Viewing Pakistan from India

The extent of the political vacuum created by the murder of Benazir Bhutto has yet to be gauged, leaving India groping for a strategy to deal with the crisis. Indeed, the stakes for India in Pakistan’s predicament are higher than they are for any other nation.

India, whose relationship with Pakistan has been hostile ever since the trauma of partition claimed the lives of as many as a million people following the departure of the British in 1949, has chosen a cautious approach, hoping the international community will somehow tackle the turmoil. In the meantime, India’s reaction has been limited to keeping its security forces on the border on alert.

Although New Delhi views the restoration of democracy as an important antidote to Pakistan’s rising tide of Islamic militancy, this latest political killing makes analysts question the utility of elections in the .turbulent country. Though Bhutto’s son and husband have taken the reins of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), stability remains doubtful even if elections take place.

Despite a history of turmoil that often looks to be ready to dissolve into utter chaos, Pakistan has managed to survive, and recently its economy recorded growth of 7 percent, not far from India’s 9 percent growth rate. This leads analysts in South Asia to think that Pakistan can also survive this crisis. But there is a new and dangerous element. Past power struggles involved political leaders and generals, but now extremist Islamists have grown effective enough to fight for control of state power.

While the military might have once believed that it could use jihadis for its own ends, the Islamists have now brought their struggle into the heart of the country. Despite their large popular following, earlier political leaders like Bhutto were not strong enough to take on the army. In contrast, the extremists are in a position to pose a challenge to what amounts to Pakistan’s most important institution. Besides having a large number of militant cadres, they also have suicide bombers at their disposal.

Analysts fear that Bhutto’s murder will make it harder for any other political leader to stand up to extremism. This would reduce the ranks of those willing to cooperate with democratic forces and raise the specter of Islamic militants extending their campaign to seek power through the gun in central Asia.

While Pakistan may not be a failed state, the murder has brought it one step closer. This presents a dreadful scenario for India, which surrounded by unstable regimes in Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan. In the short term, Pakistan is likely to remain focused inward, with security forces and extremists targeting each other. Already one third of the Pakistan army is engaged in either containing violence or maintaining law and order. This has eased pressure on the Indo-Pakistani border and casualties have declined in Kashmir in the last three years.

This stand-off with the militants is not likely to last. In the battle between Pakistani security forces and extremists, sooner or later one is bound to get the upper hand. The extremists who call the shots on the border with Afghanistan have already penetrated deep inside Pakistan. Assuming Islamists carried out the attack, the assassination of Bhutto in Rawalpindi, a garrison city close to the capital Islamabad, is a grim reminder of their rising power. The number of suicide attacks in throughout Pakistan has grown tremendously, causing some analysts to think the army is already losing the battle.

India is worried about the consolidation of extremist forces in Pakistan and their ability to create trouble even inside India. They have been doing this in recent times in the form of bomb blasts in various cities. For the time being, there may be reduced pressure on the Indo-Pakistan border, especially the Line of Control that cuts through Kashmir. But a chaotic Pakistan inevitably means danger for India. If extremists manage to gain control of Pakistan, they would not allow India to live in peace.

Of course, Pakistan is also a nuclear power. Unfortunately, the safety of its nuclear arsenal has always been a concern. Due to the sensitivity of Indo-Pakistani relations, India wants the US to take care of the situation. The US, on the other hand, appears complacent and, at least publicly, thinks the nukes are safe in the hands of Pakistan’s military.

Sooner rather than later, the US will have to give up its complacency. Its interests in the subcontinent are so important that it must take steps to stabilize the situation.

It was hoped that the restoration of democracy would bring a better future for Pakistan but the murder has given an incalculably serious blow to that prospect and Pakistan’s viability as a state. The democratic process has been derailed again and again and power returned to military dictators who do not want peace with India.

Although India will avoid any knee-jerk reaction, the magnitude of the crisis cannot be ignored. The situation has gone well beyond the realm of Indo-Pakistani relations and it is as much a concern to the world at large as it is to India. Hence, India expects a multilateral solution, and it hopes that major world powers the US, the European Union, China and Russia along with major Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia come together and find a solution before the problem spirals completely out of control.

Anand Kumar is a New Delhi-based political and defense analyst. He holds a PhD from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He writes regularly on South Asian issues.