"The marriage is over. Both have decided to move on... there has even been a distribution of assets." A prominent Pakistani close to both Benazir and Zardari
"Had Benazir married someone else, PPP would be different. Bhutto was anything but corrupt. Asif put a blot on the record."
A PML(Q) politician linked to intelligence agencies
When the generals in Pakistan were mulling the option of releasing Asif Zardari from prison, a close confidant of President Pervez Musharraf weighed in with this quip about ex-premier Benazir Bhutto's husband, "Mr President, it's about time we release him. He'll prove more damaging to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) outside jail than inside." Accordingly, Zardari was released in November 2004 to rapturous receptions, prompting many swooning admirers to see in his long years of separation from Benazir—and their imminent coming together—a dramatic real-life parallel to Veer-Zara, the Bollywood film then immensely popular in Pakistan. The inveterate romantic here even began to describe the two as Pakistan's Veer-Zara.
A little over two years from that heady, emotional November, as we settle into 2007, a chill seems to have seeped into the romantic saga that the Benazir-Zardari matrimony has always been for this country. The fizz has gone out of the love story, Benazir and Zardari don't live together, their marriage is an empty shell, a partnership of pretences, a form they must maintain because Pakistan, like much of South Asia, can't accept a woman politician divorced from her husband. You could say it's a separation that's still dressed as marriage, you could say Musharraf's confidant, in a way, has been proved prescient.
For months now, the souring of the Benazir-Zardari saga has been the staple of whispers in PPP circles. The buzz attained credibility in November last year when Pakistan's English daily Observer led its front page with the bruising header: 'Benazir desperately trying to save her marriage'. The PPP didn't issue any denials. Last year too, in a money-laundering case filed by the earlier Nawaz Sharif government, Benazir told a Swiss court that she wasn't associated with offshore companies being investigated for their links to Zardari. The statement was perceived as an attempt on her part to distance herself from her husband.
A prominent Pakistani close to both Zardari and Benazir, who too now lives abroad, told Outlook, "The marriage is over. Both have decided to get on with life and live in countries of their own choosing. There has even been a distribution of assets; that's why her statement last year to the Swiss court." But this doesn't mean Benazir will legally formalise the split—and it isn't only because of the political factor. As a lady friend of Benazir's told Outlook, "Benazir is too conservative to go in for a divorce. Once, till late in the night, she kept advising me against seeking divorce."
There are, however, incontrovertible signs of their marriage being on the rocks if not totally kaput. For one, Benazir lives in Dubai, Zardari in a New York apartment with his dogs. His friends there invite sneers from the extremely class-conscious Pakistanis. As a former foreign secretary told this correspondent, "We were having dinner at this posh restaurant and in walked Asif with a group of men who would never be seen in polite company." Influential expat Pakistanis say Benazir did not stay with her husband when she visited the Big Apple last September, choosing instead to reside with a friend there. The PPP explained it saying she needed a larger space for party work.
Cold vibes between the Zardaris and the Bhuttos aren't a fact of recent vintage. When Asif was undergoing a heart operation in Dubai in 2005, his parents flew down to the desert emirate to see him. Instead of staying in the plush villa of their daughter-in-law, they were booked in a hotel. A Pakistani who was there then narrates, "I think it was in June 2005. Dubai then witnessed its biggest power blackout. I was staying in the same hotel as Asif's father, Hakim. I asked him why he wasn't staying with Benazir, he kept silent. Hakim's wife (Asif's stepmother) clearly said that they did not want to stay there."
So, why did the Benazir-Zardari marriage turn so sour? One way of answering the question is to look at the marital fate of other women prime ministers (or presidents) and summarise, perhaps simplistically: marriages of powerful women leaders are doomed to fail. From Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Golda Meir to Indira Gandhi in the earlier generation, and now Benazir Bhutto, Tansu Ciller and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—their marital going has been stormy; the discord most often arising from a husband reluctant to live in the shadow of his wife. Most often, cracks developed in relationships because of the husband's insatiable appetite for power and pelf—definitely true of Benazir-Zardari's life together.
What's also true, though, is that both Benazir and Zardari were a terrible mismatch in a Pakistani society that is extremely class-conscious, and chauvinistic. To the manor born, cosmopolitan, Oxford-educated, princess of Pakistan's "only political dynasty", many found it intriguing why Benazir chose to marry Zardari at all. Theories abound. One, she didn't have a boyfriend, never even went out with boys—a fact testified to by Hussain Haqqani's failed efforts to dig up dirt on her university days in the months before the 1988 elections. (Haqqani later joined her government). It was considered impractical, perhaps inconceivable, for a single woman to jump into politics. A husband had to be found.
Simultaneously, Pakistan was also witnessing cataclysmic changes: Zia was in power; he had hanged Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, even thrown Benazir in the dungeon for months; subsequently, in 1984, her brother Shahnawaz died under mysterious circumstances abroad; the other brother—Mir Murtaza—nursed ambitions about usurping the Bhutto legacy. Worse, mother Nusrat, in the eastern tradition of anointing males as heirs, was more supportive of Murtaza than Benazir. "Benazir needed a friend and a man by her side. Asif needed power, authority and wealth. She also wanted a Sindhi as then she could play her father's Sindhi card," says an old PPP member.
It was Zardari's stepmother who played matchmaker, says the PPP source, getting the two to meet each other. Back then, the Zardaris' most important asset was the Bambino cinema theatre in Karachi. Though younger to her by two years, Zardari swept Benazir off her feet. No other man had been so close to her. There were quiet moments in London's Hyde Park: she said she was attracted to his sense of humour; impressed by his 'chivalry' (he saved her from a bee which attacked her). Says the PPP member, "There were flowers and presents. Asif at his best was macho whom she could not resist. Had I been Benazir, I too would have said 'yes'."
Perhaps the Bhutto gameplan was different from what it eventually turned out to be. Zia-ul-Haq died in a plane crash in 1987, elections were called in 1988, and Benazir spectacularly rode to power. About this twist in the script Nusrat was to comment after Benazir was ousted from power the second time (1996), "How did we know that Zia would die so soon? We thought that by the time her turn to (govern) would come, they would have had a couple of kids and he would have settled down."
Zardari did settle down in the prime ministerial house—but not as a quiet husband willing to stay in the background. He became the 10 per cent man, allegedly cutting deals, amassing property abroad and stashing funds in Swiss banks (though nothing has been proved against him even after he spent eight years in jail). When Benazir was in Opposition, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif claimed a prohibitively expensive diamond necklace belonging to Benazir had been unearthed from a Swiss bank locker. Photographs of the necklace were flashed in newspapers. Sitting in the chambers of the Leader of Opposition, surrounded by visitors, she passed a note to this correspondent on the necklace controversy: "Do you think I would have such horrible taste?" People now say she didn't know about the necklace because Zardari never told her about it.
Says a PML(Q) politician closely linked to intelligence agencies, "If Benazir had married someone else, the story of the PPP would've been entirely different. You could blame Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for everything but corruption. Zardari managed to blot that record of the PPP."
Another irritant in the relationship could be the murder of Benazir's brother Murtaza. Then living in exile, Murtaza was persuaded to return to Pakistan and develop a stake in Pakistan politics. Among those who sponsored the move was mother Nusrat. Benazir was opposed to the idea, fearing the establishment didn't want a Bhutto man to be alive, that the time wasn't appropriate for his return. Nevertheless, Murtaza returned. Soon differences between Murtaza and Zardari surfaced. The last occasion he met his sister in the prime minister's house there was a terrible row between Murtaza and Zardari. Murtaza accused Zardari of destroying his father's legacy.
Thereafter, in 1996, a posse of policemen pumped bullets into Murtaza's vehicle. People still remember the heart-rending scenes of Prime Minister Benazir rushing barefoot across hospital floors in Karachi to be with her dying brother. No one knows who killed him. But a PPP member points out, "Don't forget, there's a legal suit pending (filed soon after Benazir was ousted for the second time) against Zardari for his alleged involvement in the murder of his brother-in-law."
There are also stories about Zardari two-timing her. Former president Farooq Leghari, a founder-member of the PPP, apparently once stooped low enough to even record Zardari's steamy extra-marital encounters on tape. There have been eyewitness accounts of some truly ugly encounters between the couple. The PPP, of course, attributes it to propaganda by the government.
There is, however, an irony to their soured relationship: it's Asif who spent three years in prison bearing the brunt of the Sharif government's vindictiveness, thanks to promptings from Leghari; he languished behind bars for another five years until Musharraf freed him in 2004. On his release, he became a symbol of PPP resistance, his example often invoked to boost the morale of party workers. A PPP worker sums it up thus, "While in jail, his impact on the PPP was very positive as workers said, 'Asif nay dilayarna jail katee hai (he braved it all).' But he has had a very negative impact on Benazir while she was in government."
Does the relationship still have a future? It's unlikely the two will divorce each other—for the sake of their children, and political expediency. For the time being, it'll be status quo. As a PPP member points out, "Zardari can't fly down to Dubai because he expressed his inability to appear in the Swiss court as his doctors have prohibited him from taking long flights. A flight to Dubai means he must depose before the Swiss court. Would he want to do that?" Should Zardari go to Dubai at a later date, or come down to Pakistan when Benazir returns, he can at best hope to get a few PPP tickets for his followers. "There will be no impact on the PPP if he stays in New York," a party leader adds sarcastically.
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