader had claimed the hand of important people in the establishment for the abortive attempt in Karachi on her triumphal return to Pakistan last October.
The instability rippling under the surface of Pakistans polity is now likely to acquire even more ominous dimensions. The sense of despair among the people grew as jihadi elements, sponsored by the state not so long ago as an instrument of foreign policy, ran amok and the army failed to curtail their reach or activities, even as it occupied the space that rightfully belonged to the people.
This is an evening of mourning as also of reflection not only for Pakistan but for all of the states of South Asia. Repeated assassinations (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto faced judicial murder while Zia-ul-Haqs accidental death continues to raise questions), or attempts at assassination, have dogged not only Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also Sri Lanka and India which pride themselves on their unbroken democratic traditions.
It is, of course, both arguable and true that the circumstances in each have been different. It is also true that Sheikh Mujib was killed by rogue agents of the state and the involvement of state agencies, tacit or otherwise, cannot be ruled out either in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto or in the abortive attempt on Sheikh Hasina in August 2005.
In more than one instance, the objective has been to deny representation to the people. Can democracy survive, let alone flourish, if there has to be constant fear of a human bomb? What is the degree of either hopelessness or fanaticism that allows such a culture of violence to flourish?
Pakistan may be a clear instance of the complicity of the state in promoting a culture of fanaticism. But there could be others where the state and civil society choose to compromise until the monster is beyond control. Benazir Bhutto was a leader with the ability to connect with her people. She was also a brave woman who knew the risks involved and did not shirk them.
In her death she proved wrong all those critics who saw only her flamboyance and her mass appeal did not diminish even after years of exile.
She leaves behind a very significant political void in Pakistans politics. Her assassination could lead to a turbulence not possible yet to forecast. Her death must need be mourned, regardless of boundaries or political convictions, as an unacceptable blow to democracy in South Asia.