Pakistans judicial coup against Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will deeply divide the nations civilian leaders and cast a dark shadow over its shaky experiment with democracy. That there was no love lost between the Sharif brothers of the Muslim League and President Asif Ali Zardari was no secret. Few,however,had expected Zardari to strike so decisively. In taking on the Sharif brothers,who are a popular force in the Punjab province that dominates Pakistan,Zardari may have rolled the dice on his own political future. Canny Zardari,who has constantly surprised his friends and adversaries since the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto in December 2007,surely hopes to come out on top of Pakistans political heap. His enemies would want to bet that Zardari has overplayed his hand this time and begun a fateful countdown to his own ouster from the merciless political theatre next door.
Since the successful restoration of democracy a year ago,much of the international focus has been on the civilian governments ability and willingness to confront Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the borderlands with Afghanistan. As Zardari vacillated,the extremist forces rapidly gained ground west of the Indus. Meanwhile,an equally consequential struggle has been playing out east of the Indus in Punjab. In Lahore,the lawyers,whose courageous commitment to rule of law was important in pushing the army out of power,insisted the return to democracy will not be complete unless Musharrafs coup against the judiciary is reversed comprehensively. A reluctant Zardari sought to finesse the issue. As he faced a new confrontation next month with the lawyers movement backed by the Sharifs,Zardari chose to act pre-emptively.
To checkmate the Sharif brothers and emerge victorious,Zardari needs powerful friends within Pakistan and outside. If he chooses to align with the army,he might win the battle against the Sharif brothers but could lose the war to General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani. Or he could go the full distance with the United States in the war on terror in the hope that Washington would keep the army in check and keep him in power. As a new and unpredictable power struggle unfolds in Pakistan,New Delhi might not be without a few options of its own. To be able to influence the outcomes in Islamabad,however,the UPA government must reach out to the BJP and insulate the nations Pakistan policy from the electoral politics that is about to grip India in the coming weeks and months.