Pakistan Without Benazir

Pakistan Without Benazir

The deeply flawed, arresting, autocratic Benazir Bhutto had the wherewithal to save her country but repeatedly disappointed. Yet she represented the best secular option for breaching Pakistan’s multiple fissures.


When news of Benazir’s assassination broke, my nephew gasped, “She can’t be dead! She’s always been a part of my life. Always.” So strong and ubiquitous was her presence over the last twenty years that he cannot imagine a Pakistan without her. No one can. She grew up in the public eye, and we all knew her through her various incarnations from pimply adolescent to the first female leader of a Muslim nation. Dressed in her signature Seven-Up green shalwar kameez, her head covered by a white chiffon scarf, this arresting, contradictory woman, with an impossibly tragi-glamorous family history, had the wherewithal to save her country but repeatedly disappointed. She was consistent only in her bravery. I, along with others, had expected so much from her the day that she was swept to power in 1988, washing away a decade of General Zia’s military oppression. We all hoped this third opportunity would see her redeeming her past failings; the religious extremists put paid to that.

There is a strong element of predestination to her life and death. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a charismatic and ruthlessly ambitious demagogue who created the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the only political party with a national footprint. A complex personality, he was ultimately most true to his roots as a feudal land owner. He espoused socialist principles, but his politics were about the cult of his personality. He said he was a man of the people, but his lieutenants were hand-picked from among privileged classes. He claimed to be a nationalist, yet his personal ambition paved the way for the dismemberment of the nation in 1971 and for an orgy of vindictive and economically ruinous nationalizations. The eldest of four, “Pinky” was the apple of her father’s eye and, unusually in a traditional society, his anointed successor; dynastic ambition trumped any pretense at democratic process.

Probably more than we realize, she was a creature of her father, mirroring many of his own paradoxes but without his petty vindictiveness. Like him, her Western liberal persona was cultivated and nurtured at Western academic institutions, first Harvard then Oxford (where she was president of the Union). These experiences honed her sharp mind and inculcated easy familiarity with Western liberal tradition. Additionally, she became well versed in objective analysis, debate and persuasion. However, a strong sense of entitlement and an autocratic nature were also part of the patrimony. This duality wrestled for her soul and largely explains her blemished political history.

Constantly stressing her relationship to her martyred father, Benazir made leadership of the People’s Party contingent on bloodline rather than political ability. Squabbling with her mother, she appointed herself sole Chairperson for life of an allegedly democratic institution. Like her father, she crushed aspirants to prominence within her party, and old stalwarts were ruthlessly sidelined. The creation of party structure came second to self projection. Her death leaves a leadership vacuum. Moreover, she could not distinguish between what was hers and what belonged to Pakistan, treating state assets and revenues as hers to dispense as favors to courtiers. She was dismissed twice on charges of personal corruption with her husband, widely dubbed “Mr. Ten Per Cent”; yet she refused to countenance any allegations of wrong doing.

Despite her failings, she will be sorely missed at a time when Pakistan needs unifying, far-sighted national leaders. She was a woman of great courage and political shrewdness, with a firm grasp of geopolitical realities and global economic imperatives. Alone among the entire democratic leadership of Pakistan, she understood the grave threat the country faced from religious extremists. And in an atmosphere of extreme hostility and suspicion towards America, she was brave enough to articulate that it was not just America’s war on terror but ours as well. She knew the risks and had already survived one bloody attack on her life. But in continuing to campaign openly, she refused to be cowed by extremists. Despite repeated warnings from military intelligence and her own oft-stated fears of assassination by Islamists, she was determined to confront this genie. In this final confrontation, there was a neat coincidence between her feudal patrimony (“It is my land”) and her democratic values. Flawed, she still represented the best secular option for breaching Pakistan’s multiple provincial, linguistic, ethnic, and social fissures. We will miss her.

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