An ode to Benazir Bhutto

However, it can be noted that increasingly, political forces on the right, including the PTI and PML (N), and their leaders openly laud the democratic credentials and legacy of Benazir Bhutto.

In the context of the health of the democratic consolidation process in Pakistan, the shockingly brutal assassination of the two-time elected Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, in mysterious circumstances in Rawalpindi at the tail end of 2007, was a devastating event, with injurious consequences. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) lost its charismatic party chief, and entered into a massive leadership crisis as a vacuum emerged which still remains unfulfilled for the most part, while the already weak civilian-political sphere in Pakistan missed out on a populist leader, who was, by then, amply experienced in matters of statecraft, and someone who possessed the necessary leadership skills and life experiences to pragmatically steer the political system out of an existential crisis - ensued by civil-military imbalances, widespread institutional decay and a security quagmire heightened by the threat of religious extremists - all of which had been exacerbated by a decade of short-sighted martial rule under Pervez Musharraf.  It is, seemingly, in the interest of hawks within the Pakistani establishment to vilify, demonise and ultimately, erase, autonomous political actors who can act by their own volition, and Benazir Bhutto, the first elected Muslim female head of state in the world, was exactly that - an anti-thesis to the chauvinism of the preponderant bureaucracies and their yes-men, and therefore, a major force to be reckoned with.

PPP mentions, in the currently antagonistic and hostile political climate, especially in the Punjab, tend to generate feelings of mistrust and suspicion, especially amongst the urban intelligentsia, and the affluent classes in Pakistan, in the backdrop of mixed results performance-wise of the PPP-led coalition government at the Centre from 2008-13, as perceptions (whether true or false) of rampant corruption, and a failure to control the onslaught of religious terrorism and the energy crisis, ultimately led the party to flop in the Punjab, as well as the federal electoral arena in the 2013 General Elections. However, it can be noted that increasingly, political forces on the right, including the PTI and PML (N), and their leaders openly laud the democratic credentials and legacy of Benazir Bhutto. But, ironically, this happened only after her demise, and the nature of the responses is opportunistic and strikingly similar to the ones that her slain father, former PM Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, received from adversaries who were hell bent on  assassinating his character during his lifetime, too. It goes without saying that the PML (N) leadership must have swallowed a bitter pill when they tried to project Maryam Nawaz as the second coming of Benazir Bhutto - cynical on most counts because they once, aided by the military agencies, tried to ostracise Benazir by using the clergy, to delegitimise her political credentials, and are now willing to use her legend for their selfish ends. In an infamous incident, the then IJI, led by the ISI and Nawaz Sharif used a cleric at the Badshahi Mosque who gave sermons suggesting that anybody who voted for the PPP was going against the dictates of Islam because in their concocted version, her Nikkah had “broken” and hence she was now, seemingly, expelled from the ambit of Islam. That, and many other devious mechanisms were used by the right-wing Punjabi establishment, including using the logistical support of the petrodollars of Osama Bin Laden to actively campaign against the PPP, and the Supreme Court judgement in the infamous Asghar Khan case against the IJI and the intelligence agencies of Pakistan bears testimony to the fact that the military establishment was ready to use any trick in the game to deter the PPP and attempt to stop Benazir Bhutto from practicing the noble art of politics. But she stood firm and never conceded her ground. Her spouse, and former President, Asif Ali Zardari, were kept in jails for fake cases, for twelve years, as the prime time of her married life was spent in courts and dispelling fake rumors of corruption against her husband and herself, which were cynically spread without a single case being proven, ever. It seems highly ironic, that, when Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s name, who does not have an iota of experience in terms of political struggle, was being put forward by the PML (N) as the heir to Nawaz Sharif’s legacy, she was being projected as being capable enough to play the role the Benazir Bhutto played ever so successfully. The same Benazir they once ostracised as if it were their religious duty.

PTI party chief, Imran Khan Niazi, however, failed to show up at even her funeral, or offer condolences, suggesting that Benazir Bhutto was herself to blame when the Karsaz bomb blast attack left hundreds of PPP party workers dead, in an attack by terrorists on Benazir Bhutto the day she returned to her homeland after almost a decade of self-imposed exile. Benazir Bhutto, despite repeated warnings of her husband to not trust the security arrangements provided by the martial law regime continued to openly condemn terrorism and project democratic institutionalisation as the antidote. She dared to name the terrorists that she rightly understood were destroying the peace with the innocent civilian populations of Pakistan by instilling fear in their hearts and minds and killing them violently. She lost her life in the process, but her position that you could kill a person, but not an ideal remains as relevant as ever.

Benazir Bhutto did not choose to be in politics, her entry into politics was offset by her father’s unnatural death in a sham trial, and the consequential house arrest by the Zia regime. She had no choice but to further the ideological spirit of her father’s political struggle, and it was a matter of life and death from the onset. In a similar manner, her unnatural death, and the dictates of the Bhutto legacy mandate that her son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari now leads the charge for the party, keeping in mind the traditional legitimacy of the Bhutto name in Sindh and the wishes of the party workers. This might seem anti-democratic to someone who is committing the folly of analysing Pakistani politics from a Eurocentric lens, and trying to suggest that dynastic politics has no place in a democratic setting, but in the Pakistan specific post-colonial political context, that sort of lens might not be appropriate if proper analytical purchase is sought as an end in itself. For the careful political analyst, it remains a serious point to wonder, in hindsight, what might have happened to Benazir Bhutto at the helm, especially with her spirited and brave stances against religious terrorism, the Pakistani establishment’s ill-fated policy of “good Taliban, bad Taliban,” and her social-democratic promises to struggle for the plight of the working classes? But hindsight is generally more tragic than helpful. There was more to Benazir Bhutto than mere rhetoric, and she was determined to pursue her left-leaning ideals no matter what came her way - a lesson which every political party in Pakistan, irrespective of sectional partisan leanings, including the PPP (which is increasingly pursuing traditional politics in a move away from the Left) needs to learn from.

However, it can be noted that increasingly, political forces on the right, including the PTI and PML (N), and their leaders openly laud the democratic credentials and legacy of Benazir Bhutto.

The writer is a faculty member at the Department of Political Science at Forman Christian College University.

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