India ready for a Pakistan minus Musharraf

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS

New Delhi : As political turmoil pushes President Pervez Musharraf to the edge, India is preparing to deal with a Pakistan minus the military strongman who has come to symbolize the bilateral peace process.

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Indian officials say while they and their leadership are at ease with the post 9/11 Musharraf, they know that he cannot be at the helm for ever, more so in the wake of the mass anti-government protests sweeping Pakistan.

A section of Pakistan watchers and strategic thinkers has argued that Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, was the best bet for India because he was a moderate and also increasingly wary of Islamic extremism.

"Musharraf is our best bet? No way!" underlined a senior Indian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It doesn't make any sense to ally with one party or one individual."

The official added: "While we keep our friends, we don't just rely on friends."

The comments followed widespread and at times violent protests that have enveloped Pakistan after the suspension of Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry on Musharraf's orders.

Chaudhry's unprecedented decision to take to the streets has galvanized a discontented Pakistani society and political establishment in a manner that Musharraf finds himself beleaguered for the first time since taking power.

In the West, some experts are already talking about a post-Musharraf Pakistan.

The official also emphasized that India's objectives in Pakistan were "very different" from those of the US, whose leader George W. Bush relies on Musharraf heavily for his war on Al Qaeda.

The Indian assessment is that whichever way the Chaudhry row ends, Musharraf will be a loser, at a time when he is desperate for some settlement with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to stay on as president with his uniform in tact.

"For the first time the middle class is on the street," noted the official who has a deep understanding of Pakistani system. "We will have to deal with this kind of (unstable) Pakistan for a long time."

When Musharraf took power, he came across to many in India as a hardliner, one who organized the covert seizure of strategic heights in Kargil as the army chief and who kept openly supporting the Jammu and Kashmir separatist campaign.

It needed the dramatic transformation in international relations following the 2001 terror attacks on the US and the fall of the Islamabad-backed Taliban in Afghanistan for Musharraf to begin changing his stripes, now earning the wrath of the radical Islamic forces at home.

A 2003 move by then Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee eventually heralded the long-awaited India-Pakistan peace process that has led to sweeping changes in the way the two South Asian neighbours look at each other.

The Indian official said there was no sign of the army's tight control over Pakistan diminishing, Musharraf or no Musharraf. And it is also noted that the political alliance Musharraf had cobbled to give his government certain legitimacy was not working.

So Musharraf's biggest problem now is how to call a parliamentary election that would prolong his tenure without looking farcical. This is where the still popular but now in exile Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party come in.

Again, Musharraf or no Musharraf, India wants to see a stable Pakistan. It does not want the Pakistani state to collapse.

Any destabilization of Pakistan, the only country with which India has fought three major wars, will only lead to a Talibanization of that nation with serious consequences for New Delhi.