After the assassination of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto, her son Bilawal quoted her as saying: "Democracy is the best revenge."
Watching Asif Zardari step into General Pervez Musharraf's shoes as the new President of Pakistan on Tuesday, one was reminded of Benazir's words.
What sweet revenge the charismatic late leader has extracted by passing on her formidable legacy and the mantle of the PPP's leadership to Zardari! And what a turn of fortune this has been for Benazir's widower!
From prison to the presidency, this is perhaps the most momentous journey any politician has ever made in and outside Pakistan.
|Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari (C) showers rose petals on the grave of his father-in-law and former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh on Thursday. AFP
And the person who was until recently seldom mentioned without the inevitable allusions to the percentage of commission allegedly made in all those deals is now in charge of the first Muslim nuclear state.As a cynical Pakistani colleague of mine keeps saying, Mr Ten Percent is now in hundred percent control of the land of the pure. But that is democracy for you.
I have nothing against democracy. In fact, I love democracy and subscribe to Churchill's view that despite its flaws this is the best form of government the world has evolved. It gives everyone the right and opportunity to choose the kind of rulers they want. The irrepressible George Bernard Shaw argued democracy ensures we are governed no better than we deserve.
I don't know if my Pakistani friends would agree with Shaw's view. But there is no doubt that Zardari's rise has been more like an unintended consequence of democracy.
For I doubt if the people of Pakistan while kicking out the totally discredited Muslim League (Q) and Musharraf ever thought they would eventually end up with Zardari as President. Benazir's widower has been exceptionally lucky and has proved himself a great survivor — a real child of fortune. He has benefited from being the spouse of the first woman PM in the Muslim world. He has inherited the country's most popular party as dowry.
Secondly, he has also been the chief beneficiary of the great jihad for democracy and justice, relentlessly fought by the lawyers' movement, the media and civil society groups. Ironically, while Zardari has benefited directly from the lawyers' agitation, the movement's chief goal -- restoration of judges -- remains far from realised.
Again by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, Zardari has made the breathtaking transition from the Karachi Central Jail to the exalted office of the President in no time. This is a feat even his late wife with her impressive pedigree, charisma and Oxford-Harvard education couldn't quite accomplish. Perhaps it's not fair to prejudge President Asif Zardari - gee, that sounds odd! - and hold his past against his future. Now that the people's representatives have picked him for the top job, he deserves time and opportunity to prove us cynics wrong.
While there's never been any dearth of corrupt and incompetent politicians in all of South Asia, God knows the people of Pakistan have had more than their fair share of the lot.
Having suffered for decades under elected politicians as well as the men in khaki who elect themselves from time to time, the Pakistanis deserve a break and deserve better. Which is why one sincerely hopes Zardari will prove different from his predecessors.
More importantly, he must prove himself a different, reformed and better leader, one who can rise above narrow, partisan agenda to provide Pakistan with the kind of honest, selfless and visionary leadership that it badly needs right now.
If Zardari has come to power in extraordinary circumstances, he also faces extraordinary challenges on all fronts — at home and on external front. From skyrocketing prices and inflation to the alarming security situation, Pakistan has seldom been confronted by so many problems on such epic scale.
But the greatest challenge the new Pak leader faces is in dealing with the United States, Pakistan's traditional friend, ally and now partner in terror war. Whatever the circumstances in which Musharraf jumped on the with-us-or-against-us bandwagon, it is high time Pakistan's leaders introduced a semblance of balance in their relations with the US.
Hundreds of innocents have paid with their lives or have been languishing in places like the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram in Afghanistan without trial thanks to Bush's war. The case of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a MIT-educated neuroscientist who has spent five years in detention with her three children, is only a tip of the iceberg.
The untamed tribal frontier that Pakistan and Afghanistan share has seen unprecedented bloodshed over the past few years. For the first time in the country's history, the Pakistani troops are fighting their own people in the Northwest. On the other hand, the US coalition is increasingly challenging Pakistan's sovereignty and integrity with military raids deep inside Pak territory.
In fact, there has been a sudden upsurge in the US air strikes since Musharraf's departure. These attacks invariably target civilians. This past week alone saw at least five such strikes, prompting the Pak army to block the main supply route to the coalition in Afghanistan. Pakistan also promised 'retaliation' for such attacks in the future.
And as if to test its resolve, another air strike killed 23 people on Tuesday. Most victims were children studying at a madrassa and from the family of Jalauddin Haqqani, a veteran of Afghan jihad and once a US ally. Haqqani lost eight grandchildren in the strike.
The neighbouring Afghanistan with which Pakistan's Pashtun tribes share close ties has witnessed numerous attacks targeting civilians. One such attack killed more than 90 people last month -- 60 of them children and babies.
No wonder the anti-US sentiment in the region is dangerously high. Most Pakistanis see this as 'the US war on Islam' and want to have nothing to do with it. In fact, the America factor played a critical role in bringing Musharraf down.
Can Pakistan's new leaders learn from the past? One thing is for sure though. The last thing the Pakistanis want is yet another puppet, dancing to the tunes of foreign masters.
(*Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times.)