People & Society

Why Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Pakistan

Updated Jan 16, 2019 07:18pm

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Photo by Reuters
Photo by Reuters

How much Benazir was driven by a sense of destiny and how much was she the product of the peculiar circumstances of her life is a question for historians to answer. But if any conclusion can be drawn from the story of her life it is that she managed to hang on to her destiny even when she was initially thrust by the not-so-mundane realities of her life into it and even though the practical problems of everyday life kept dodging – and sometimes tripping – her in her larger-than-life endeavours. Bhutto first called herself the “daughter of Pakistan”, then the “daughter of the East” and lately the “daughter of destiny” — giving an unmistakable hint how the very concept of being larger than life kept changing for her.

While the aim was to champion the cause of democracy in Pakistan in the initial stages of her political career, it expanded to serve as a symbol of success for all women in the East. In the latest transformation of her personal symbolism, she stood as the human incarnation of destiny which, however, was left vague and undefined.It was traumatically tragic that this “daughter of destiny” was mowed down so ruthlessly much before she could succeed or fail in justifying her recent appellation or, more basically, define what her destiny was.

Still, she has left a long trail of evidence to suggest that destiny for her might have meant beating back extremism and militancy by knocking down the military dictatorship and restoring democracy in Pakistan. Whether she would have succeeded or failed is open to debate as have been much of her earlier achievements and failures, more on which later. Going back to the symbolism she used to describe herself, the “daughter of Pakistan” quite closely followed in the footsteps of the daughter of India — Indira Gandhi.

Though some circumstances of their lives and most of their respective political situations were remarkably different, both women stepped into the political arena as substitutes to their illustrious fathers who, as the legend has it, had started training them from a very tender age for the superhuman roles they would eventually take up. Where the daughter of India did well, the “daughter of Pakistan” was bound to succeed also. They were their fathers’ daughters as well as the daughters of their homelands which partly explains why Gandhi and Bhutto headed in different directions in extending their symbolism onto a wider canvas. The progeny of Jawaharlal Nehru, the founder and architect of modern, independent India, was right-fully proud that she ruled the largest democracy in the world, while the off-spring of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who once was the most prominent standard-bearer of Muslim unity, was sure to draw satisfaction from being the first woman to head a country in the Muslim world.India is big enough to accommodate any ambition, no matter how grand.

So Gandhi at the height of her success became synonymous with her country: Indira was India and India was Indira, was her party’s political mantra during the 1970s. Bhutto,after successfully rising to lead the party – which at that time enjoyed the support of most of her countrymen – found that her use of the sobriquet, the “daughter of her homeland”, was a bit constricting. Like her father who wanted to become the leader of not just one Muslim country but the whole lot of them, she would expand the scope of her success and become the “daughter of the East”.

To her credit, the success of this “daughter of the East”, who rose to the top job in her impoverished homeland, indirectly inspired many other daughters of the region to climb up from more or less similar circumstances.That this first happened in what was once apart of Pakistan – Bangladesh, through the electoral successes of Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia – soon after it happened in Pakistan only underscores the ironic discrepancy between the regional grandiosity of the symbol and its much smaller reality.

Photo | White Star Archives
Photo | White Star Archives

That Bhutto should call herself the “daughter of destiny” might also have to do with the ongoing conflict between religious extremism and tolerant liberalism for the souls of humanity. By winning over the hearts and minds of the people in the second-largest Muslim country in the world to her side – that is, the side of toleration and liberalism – she would play a decisive role in which way the conflict would end. That her assassination is being blamed on those representing the ‘other’ in this battle of ideas is a backhanded admission that she stood for what she claimed she stood for.

In order to discover the origin of this symbolism, understanding Bhutto's life with its numerous struggles – both at personal and political levels – with varying degrees of success and failure is extremely helpful. That she failed more spectacularly than many had expected or could reconcile with, is a function of how she came to be regarded as what her son Bilawal called her in his first press conference in London — the best hope for democracy in Pakistan. She was the best hope because she had the most suitable family background,the most appropriate education and the most needed political training. In a country of mostly poor, illiterate and politically disempowered people, her bloodline, her Western training and her upbringing under one of the country's best political brains ensured that she was looked up to by all and sundry.

That she became the focus of popular attention as well as the centre of people’s hopes for a better future was only the next logical stage in her life and career. In the eyes of her supporters she could do nothing but succeed. Bhutto, though, proved them wrong — not just by failing but also by accepting failure as an option in the political choices that she voluntarily made or was forced to make under unrelenting circumstances.This is the only way to explain why she agreed to make so many com-promises with virtually everyone around before coming to power for the first time after winning the 1988 general elections. She agreed with the army that she would have no truck with the activities of the intelligence agencies as well as Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

She assured then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan that she intended to change nothing in the Constitution that upset the constitutional apple cart so meticulously loaded against parliamentary democracy by his predecessor and long-time tormentor of both Bhutto and her party, General Ziaul Haq. And in an attempt to reassure the concerned foreigners, she agreed to keep Sahibzada Yaqoob Ali Khan as the foreign minister of Pakistan even though he was chosen for that role by none other than Zia himself. Even before arriving in Pakistan to an unprecedented and tumultuous welcome in 1986, she was a regular visitor to Washington DC, trying – through a network of personal and family friends and professional lobbyists – to do the Americans’ bidding, in Afghanistan in particular, as efficiently and effectively as Zia was doing before her. After giving away so much to begin with, she was still thought to have gatecrashed the corridors of power, and was accepted only begrudgingly. With this background, she must have been under some great delusion if she still believed that she would succeed.

Even in ensuring her downfall, which came much earlier than she would have expected, she managed to sneak a peek into the internal working of the so-called corridors of power. By allowing herself to fail,she learnt some precious tricks that facilitated a comeback soon afterwards — in a matter of three years to be exact. She also learnt that palace intrigues mattered as much, or more than marching in the streets, and why the wily ways of power politics were a necessary addendum to the gains made from mobilising the masses and victories won at the ballot box. She used all this knowledge to good effect by allowing her enemies to destroy each other during her first stint in the parliamentary opposition. This experience of being the government-in-waiting,therefore, differed sharply from her much longer stint in the popular opposition to the military regime.

This earlier experience, however, was the only political experience that she had before she came to power. If the situation had allowed her to exercise her own choice, she would have joined the foreign service, something that her father had trained her for, particularly when he took her along with him to Shimla for the historic peace agreement that he struck with Gandhi. Short of being a diplomat under the supervision of her father, Bhutto could have gone back to Europe as her father had advised her from his prison cell. Only 10 days after she returned to a Pakistan where her father was an all-powerful prime minister, she was to learn the politics the hard way. She came back to the country after completing her education at Oxford University, aged 24, and knew nothing for the next 11 years except the travails of being in opposition to a military dictator who would not relent until he had ensured that her family and party no longer disturbed his peace of mind.

Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shahnawaz Bhutto | White Star Archives
Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Shahnawaz Bhutto | White Star Archives

By disagreeing with her father, the young girl that Bhutto was at that time chose the rigours that come automatically with being on the wrong side of power over a settled, comfort-able and politically indifferent life abroad. For someone born and brought up in luxury and privilege, this was a momentous decision that set the course of her life in the days, months, years and decades to come. Little did she know that her participation in the anti-Vietnam war protests during her stay at Harvard University and her election as the president of the students union at Oxford were to come in quite handy in the future. The “bubbly babe” of her Harvard years and the fun-loving,ice cream guzzling, sports car driver at Oxford took little time in adapting to her new and much humbler environs. Bhutto, who would spend her winter holidays in Switzerland and who would drive all the way from Oxford to her favourite ice cream parlour in London, spent the next six years of her life under arrest, sometimes in solitary confinement, without any contact with the outside world.s

The contact with the world, however, was not the only thing that she lost during this period of extreme tribulation. In 1979, her father was hanged and six years later she lost her younger brother Shahnawaz. In between she tried to reorganise her father’s party, launch a movement for the restoration of democracy and keep in touch with the well-wishers of her family, foreign supporters of democracy’s revival in Pakistan and the supporters of her own party living in exile. She also fought ceaselessly with her political “uncles”,who by virtue of their age and their proximity to her father, refused to take her seriously. To many of them, she was still “Pinky” as she was lovingly called by her parents during her childhood and youth. But she soon proved her political mettle by winning the factional war within her Pakistan Peoples Party with help from a younger generation of party members. By 1986, however, she was becoming increasingly certain that the time for her public launch as heir to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s political legacy was ripe.

She was not surprised when she was received in Lahore by more than a million-strong mob, which after years of political hibernation under Zia vividly exhibited that Bhutto would be nipping her political career in the bud if she failed to ride the anti-Zia storm. That the then prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo allowed her to move around freely was obviously one of the many reasons why Zia eventually sacked him in early 1988. In retrospect, it can be argued that Junejo initially had thought that he would be able to contain her inexorable rise to the political summit in the country. Like the recent holders of political power under the patronage of a soldier, he would have believed that he had the power of the state behind him, that he had the control of the local governments and that he came from the same province as her. So, he would have thought that her success was not inevitable. But Zia’s presence and the absolute control that he had on power meant that Bhutto could not win without a bloody conflict with his regime — the outcome of which could be anybody’s guess. This was avoided when the unthinkable happened and Zia died in a plane crash in August 1988.

Thus he was saved from the ignominy of swearing in a Bhutto as the prime minister of the country or risking alienation and worldwide condemnation that could have accrued to him if he persisted in keeping her out. But shortly before then the “queen of people’s hearts” – the title that Bhutto had by then won through her sheer political tenacity and verve – gave her followers a major shock when she agreed to marry Asif Ali Zardari. It was an arranged marriage, made possible through the good offices of her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, who wanted her daughter to settle down in life. Bhutto was initially reluctant to enter into the marriage, believing that linking any man’s name to hers would be politically counterproductive for her. She had in fact made up her mind about a unmarried life before she realised that she might have to be dependent upon her brothers and their wives for carrying out even the smallest social activities, let alone power politics.

She also did not have time for a courtship and, moreover, any love affair, no matter how rewarding personally, could have been politically damaging for her. Hence she agreed to an arranged union which her Western friends as well as the local champions of women’s rights could not stomach easily. Bhutto was unable to console any of those whose hearts she broke by marrying Zardari. In extreme cases,some of her staunch supporters saw her 1987 marriage as a ‘plot’ by the Zia regime. Zardari is the son of Hakim Ali Zardari who was then a member of the Awami National Party headed by one of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s many political opponents,Khan Abdul Wali Khan. It mattered little for her die hard fans that Zardari Senior’s party at that time was still an official part of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy which Bhutto was spearheading. To be fair to them, her marriage to anyone would be a step down for their political goddess to the level of an ordinary woman. No man could be a “suitable boy” for her, much less Zardari, who was seen as coming from a lower social and family back-ground than the Bhuttos, who, by dint of their large landholding and their prominent political presence for many generations, were seen as the elite of the elite.

In a different sense, her union with Zardari was initially a marriage of convenience which allowed her to portray herself as a ‘normal’ woman who did not shy away from the feminine norms of marriage and bearing children. It also took away some of the sting from the religious opposition she was facing for being a woman aspiring to rule over men. Though she successfully put this opposition down, she continued to be haunted by it during her years in power and opposition. Conscious of her gender, she made it a point to appear stronger than all the men around and, again like Gandhi,sometimes behaved as the only‘man’ in her large cabinet. Years later she told an interviewer that this was one thing she would change if and when she was in power again. She said she would be herself – a woman, a wife, a mother – to ensure that she exuded care and compassion - qualities much needed for running governments in tortured and troubled societies such as Pakistan. As she was trying to be more‘manly’ than most men around her, Bilawal, the second man in her life after Zardari, started gaining prominence in her political life even before he was born.

Benazir waves to the crowd at her wedding celebrations held in Karachi's Lyari are in 1987 | dawn.com
Benazir waves to the crowd at her wedding celebrations held in Karachi's Lyari are in 1987 | dawn.com

It’s not without reason that aged 19 and heading the party of his mother and grandfather, he fears more for his privacy than for his life. Though he said much about fearing prying journalists, at a subconscious level he was referring to the lack of privacy he suffered when even in his mother’s womb. An object of intense debate and politicking both among Zia’s camp followers and Bhutto’s own supporters, Bilawal’s birth was one occasion upon which once hinged the political fortunes of an entire nation. Zia wanted to schedule the 1988 elections in such a way that a pregnant Bhutto would be unable to campaign vigorously. Many of her supporters saw her pregnancy as yet another proof that her marriage was an official conspiracy to keep her away from active politics.

Much later, Bhutto confessed in her interviews that Zardari, too, was not favourably inclined – at least initially – towards her politics and did not believe that she was going to become the prime minister sooner rather than later. But once he was convinced, Bhutto said, he was quite comfortable in playing second fiddle to his eminent life partner. This, she said, was the start of their post-marriage love affair which all evidence suggests continued till they parted forever. He was the first man in her life after her father and brothers and she leaned heavily on him in times of emotional trial for succour.

Their detractors would say that she leaned rather too heavily on someone who, by all accounts, played a big role in both her ignoble exits from power. When she said Zardari suffered immensely because of her political career, she often glossed over the fact that he was the cause of most of her political failings between 1988 and 1996. He went to jail and remained there for 11 of their 20 years of marriage but he also earned her government the unenviable title of being one of the most corrupt administrations in the world at that time. If inexperience in administration and the incorrect notion of benefiting the party’s members and workers through jobs that they did not deserve or contracts and licences that they did not qualify for were the basic cause of her undoing, Zardari’s reputation as Mr 10 per cent was further proof that she was unable to govern, let alone effectively and efficiently. She would often act haughtily and arrogantly as a means of warding off this much disliked criticism.

When President Farooq Leghari, once her confidant, threw her government out in 1996, her husband also faced the unlikely charge of killing Mir Murtaza Bhutto, her only brother then living. The “queen of hearts” degenerated into the “princess” of a 1997 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary which dubbed Zardari the “play-boy” who had siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars earned as commissions and kickbacks while Bhutto ruled in Islamabad. The “princess”was shown to have a weakness for costly jewellery and the “playboy” was alleged to have houses in all the important cities in the world, including a multi-million pound palace in the exclusive London suburb of Surrey.In the 1997 elections, hence, it was a payback time. Her supporters voted with their feet by not turning up at the polling stations, cutting her down to a political size she could not reconcile with easily. Heartbroken and almost on the verge of becoming irrelevant to politics in her country, Bhutto acquired a siege mentality, looking for demons where none existed.

Like all those suffering from an acute sense of victimhood, she failed to take even the slightest constructive criticism in her stride. With her political fortunes at their lowest and her husband in jail for the long haul,she decided to be with her children and went into self-imposed exile in 1998 when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister. In retrospect, the decision may some day pay rich political dividends as it was the only time a growing Bilawal spent in the company of his mother, who had been through all that Pakistani politics is made up of.

During the mid-1990s Bhutto felt increasingly alone in the political battlefield as she was almost always at the receiving end of an official accountability drive, even after her removal from power, as well as the focus of unending media reporting into the fabulous wealth that she had allegedly stashed away in foreign accounts and properties abroad.

Benazir Bhutto takes the oath of office for prime minister on October 19, 1993 in Islamabad | AFP
Benazir Bhutto takes the oath of office for prime minister on October 19, 1993 in Islamabad | AFP

On a personal level, too, she was nothing but an embattled and challenged occupant of the Bhutto throne. After her brother came back to Pakistan in 1993 and ran for about two dozen seats in Sindh against her party’s nominees in the general elections, one critical factor that he was banking on was support from their mother Nusrat Bhutto. The mother canvassed for her “favourite” offspring, openly suspecting her daughter’s credentials to head her deceased husband’s party. By 1996, these family fissures became all the more visible when Mir Murtaza’s widow and his children accused their aunt and her husband of killing him. The only solace that Benazir Bhutto could secure came in the shape of the successful ouster of her mother from the party’s leadership and the electoral success of her nominees against her own brothers. The bitter memories of those bad old days still vitiate the relations between the two parts of the Bhutto family and reverberated even after her death and the subsequent bequeathing of party leadership to her husband and then to her son. Nervous sympathisers feared this could again lead to a feud in the family over who genuinely deserved to carry on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s political mantle.

Till the time she left this world, however, her claim was established beyond any doubt. People looked up and were beholden to her because she remained in the fray and fought politically, unlike her brothers who chose to stay away and use violence as the means to avenge their father’s removal from power, imprisonment and eventual execution.By opting to lie low while the chips were down, Bhutto remained out of Pakistan even when the country was going through yet another momentous period of its turbulent history. Her arch rival, Sharif, already stung by the uneasy cohabitation that the country’s political system had become,decided to do away with some of the obstacles she had tripped over. By removing the presidential powers to sack the cabinets and parliaments, by confronting head-on a judiciary trying to assert its independence and by forcing the resignation of an army chief venting dissidence, he was setting the stage for another massive political showdown in the country — with one novel aspect.

After almost three decades of being continuously at the centre of everything political in Pakistan, no Bhutto was an active participant in that political drama.The fact that the fight between Sharif and all others in the establishment ended in a hiatus for the career of Bhutto’s worst political enemy helped her claw back to centre stage. Some other contributing factors and attenuating circumstances – some of which were seminally important to her ideology, political style and image – also promoted her cause. That Sharif’s political legacy had to be passed on to his wife Kulsoom Nawaz vindicated her long-held belief that women could be as politically effective – or ineffective – as men.

Coming from a family and political party that once had secured religious decrees against Bhutto’s presence in the public sphere, this was a clear sign that Bhutto – her personal failure not withstanding – had helped change social and political attitudes towards women like no other feminist activist or organisation could do.

Soon after General (retd) Pervez Musharraf came to power, he started securing peace with the foreign investors that Bhutto had brought in, especially in the energy sector, lending credence to the former prime minister's stance that corruption cases against her and her husband were politically motivated. But the biggest thing in her favour was the surfacing of a taped conversation between Malik Qayyum, then a high court judge, and the then prime minister Sharif. It clearly showed that the only conviction that her opponents had managed to secure against her was made on the continuous prompting of the government. By trying to keep both Sharif and Bhutto out, Musharraf unwittingly helped her come in — for a record third time.

That her party won the highest number of popular votes in the 2002 election – in which she was a target of official machinations to manipulate the electoral verdict – helped her stake her claim, yet again, as the most popular politician in the country. She, wisely, stayed away from striking a Faustian bargain with the Musharraf regime even though it would have brought her to power much earlier than her detractors and critics had expected and despite the fact that her decision split her party almost down the middle.

She certainly lost a number of legislators to the government but retained her regained support. Then, even more to her advantage,Musharraf started to fail in his pet projects. His accountability drive started to bog down under political expedience and under the heavy bur-den of its failure to have Bhutto and Zardari convicted for corruption despite relentless media campaigns and much to-ing and fro-ing to Switzerland and Great Britain. While debilitating setbacks to the government’s security apparatus started increasing in the so-called war on terrorism, Pakistan’s image as an honourable member of the comity of nations suffered severe jolts. Rising religious extremism across the country showed that prominent political players under Musharraf could at best be silent bystanders and at worst accomplices of terrorists and religious fanatics.

Bhutto and her party offered the only ideological alternative to this rising tide of intolerance and obscurantism. The stage was set yet again for the “queen of people’s hearts” to regain her lost throne. Her resilience, her courage, her willingness to take threats against her person and her country head-on, as well as her relentless lobbying in the Western capitals during her long years in exile, all combined to propel a sea of people from across Pakistan to receive her in Karachi on October 18, 2007. By some estimates this welcoming crowd was even bigger than the one that had gathered in Lahore slightly more than two decades ago to receive her as the daughter of Pakistan. Her journey to become the “daughter of destiny” had certainly started on a high note and it came to an abrupt end on an even higher note: no worldly achievement, or failure,could have immortalised her as her death has done.


This article was published in the Herald's January 2008 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.