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Tension in the backyard as Musharraf prepares for India trip

B. Muralidhar Reddy

Pakistan People's Party to stage pro-democracy protest

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, is all set to leave on his trip to India amid hope and hype. He exudes optimism and the Pakistan cricket team's lead has come as a morale booster.

The ostensible purpose is to witness the last one-dayer in New Delhi as a virtual non-playing captain of the team. However, as Gen. Musharraf himself has reminded at every available opportunity since India to invited him three weeks ago, his real objective is Kashmir. The General has grabbed the opportunity to make eventful.

At 12.30 p.m. on Saturday around the time the special plane carrying the Musharraf entourage is to leave the Chaklala Air Force base for Jaipur, Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto is to land in Pakistan by another special aircraft from Dubai. Mr. Zardari is returning home, after spending a few weeks with his wife living there in a self-imposed exile since 1998, to lead an agitation for the restoration of "genuine democracy" in Pakistan.

The Pakistan People's Party led by Ms. Bhutto has advanced the arrival of Mr. Zardari by six hours after the reported government decision to deny permission to the special aircraft from Dubai. And there lies a story of growing confrontation between Gen. Musharraf and the mainstream Opposition.

The PPP has threatened to flood the streets of Lahore with its supporters to accord a grand welcome to Mr. Zardari and sound the bugle for the political battle ahead. The Punjab government has imposed an undeclared curfew in the town.

Gen. Musharraf is putting up a brave face and not letting the sound and fury of the PPP dampen his enthusiasm for his date with India. The experience of the Agra Summit of 2001 still green in his mind, Gen. Musharraf is determined to make a success of his latest trip. "It is fairly irreversible, I would say," he remarked in his latest interview to Reuters on the peace process with India. A big leap forward for someone who kept insisting till recently that without a forward movement on Kashmir, confidence building measures (CBMs) would fade away into thick air.

Gen. Musharraf said in the interview that it would be impractical to expect an immediate solution to the Kashmir dispute. He described the commencement of Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service as a "first step" towards converting the Line of Control into a "soft border." Such conciliatory utterances have not been heard from Pakistan for years.

The picture on the domestic front, on the other hand, is so dissimilar. Despite pleas from civil society in the country and the world at large, Gen. Musharraf has not initiated any process of conciliation with the mainstream parties.

The PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif are waiting for a call from the General but with little luck. After months of waiting and contradictory and confusing signals, it appears the PPP has decided to adopt a "confrontationist" approach with the establishment.

The Zardari show planned by the party is a recent plan as an embarrassed PPP leadership has tried its best to hide its off now and on again "political deal" from the gaze of the media. Tomorrow's show is billed as a repeat of April 1986, when Ms. Bhutto returned home from exile to take on Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and went on to capture power in the 1988 general elections.

But there are not many takers for the comparison. Most believe that the PPP sound and fury is perhaps meant to derive the best political bargain under the circumstances.

The majority opinion in Pakistan is that it would be in the interest of the country and the military to play along with the mainstream parties such as the PPP if the establishment is really serious about tackling the number one problem — fundamentalism.

After all, the peace moves cannot take off without taking everyone on board.

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