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|June 14, 2001||
The Rediff Interview/Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto
Dismissed for the second time as prime minister in 1996, she and her husband Asif Ali Zardari were accused of wide-ranging corruption.
In exile in England since 1998, Bhutto knows she cannot return to Pakistan in view of the corruption cases slapped on her by the present and previous governments. General Pervez Musharraf has also announced that she will be arrested if she returns.
Bhutto was previously exiled in 1979 by General Zia-ul-Haq after he ordered the execution of her father, former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
In an exclusive email interview with Ramesh Menon, she discussed the new Indo-Pak peace moves, her future in Pakistani politics and the longing among the people for restoration of democracy:
You have been saying you want to come back to Pakistan. What is stopping you?
Yes, I want to return to Pakistan, but my country is far from free. There is oppression. Judges are sacked and forced to swear new oaths. The undemocratic Musharraf regime has trampled fundamental rights.
Do you fear that the Musharraf regime will arrest you as soon as you touch Pakistani shores?
Military dictator Musharraf has on record declared that he will arrest me when I land. He said this after a Supreme Court bench acquitted me. His handpicked and extravagantly paid accountability judges do his bidding.
To intimidate me, the Musharraf regime illegally convicted my ill mother, my aged father-in-law and treated my husband shabbily. It also harasses party officials loyal to my leadership by imprisoning them.
Musharraf personally maligns me every time he gives an interview. Some think he woos the Indian government to win time to drive the knife into the back of Pakistan's national leaders. Others, to divert attention from Islamabad's support for the Taleban.
Pakistan is in turmoil and its economy is teetering. People suffer because democracy was derailed in 1996 through a military-backed intervention. Pakistan, and South Asia, can benefit when the military returns to the barracks.
Are you in touch with your party loyalists? What do they say about the atmosphere in Pakistan?
Yes, I am in contact with the party cadre. Listening to them, as well as to others, the country is anti-Musharraf and the people want democracy. I am told that we would win a majority under my leadership as people yearn for the stability and economic security the country had during our tenure.
The recently held elections are indicative of the popular mood. The Pakistan People's Party cadre is in the forefront of the Opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy.
With democracy losing ground, do you see a future for yourself in Pakistani politics?
Some think that democracy is losing ground, but I have another view. I do see a future for myself in Pakistani politics. I have served my people selflessly and consequently the country prospered.
The attempts to dismiss my government in 1996 and stop my return led to instability in a volatile part of the world. I won two out of four elections and evidence on record suggests that the two I 'lost' were rigged. Stability and good governance can return with the return of the PPP.
Does the present state of the Pakistani economy worry you? How can it be put back on rails?
Yes, I am worried about the state of the economy in Pakistan. First, the economy needs confidence through an elected and experienced leader. Second, Pakistan spends its budget on the military, if the military pensions are taken into consideration. This needs revising.
We need to spend more on education, health and the social sector.
If you were to draw out a report card for General Musharraf, what marks would you give him?
His performance is one of missed opportunities.
What do you think of the peace process underway between India and Pakistan?
The Pakistan People's Party and I welcomed the normalisation of relations between the two countries. However, dealing with a dictator can lead to a backlash in the country. As an unelected and unrepresentative dictator, Musharraf lacks support.
Premier Vajpayee consulted the Congress leader of the Opposition on the Musharraf invitation. Musharraf is not even on speaking terms with his leading opposition whom he has forced into exile. He may 'talk' to the 'permitted' politicians, but lacks courage to pick up the phone and talk to the real leaders who have led Pakistan in the last decade.
I doubt that a man lacking such courage can dream of a new tomorrow where the nations of South Asia live in peace. Moreover, as the man who sent soldiers to their death in Kargil, Musharraf carries too much baggage to deal openly [with India].
The PPP and I believe that the first priority should be to restore democracy. Then, the elected and representative leadership of India and Pakistan, commanding the support of the people and enjoying the legitimacy of their constitutions, can negotiate together. I am prepared to be proved wrong, but the involvement of the army in conflict resolution is poor.
The manner in which Musharraf is tackling the domestic situation before going to India confirms my worst suspicions. Two examples: His self-appointed National Security Council and Cabinet have been ignored on the talks. His persecution against his political opponents continues unabated.
Will the Pakistan People's Party participate in the elections whenever General Musharraf decides to hold them?
Tomorrow is another day, but so far we intend to contest the elections.
You have remarked in the past that you regret not doing enough to improve Indo-Pak ties? What would you have done now if you were in power?
Yes, I have remarked that it was unfortunate that I was unable to continue with my first-term successes in Indo-Pak matters during my second term. If the PPP and I were in power today, we would seek conflict management to build an atmosphere of cordial relations. [This would] enable our peoples to travel and trade together and work for a South Asian trading bloc.
How would you have approached the Kashmir issue?
The PPP has proposed the path of conflict management where we work together for safe and open borders without prejudice [according] to the United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
Pakistan appears to be in the grip of Islamic fundamentalists. Can they be curbed?
The establishment has supported Islamic fundamentalists to keep the PPP out of power. They refused to allow the PPP to form a government in the Punjab through the formation of a political party and rigging of the elections. This was done to protect the extremists.
They also tried to keep Sindh divided through an urban insurgency. In the Frontier [North-West Frontier Province] also they are making advances since the dismissal of the PPP government in 1996. This is a dangerous situation.
My concern is that the militants want the Musharraf regime to rid the country of my leadership, which is the only national and popular leadership. They intend to fill the vacuum.
The Musharraf regime is sticking to their agenda of persecuting the PPP, denying the minorities a voice through electoral reform, refusing to take action against honour killings and allowing the militants to build more bases all over the country.
There is a section that believes that Musharraf's visit to India is a tactical move to defuse pressure on perceptions of Islamabad's support to the Taleban. There is little doubt that the extremists in Pakistan are gaining ground.
Elected politicians have all failed Pakistan. So why should the common man trust them in the first place?
It is disputed that elected politicians failed Pakistan. The recent local elections prove that the common man supports the politicians. The ordinary Pakistanis see the victimisation and character assassination of politicians as a military-sponsored campaign to build a garrison state.
Military rule gave birth to the politics of plots and permits, the Kalashnikov and drug culture, lawlessness, dacoits, ethnic strife, the decimation of the civil bureaucracy and the police force, and weak political structures.
Admiral Mansur-ul-Haq named a colleague as having taken kickbacks in the submarine affair. That gentleman has been appointed ambassador to Lebanon by Musharraf. The general and brigadier who distributed illegal funds to rig the 1990 election were appointed Punjab senior minister and ambassador to Saudi Arabia, [respectively]. The man who committed genocide of Sindhis in Dadu sits in the accountability bureau. Not one person was punished for the genocide of the people of Bengal. That is the sad reality where public representatives are demonised and the demons rewarded.
Will you negotiate with General Musharraf about holding elections?
It depends on the political situation.
You and Rajiv Gandhi understood each other well. Why did you not make use of the opportunity to mend ties with India?
Both Rajiv Gandhi and I came from political families, which had struggled for freedom. We belonged to a new generation that had suffered assassination and the grief it brings. We were able to make much progress in a short span of ten months.
We signed the non-attack on each other's nuclear facilities agreement. We established the hotline in the general headquarters, which [has] prevented war since 1988. We expanded trade, established [the] South Asian preferential tariff agreement and travel for certain category of people freely across South Asia. We were about to sign an agreement on Kargil when Rajiv lost the election. These were sound building blocks.
How do you see Pakistan's future? At the moment it is caught in an economic mess.
Pakistan's future is threatened by military rule and militancy.
The country can be saved through democracy, greater provincial autonomy, an improved external climate and building a South Asian trading zone.
At the moment Pakistan's future is the hands of a dictator, which is far from a good omen for the future of the country. Pakistanis deserve a lot better than what we have now in the shape of a dictatorial regime.
How do you see the growth of fundamentalist and militant forces in Pakistan? Will they not ultimately destroy the grassroots of democracy?
Yes, there is a danger that the state-sponsored militant forces could turn their guns on the people. But the police force can meet this threat as we showed in Karachi. The People's Party believes in the power of the people and they will defeat these forces of hate and destruction.
What do you think of Nawaz Sharief's exile?
Perhaps it gives him an opportunity to see things from the other side of the political divide.
Would you allow him to come back to Pakistan and contest elections if you were prime minister?
In my times of trial, when the forces of oppression turned their guns on me and I resisted, I often wondered why they failed to show the compassion which can bring better results. I hope I can be a compassionate prime minister.
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