March 30, 2020
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Mohtarma: A Critique

A striking, courageous woman, she lent herself to being a symbol. In reality, she belied the promise.

Mohtarma: A Critique
Mohtarma: A Critique
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Benazir Bhutto's assassination is another body-blow for Pakistan, whose trajectory is every day appearing more and more distinct from that of its estranged sister, India. The killing has already caused widespread rioting; if government involvement in the shooting is proven, or at least widely suspected, it might even push Pakistan into full-scale civil war.

The fatal assassin's bullet in Benazir's neck removes from the scene a courageous, secular and liberal woman who continued to fight on despite a suicide bomb attack aimed at eliminating her the day of her return from exile, and who shrugged off the clear danger to her life that further campaigning entailed. It gives further momentum to Pakistan's jehadis in their campaign to turn Pakistan into a Taliban-like Islamist state, and may well lead to the postponement of the January 8 election though the caretaker PM for the moment has said they will be held on schedule. Nawaz Sharif, leader of the rival Muslim League (N), has said his party will now boycott the poll, which already makes its results meaningless.

Benazir's death is also, of course, a personal tragedy, both for the striking woman who embodied the hopes of so many liberal Pakistanis, and for her family. Benazir Bhutto has three children who will now be left motherless, and a party—the most popular in the country—which will be left leaderless. She has no clear successor, and trained up no one as a deputy who can easily fill her shoes. As she said herself in her last speech, shortly before being killed, "Bomb blasts are taking place everywhere", "The country is in great danger."

The West always had a soft spot for Benazir. Her neighbouring heads of state may have been figures as unpredictable and potentially alarming as President Ahmadinejad of Iran and a clutch of Afghan warlords—but Benazir has always seemed reassuringly familiar to Western governments. She spoke English fluently because it was her first language. She had an English governess, went to a convent run by Irish nuns, and rounded off her education with degrees from Harvard and Oxford. For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn't was possibly more attractive even than what she was: she wasn't a religious fundamentalist, she didn't have a beard, she didn't organise mass rallies where everyone shouts 'Death to America', and she doesn't issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors—even though Salman Rushdie went out of his way to ridicule her as the Virgin Ironpants in Shame.

However the very reasons that make the West love Benazir are the same that leave many Pakistanis with second thoughts. Her English may be fluent, but you can't say the same about her Urdu which she speaks like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi is even worse: apart from a few imperatives, she is completely at sea.

Equally, the tragedy of Benazir's end should not blind us to her as astonishingly weak record as a politician. Benazir was no Aung San Suu Kyi, and much of the praise now being heaped upon her is misplaced. In reality, Benazir's own democratic credentials were far from impeccable. She colluded in massive human rights abuses, and during her tenure, government death squads in Karachi were responsible for the abduction and murder of hundreds of her MQM opponents. Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, killings and torture.

Within her own party, she declared herself the lifetime president of the PPP, and refused to let her brother Murtaza challenge her for its leadership. When he was shot dead in highly suspicious circumstances outside her home, Benazir was implicated. His wife Ghinwa, and her daughter Fatima, as well as Benazir's own mother, all firmly believed that she gave the order to have him killed.

As recently as this autumn, Benazir did and said nothing to stop President Musharraf ordering the US and UK-brokered "extraordinary rendition" of her rival Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, and so remove from the election her most formidable rival. Many of her supporters regarded her deal with Musharraf as a betrayal of all her party stood for.

Which way, PPP? Aitzaz Ahsan may be better than Zardari (left)

Benazir also, famously, presided over the looting of Pakistan. In 1995, during her rule, Transparency International named Pakistan one of world's three most corrupt countries. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari—widely known as 'Mr 10 Per cent'—faced corruption charges in Pakistan, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

Moreover, personally, as well as intellectually, she was a lightweight, with little grasp of economics; nor did she subscribe to any firm political philosophy. Benazir's favourite reading was royal biographies and slushy romances: on a visit to her old Karachi bedroom, I found stacks of well-thumbed Mills & Boons lining the walls; a striking contrast to the high-minded and cultured Indira Gandhi, in some ways her nearest Indian counterpart in their flawed centrality to their respective nations' histories.

Partly as a result of this lack of ideological direction, Benazir was a notably inept administrator. During her first 20-month-long premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation, and during her two periods in power she did almost nothing to help the liberal causes she espoused so enthusiastically to the Western media. It was under her watch that Pakistan's secret service, the ISI, helped instal the Taliban in Pakistan, and she did nothing to rein in the agency's disastrous policy of training up fundamentalist jehadis to do the ISI's dirty work in India and Afghanistan.

Benazir was a feudal landowner, whose family owned great tracts of Sindh. Real democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because landowning remains the principal social base from which politicians emerge. The educated middle class—which in India gained control in 1947—is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. Behind Pakistan's swings between military government and democracy lies a surprising continuity of interests: to some extent, Pakistan's industrial, military and landowning elites are all interrelated and look after one another. The recent deal between Musharraf and Benazir, intended to exclude her only real rival, Nawaz Sharif, was typical of the way that the army and the politicians have shared power with minimal reference to the actual wishes of the electorate.

Today Benazir is being hailed as "a martyr for freedom and democracy", at least in the American networks. Yet in many ways she was the person who did more than anything to bring Pakistan's strange variety of democracy—really a form of 'elective feudalism'—into disrepute and helped fuel the growth of the Islamists.

Now, amid the mourning and shock, there is also some hope that Benazir's death could yet act as a wake-up call for the secular and moderate majority in the country. The PPP still contains many of Pakistan's most talented politicians—such as the leader of the lawyers' movement, the articulate Cambridge-educated Aitzaz Ahsan, or the stylish human rights activist, Sherry Rehman, who was a former editor of Pakistan's best newsmagazine, The Herald. If such people were to take over the party, rather than more Sindhi feudals like Benazir's corrupt husband, Asif Ali Zardari (today apparently the frontrunner at the beginning of the race), or the PPP's vice-chairman, Amin Fahim, they could open it up to the urban middle class, and steer the party into power as a genuinely democratic, meritocratic and moderate force for good.

If this were to happen, there is still a glimmer of hope that Benazir's death might yet strengthen democracy in Pakistan, and end the long and disastrous period of power-sharing between the country's landowners and their military cousins. But sadness at the demise of this courageous woman should not mask the fact that she was as much part of Pakistan's problems as its solution.


(William Dalrymple's new book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, has recently been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for History.)

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