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People & Society

I take calculated risks: Benazir Bhutto

Updated May 31, 2019 02:16am
Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Benazir Bhutto, 32, the acting chairperson of the Pakistan People's Party and the daughter of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is today undoubtedly the most formidable political figure in the country. Compelled by circumstances, Benazir Bhutto entered the political arena in 1977 after her father's arrest. Fresh from Harvard and Oxford, she had no prior experience in the complexities of politics. All her political training came from practical struggle. Her nine-year political career has been a period of hardship and sufferings.

lt has been a long personal ordeal - more than five years in prison and house arrest in Pakistan and two years of exile in London. She started her political career as the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto but now shows signs of becoming a leader in her own right. The long period of confinement and hardship seem to have steeled her and strengthened her resolution, giving her a certain degree of maturity and political acumen, which are clearly manifested in her speeches and statements. Although she derives her political inspiration from her late father's political beliefs, she is more pragmatic than him in her approach. Her recent political stance clearly indicates that achieving an end is for her more important then rigidly sticking to principles.

Although she has emerged as an astute leader and tough organiser, her real test will come in the next few months when she will have to deal not only with the new and more complex political situation but also with challenges from rebels within her party. In this interview Benazir Bhutto talks about her party's policies, its past and future, the political situation in the country and her political strategy ...

Herald. Did you expect the kind of welcome you received on your return?

Benazir Bhutto. Well, I have full faith in the people, and in their judgement. I knew that they were aware of the role of the party and its leaders, but what I saw was completely overwhelming and it was such a triumph for the people. It was a warm crowd, an affectionate crowd. It was a crowd of expectations and hopes. I look to the day when we can fulfill these expectations.

Herald. To what do you attribute the response that you got?

Benazir. I think the people know that our party is committed to the underprivileged, the oppressed, the discriminated. They know that we stand for fair wage for labour. They know that we stand for land for tenants, for employment for rural and urban sectors. They know that we stand for an independent foreign policy and for non-alignment. Because of our struggle for principles, they know that we cannot betray them. We are prepared to give our lives; the people will stay with us.

Herald. But some people feel that it is emotional rather than political support?

Benazir. I used to be told this, but I have never ever believed in emotional support. You cannot sustain emotional support. Emotional support is something which evaporates within a week. If it can sustain itself for even ten days, it is a big thing. Our support has been there for nine years. lt is there because of the policies of Mr. Bhutto, who sacrificed for the country, who served the people. He served every part of the country. And also because people, when they saw our pain, felt it mirrored their own pain. In a way it was baptised in something beyond just text· book politics, or programmes. The cause was there. The message was there. The symbolism was there. But it was baptised in the valley of pain blood and sacrifice.

Herald. Can this mass support be turned into a political movement?

Benazir. You are right, there is a difference. People have always been with the Pakistan People's Party. It is not the policy of the administration to deprive the PPP, but to deprive the masses by depriving the PPP. But we believe that the masses will get their rights, and the People's Party will play a political party's role, showing the way for the restoration of democracy. We have had different strategies during the last few years, but now I am more hopeful than ever because I believe substantive changes have taken place. Social forces have been released, and there is an opportunity to be taken forward. The mass support cannot be ignored. The impact, the responsiveness of the crowd and the intensity of the crowd's feelings cannot be ignored. I hope that our party organisers will be able to tap the reservoir of popular support.

Herald. Do you think people will come out on the streets if the government arrests you?

Benazir. Yes, the party will play its role. If they arrest me, the party is not going to sit back and watch. The day they arrest me, the onus will be on them, because we have been very peaceful. All our meetings have been very peaceful. I am the leader of the largest political party and no one should make the mistake of thinking that they can arrest me and nothing will happen. Of course, we will remain peaceful, but the parry will naturally come out on the streets if they arrest me.

Even if they arrest the provincial cadre, the party will still come out. The party has prepared for this eventuality. They all knew that when I came back, he would want to arrest me. One of the reasons he didn't arrest me was because he knew that the situation had been prepared. He thought it best to let us run out of steam. But we are not running out of steam. We are gaining momentum with greater mobilisation. And they are just sitting there thinking that we'll wear out. But people won't wear out. If nine years of lashes and hangings could not wear out the people of our country, it's not going to wear them out now

Herald. For a political movement you need a strong organisation at the grassroots level. Does your party, at present, have the organisational capability to mobilise the masses for a political movement?

Benazir. We have grassroots organisation. But the party was driven by factionalism. Because of this factional factor, the grassroots organisation was never given a clear lead and always remained in confusion. We are trying to reduce factionalism and we have come some way.

Herald. Why do you say that the People's Party organisation at present is better than ever before?

Benazir. Well, in terms of what we have learnt through the last eight or nine years, yes, we are. Our student wings are doing very well. Our youth wings have come of age. Our women's wing is quite committed, it has been to Shahi Qila, Baldia Town and so on. In addition to that, we have a young president in the Punjab and we have other young people in the leadership who have never been ministers. You have got to be tough, you have got to be strong to go out and carry along the rest of the people.

Herald. Is it your policy to bring forward new people in the leadership of the party?

Benazir. Oh no. It is my policy to see that the party remains revitalised. They are not new people, they are our own people. It is not my policy to drive anyone out of the party. The workers of the party wanted action against certain individuals way back, but it has never been my policy nor the policy of Begum Sahiba to take this action, because we believe that in politics there is a natural process: those who are with you stay with you and those who are not, let the parting come. But I do believe that it is important for us to understand the mistakes of the past.

Mistakes of the past do not lie with Mr Bhutto. He founded the party and as soon as he came into power, people who had come to power on his back suddenly began regarding themselves as his equal and started thinking they could succeed Mr Bhutto and so they started intriguing. I know one chief minister told my father, 'You have done more for me than my own father, I could not dream of becoming chief minister.' Another chief minister said, 'You have even taught me how to eat and dress.' But soon they started thinking that it was all very easy. Mr Bhutto had twenty years of hard work before he became prime minister. So it was not easy. And this factionalism weakened us. Whether it was from the left or whether it was from the right, everything was done in the name of ideology. But there was very little ideology and more personal thought in it.

One needs a team. I cannot stay in politics without a team. I can't succeed without a team. What I have tried to do is develop the concept of teamwork. I have always consulted people. And I used to consult to such an extent when factionalism and polarisation were rampant in the party, that all my time was taken up in trying to balance everybody together. And in a way, we were paralysed. We could not move because we were balancing. We thought that if we took one step we would fall out of balance. Ultimately, with the shahadat of Shahnawaz I realised that if I was to continue I had to take decisions if I believed they were right. I could no longer allow myself to be paralysed.

I started taking decisions for the betterment of my country even before his shahadat. I think the turning point was the shahadat of Nasir Baloch. We met on March 5 in London and I was very upset. He had been like a brother to me, he had written letters to me. I was shattered by his death. I was feeling very bad, and I thought; which way is the party going? I started thinking from that time.

After Shahnawaz's death the process was accelerated. I decided that I had to take decisions. I started taking decisions and I required discipline, loyalty and team spirit from everyone. I faced many conspiracies and only my party workers saved me. At every stage and at every step I went through hell, not only from outside, because you can put up with what is from outside, but also from within.

I know how I suffered. I know how people treated me. It was quite agonising and demoralising. But I got strength from the people at Shahnawaz's funeral. When they came out I could see the hope in their eyes. I could see how poor they were. I realised l owed it to them to pull myself together. I went back to France in those days because the manner of the conspiracy against Shahnawaz had left me very confused. I was feeling a bit pulled down. When the Begum Sahiba and I were together, she said, "Look, we have come this far, we can't let this tragedy overwhelm us; we must overwhelm the tragedy," That's when I made the decision that whether the case was over or not, I would go back and face the consequences.

Herald. You have asked for a peaceful transfer of power and you have demanded that the assembly hold elections. Do you see any likelihood of this happening?

Benazir. What options do they have? If they order my arrest, and there is popular discontent, they would resort to repression and repression can lead the way to martial law. In that case where would that leave the assembly? There will be no assembly. But if they hold elections, they will be rising to their historic duty. We're not trying to cut everybody out.

Photo published in the May 1986 issue of the Herald
Photo published in the May 1986 issue of the Herald

Herald. Does this not amount to a de facto recognition of the assembly you have rejected?

Benazir. We've given them a role that we see for them. We've said that the role they can play is the role of transition, of a stepping stone. We do not want to go into the question of whether we recognise them or not. Why go into areas of disagreement? We should concentrate on the areas of agreement. But I will also say, and I've said this before, that Nawabzada, Malik Qasim and other members of the MRD went calling on assembly members; I have not done that. In fact, many have wished to see me. And I'm not saying whether we recognise them or not. But we do recognise that they have a certain role to play and that is the transfer of democracy.

Herald. Suppose they do not agree to fulfil their 'historic' role, what then?

Benazir. They can either arrest me or stop the party at some stage.

Herald. Your party will then enter its second stage?

Benazir. They will force it to. The ball is in their court.

Herald. What will be your tactics in the second stage?

Benazir. Let's say we want peaceful change. And I'm sure peaceful change will come.

Herald: You have been talking very little about economic issues?

Benazir. I'd say I've have been talking a lot. Far more than anyone else. I have been hearing all the other speakers. There is no economic content.

Herald. Will you pursue the same economic policies as the PPP did between 1972-1978. Or will you reassess those policies in the light of past experiences?

Benazir. Well, I think Mr. Bhutto always believed in reassessing. We don't do things for the sake of doing it, out of stubbornness. We do it for the purpose of achieving certain social and economic objectives. We will keep the major sectors of the economy nationalised because we believe it should be in the service of the people. We don't think that rice husking and ginning should be nationalised because this scares the middle class and we created the middle class. By giving passports to immigrant labour, we created the middle class; by increasing the salary of the white-collar class, we created the lower middle class. We don't want to turn the very class we created against us. We want to be identified with the peasants, the labourers, the lower middle class and the middle class. We want private enterprise to play its role but at the same time we believe that the state must also have its public sector. Providing employment is very important.·

Herald. You do not advocate imposing a ceiling on land?

Benazir. Land is a very important question. We had the '77 land reforms which were never implemented properly. We'd like to see those implemented properly at the first and initial stage. But also, we'd like to see the social objective of reforms. Some people talk of land reforms because it is a catchy slogan. They think by talking about them, they can fool everybody into giving them their votes. People can't be fooled. I'd Iike to see peasants get land, and the infrastructural to maintain that Iand. And I'd Iike a study to be done on the land reforms of '72 and '77 to see how much land is still with the peasants and how much is not, and what were the reasons for that and what can be done next to ensure that the land is with them.

Herald. What is your position on the MRD? Are you opposed to an electoral alliance?

Benazir. I am not opposed to the MRD. I feel very uncomfortable being leader of the PPP because I consider myself more Mr. Bhutto's political worker. I am proud of my Prime Minister; I am proud of his heroic struggle. I am proud of the party's flag, proud of the sacrifices offered by my party workers. The others aren't. They don't have any respect for our Prime Minister or our flag.

They said many mean things about us. They accused us of rigging the elections. We never rigged any elections. We have our identity, we want to maintain that identity. We are also a national party. Parties that aren't national in character want to have alliances to show that they can form a government. We don't have those compulsions; we have different compulsions. I would, however, like to see the MRD parties come along. But you know when you have so much support in the country you also have the responsibility to deliver the goods. Leadership is not easy; it carries with it a tremendous sense of responsibility.

I feel that as leader of the PPP I have a certain flexibility and maneuverability which I would not have if it was an alliance. For instance, when we were abroad, they gave statements that Begum Sahiba should come back to Pakistan. Really, how can they judge? We are the people who have defended democracy. What we were doing was in the interest of our struggle. We could not surrender our autonomy of decision-making to others because people had entrusted us with the leadership to guide them. Then when I came back and I said we will not do anything till December 31, they said, 'Who is she to say nothing till December 31; the MRD has not passed the decision.' Then when I went to America, they said, 'Who is she to go to America? She's tarnished the MRD image.'

How can I tarnish their image when I talk of human rights, when I talk of democracy? The people of Pakistan know that I can't. These sort of attacks are unfair and also, when they come from your own alliance then people think, 'Wait a minute, what is happening.' But if you don't have an alliance, you say, 'Okay, that is your view, our view is separate.'

Asghar Khan registered his party. I got a call that the MRD was breaking up because of Asghar Khan. I said, 'Okay, let him register. Save your tears, we have our views too. We're together for elections, aren't we?'

Then they said that Wali Khan has said that he does not accept the '73 constitution. I said, 'Let him not. He's got his party, we've got our party. Others have got their parties. Why do you want to split?' I think it's important for political parties to have flexibility, to have maneuverability because that makes a more sound basis for cooperation.

Herald. Would you consider an electoral alliance with some parties?

Benazir. Not electoral alliance but we can discuss the question of elections with parties at an appropriate time. I've never ruled that out. But I have ruled out losing initiative and not having flexibility and maneuverability. It is important to have cohesiveness, which you cannot have if there are so many divergent views.

Herald. How do you feel being the leader of the largest political party in the country?

Benazir. Well, it's a tremendous honour and a tremendous responsibility.

Herald. What were the reasons for the collapse of the PPP organisation in 1977?

Benazir. Factionalism.

Herald. Don't you think the party leadership too was responsible to a certain extent? A lot of people who lost in the '70 elections were given party tickets in '77.

Benazir. Oh, now you will say that we are talking of giving party tickets to those who appeared on Zulm ki Dastan and said that Mr. Bhutto should be assassinated, right? Because that's what we are being asked to do. It's not that. Parties have to broaden their base.

What occurred when the party was three years old? Many people came in but we did not have support. A party has got to have two things: it's got to have credibility and a programme. It's got to have a programme and a personality. You can have a thousand programmes but if you do not have a personality, it does not mean anything.

Mr. Bhutto's personality had the credibility factor that he would do things. His own long struggle gave that credibility factor. But many people thought no. And as soon as he came in, Khurshid Hasan Meer. Hanif Ramay, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Khar and J A Rahim - they all created problems. Nobody worked as a team. At the Hala conference they even said, 'Well, now we are fighting the elections and we'll see who is going to lose.' Such things are on public record! That gave birth to factionalism. Even lately, people were saying, 'Benazir is both an asset and a liability. She's an asset - we need her for the votes - but she's a liability - what will we do with her afterwards.'

The fact of the matter is that my father couldn't be manipulated. I can't be manipulated because l am there for principles. And if I do something people look towards me. And I can't become a little rubber stamp or a pawn in the hands of manipulating forces. I am prepared to take risks and I am prepared to take their consequences. But I take calculated risks. I don't just take risks in a vacuum and I also believe in doing my homework.

So getting back to the point, our party was driven by factionalism to such an extent that if Mr. Bhutto gave somebody a task to do, the task would not be done. Even books that we printed to be distributed to party workers were never distributed. And in the end, he had to ask the bureaucrats to get the job done; he was compelled. He never depended on the bureaucrats, he always tried to depend on the ministers (for support) but unfortunately that was not there; it was the first glow of power.

I remember I was travelling in a taxi once. The taxi driver didn't know who I was. My father was always well-known, so I have always been in the public limelight and I've always liked my privacy too. So if somebody doesn't know who I am, I never tell them who I am. I pretend I'm somebody else. I asked him what he thought of Bhutto Sahib. And he said, 'Ayub's sons were responsible for his downfall and Bhutto's ministers are going to bring him down.

Recently someone said something about Ayub's sons, Bhutto's ministers and Benazir's uncles ... I don't know whether I should be saying this. I hope it's not going to happen.

Herald. Do you think Mr. Bhutto's life might have been saved if the People's Party leadership had mobilised the masses?

Benazir. I certainly think a call should have been given when I sent a message from Sihala. But that call was not given. I sent a message that they were calling us for the last meeting with my father and that something should be done. In fact BBC said, 'Benazir has panicked.'

Herald. But one PPP leader said that Mr. Bhutto had forbidden them to take out processions?

Benazir. That is not true at all. Many wrong things have been said. In fact it hurts me greatly to see people who owe everything in their political life to Mr Bhutto, now saying things which are not true at all.

I heard one leader say, 'Mr. Bhutto told me not to give a call.' Can you imagine? Firstly, he told Mr. Bhutto, 'I don't think people will come out. But if you insist I'll give a call. Do you think I should?' Mr. Bhutto shrugged his shoulders and told me, 'Can you imagine? Here I am sitting in a death cell with the gallows around my neck and he's telling me people are not coming out. '

Another man had said, 'Mr. Bhutto wanted to put martial law and I said don't put martial law.' Well, he rang up on election day and said, 'Please declare martial law,' and Mr. Bhutto said, ''Let's lose all the seats, but I don't want to declare martial law.'

It's very unfair. People just come out and say whatever. And I guess that's why the people of the country turned to me. They knew that at least what I said would be true and I would not go against my own people.

So much has been said about me which is unfair. I don't respond. Attempts have been made to provoke me into responding, but I don't respond. Be cause I think it's much better to do what one thinks is right than to get into tu tu main main. I hate this negativism. I hope I am a positive person. I've always been optimistic: that I could get things going.

Herald. So you are optimistic that elections will be held this year?

Benazir. I am optimistic only because of the confidence of the people. I am confident; I feel the time has come. I feel that internationally and internally somehow certain social and political forces have been let loose which if channelised properly can certainly lead to elections. There were certain subjective and objective factors which had nothing to do with us but one needed that perception to see them, including the withdrawal of the military courts, including the assembly, including his not making a new chief of army staff.

These were very important indicators. And it was important to try and channelise them. And yes, l feel confident, not for my sake but for the sake of Pakistan and its people.

Photo by Azhar Jafri
Photo by Azhar Jafri

Herald. The army has always played a crucial role in any political change in the country. Do you see the danger of another martial law?

Benazir. Let's hope we can avoid it. That's why we are staying peaceful; that's why we want to involve this assembly about which we too have certain reservations. If we just go in for a movement it may or may not be a step towards full democracy. We would prefer to have full democracy. As far as Zia is concerned, his time is finished. He has to decide which way he wants to go. His time is over.

Herald. On the Afghan issue, most MRD parties are for direct talks with the Karmal regime. You seem to have taken a different stance?

Benazir. I haven't. I have said that we must attain our objective. Direct, indirect is not so important. We should not lose sight of our main objective.

It's not my concern, the internal problems of other countries. My concern is my own country and the consequences for it. And for that I do think it is important that the Soviet troops withdraw and that conditions are created for the refugees to go back because tensions are resulting from this problem. I would like to see it resolved as soon as possible. But I can't just say something which is in the American camp or which is in the Soviet camp. I always try to keep in mind the people of Pakistan.

When I went to America, I was asked, 'Can we stop aid for nuclear issues?' I said, 'No,' even though the nuclear issue is something which causes a lot of misunderstading. So I can never be a party to something which harms my own country's interest. I can never be so selfish.

Herald. Some people say that you are a pragmatist while your father was an idealist. Do you agree?

Benazir. Well I think both of us are realists. I learnt my politics beside him. Whatever I know, I know from him - everything. He trained me, he taught me, he showed me. All my life, I grew up in a political atmosphere. I know there were people who, because I am young, because I am a girl and maybe because they've seen me speaking politely to people - you know how we have takalluf and riwayat and I'm very polite but being polite does not mean I'm weak - thought they could pressurise me or manipulate me, but they should have known that I'm Mr. Bhutto's daughter. It just can't happen. And Inshallah because of the prayers and the support of the workers, it won't happen.

Now too, I welcome everybody in the party but I do say, 'Work with discipline, and a sense of unity and dedication. Don't work for personal belief.' I can be given recommendations but I have the right to ask others for their views too. And I must take a decision on merit because in the end I am answerable, nobody else. l can't say so and so told me to do it. Even my disagreements with other people were not on policy: they came up on a personal basis. It was difficult for certain people. And well, I think a time will come when one can speak at greater length.

But it's been a long haul. It hasn't been easy. It's been difficult. And whatever courage I have, and if I am staying on in the field, it's because I have had the greatest support from the party workers.

They're like my shield. Whenever they see an attack on me or a conspiracy against me, they come forward - and that's how I like it to be. Like they think in the old chauvinistic way: she's a woman, she's an orphan, she doesn't have any brothers, she doesn't have any uncles. Who'll support her? Well, my party workers are looking after me.


The article was published in the Herald's May 1986 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.