At a talk the other night in Delhi to hear about Pakistan's forthcoming elections from various Indian thinkers - and a Pakistani diplomat - the mood was pretty somber. For the Indians Pakistan is either a failing state on the verge of collapse or a state about to fall into the hands of radical extremists. Either way it looks bad.
The elections were considered rigged - no independent judges, no independent election commission and local administration in the hands of feudal landlords. The caretaker government, which oversees the polls, is run by General President Musharraf's (GPM's) hand-picked PM. All true am afraid.
Almost uncommented upon by the western press are the millions of missing voters in this election. The election roll has shrunk in Pakistan by 20m electors since 2002 when the last (rigged) polls were held.
The Pakistani diplomat defended his country saying it was a victim of three historical earthquakes: the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11. These had seen the rise of extremism. This is a brave defence and one that is hard to swallow given that the Pakistani army bred its own extremists to gain depth in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
But the Pakistani diplomat, from the NWFP cadre, put his finger on exactly the problem. The politics of Pakistan is too important to be left to voters. The casting votes are in foreign hands. Truly popular policies - like ending US influence and subsidies to cope with rising food prices - won't be considered.
That underlines the grubby little secret of the west's engagement with Islamabad. For the US, the impression that a "free and fair" poll will be enough. For the Europeans, facing Afghan ire it will also be enough to rubber stamp these polls as acceptable. Saudi Arabia and China need no convincing on the need to avoid popular mandates.
Pakistan's voters will not decide the government this time. Despite plummeting popularity GPM will not face impeachment - you need 225 plus seats in a 342 seat house. Punjab has about 150 seats. Sindh another 60. No wonder Nawaz Sharif, son of Punjab's soil, and Asif Zardari, Benazir's Sindhi businessman husband, are talking.
It will remain just that. GPM has only to get his quislings, the MQM and religious parties together for long enough to frustrate the Nawaz-Zardari bandwagon. In a few months, I suspect, GPM thinks the alliance will crumble - and he will be able to divide and rule a sham chamber elected under shameful conditions.