By Shahid R. Siddiqi. Axis of Logic
Benazir Bhutto was assassinated
two years ago, December 27, 2007
DID BENAZIR DIE FOR DEMOCRACY?
Or is she being exalted in death to sanitize her successors who have leapfrogged into power?
South Asians are sentimental people. Their romanticism and devotion to revered historical icons and deities over several thousand years has shaped their political psyche of nurturing personality cults. To this add their ignorance about modern day political realities due to pervasive illiteracy and you will understand the reason behind the meteoric rise to power of charismatic albeit controversial leaders in recent history.
And when after their contentious stints with power these political heroes fell, mostly violently, their warts were removed to transform into martyrs, clearing the way for their dynasties to succeed them - a throwback of the ancient monarchical system. In India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, dynastic rule created turmoil from incompetence and misuse of power, stymied the development of political institutions and weakened nascent democracies. Such political heirs generally failed because they had leapfrogged into power without having evolved through political experience.
Pakistan saw Bhutto dynasty emerge after the judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979, a very popular leader and founder of Pakistan People’s Party, at the hands of General Ziaul Haq who had overthrown him in a coup in 1977. Benazir, the scion of Bhutto’s political dynasty, was one such heir who lived and died a controversial figure.
An insecure and inexperienced young woman at the time, Benazir was named political successor by her father from his death cell. From a novice, who struggled along with her widowed mother to run Bhutto’s political legacy, she matured into an astute politician, aggressive and enlightened, riding the sympathy wave created by her father’s tragic death and the ‘Bhutto’ name she inherited. The name continues to be revered by the poor to this day, for Bhutto had given them hope.
It goes to her credit that she fought her way though a wicked and hostile male-dominated world of Pakistani politics to carve a place for herself and go on to become the first woman prime minister. The harsh circumstances she endured en-route to power and the traits she inherited from her father shaped her psyche. She lost the gentle womanly touch in her personality, becoming manipulative and callous. Her actions were to prove later that she was no “champion of democracy” as some of her supporters and successors have called her. This is wholly a misstatement.
Benazir was inspired and tutored by her father. No wonder then that in many ways she was like him – he, who was a brilliant, charismatic, shrewd, ambitious, self centered and an autocratic politician with visceral hatred for dissent. To gain popular support he championed the cause of socialism and the poor when ironically he was a feudal to the core by birth and by temperament. Shortly after climbing to power, he discarded his socialistic garb, dumped his capable compatriots who could disagree with him and surrounded himself with political pygmies who danced to his tune. To him ruthlessness was an instrument of power. Machiavellian in mindset, he allowed Pakistan to dismember in 1971 because in that lay the promise of the power he sought. He and Benazir were different in one way though – he did not show that greed for money.
Despite her claim that she stood for the poor, Benazir remained an elitist and never personally identified herself with them. She was no Gandhi. She went to live in Cannes after her father’s death – an expensive resort city of French Riviera. And when came time to contest her first election, she chose the slums of Lyari (Karachi) as her constituency. How ironic: someone who lived in one of the richest places of Europe came to represent the poorest of the poor in Pakistan? But Lyari has remained the poorest slum in Karachi and a hub of crime, despite her two stints as prime minister.
|The home of Benazir and Zardari in Surrey, 70 miles south of London. She also had a home in Dubai and lived for periods in Cannes on the French Riviera.
Soon after ascending to power, Benazir mastered the art of manipulation and deception. She tolerated democracy because it was the only means by which she could get into power. How she ran her party was another matter, which she ruled as an autocrat. By getting herself appointed as party ‘chairperson for life’ – she rooted out any dissent and challenge to her authority.
Benazir was prime minister twice and both her governments were dismissed prematurely on charges of corruption and bad governance. Not only were her administrations generally marked by mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and social injustice, but she nominated her spouse, Asif Ali Zardari (now president) as minister in her cabinets twice and gave him a free hand to indulge in unfettered corruption that earned him the name of Mr. 10%. As a result, the couple came to be rated the second richest family in Pakistan.
Her human rights record was dismal too. She was criticized by Amnesty International and other Human Rights groups for death squads, abductions, torture and deaths of political detainees in police custody. Political opponents were hounded, harassed and jailed. Her own younger brother Murtaza Bhutto was murdered by the police in Karachi during her watch as prime minister. Murtaza’s widow claimed that Zardari was behind the murder but after a trial he was acquitted by the court. Murtaza, after returning to Pakistan from exile, had demanded party leadership and his share of the family fortune from Benazir.
After her second fall from power, without clearing her name from the charges of corruption and misuse of power, the leader of ‘Pakistan Peoples Party’ sneaked out of the country, abandoning ‘Pakistan’, her ‘People’ and her ‘Party’. The interests of the people and democracy did not matter.
An absconder from law, she termed her absence as ‘self exile’. In this ‘self exile’ Benazir continued to maintain her stranglehold over the party, knowing that emergence of alternate leadership would mean her political demise. It is widely known that after 2002 elections she refused to let her party’s senior vice chairman and an old loyalist accept General Musharraf’s offer to form federal government, sans Benazir. Instead, she allowed the opportunity to go to her opponents as she feared she would lose her ability to bargain her return to Pakistan with the Army. So much for her respect for democracy within her party!
Power is addictive. Benazir could not live without it. She knew that she was a persona non grata for the Army and hence any deal on her own was not possible.
A creature of insatiable ambition, she figured out that her safest bet was to ride back on the shoulders of the Americans who were looking for a credible and democratically electable partner willing to carry forward their agenda of ‘war on terror’. Aware that the Neocons were unhappy with General Musharraf for dragging his feet in committing hara-kiri by heeding their call to ‘do more’ against the Taliban, this was a perfect moment to sell her services. She had no qualms about bartering away Pakistan’s interests and partnering with those she had at one stage publicly accused of her father’s ‘murder’. It was now time to let bygones be bygones and seek their imperial shelter and support to gain power.
Benazir used her charm in the Western capitals to cultivate the political elite and the media, presenting herself as an astute, popular politician, a thoroughbred Western educated democrat and a proponent of human rights, struggling to restore democracy. For the Americans, she built her image as a brave Muslim woman, secular and liberal, willing to take on Muslim Jihadists.
The Americans saw in her a person who could succeed where Musharraf had failed – to provide a politically popular civilian face to a pro-American military government. They loved her theme song: “without her, democracy in Pakistan would be a lost cause” and cut a deal with her. In exchange for implementing the Neocon agenda she would assume power for the third time.
"Washington is behind me. I can't lose this opportunity. I have been waiting for it for nine years. We need to get Pakistan democratic again. I am needed here. It is now or never."
- Benazir Bhutto
A politically damaged and vulnerable Musharraf capitulated under American pressure and accepted a power sharing arrangement, absolving her of all corruption charges through an infamous US brokered legislation called ‘National Reconciliation Ordinance’ that washed off her and her spouse’s sins. She returned to the chants of “long live Benazir” by her constituents who were unaware that neither they, nor the country, nor democracy figured in the deals she had made in Washington. Insatiable urge for power did.
But this time around, power was not going to be hers. She died chasing power. She was killed by an assassin while campaigning for the elections on December 27, 2007. Her death has remained a mystery. Some allege that Al Qaeda or other extremist groups were behind it. But the more popular belief is that she paid the price for having reneged on her deal with Washington.
The tragedy spurred intense emotional response among her followers that was used by her widower Asif Zardari to position himself for leadership of her party. After her second fall from power Benazir had kept him away from politics under party pressure for having become an embarrassment and for bringing the party into disrepute. But this was his opportunity to catapult himself into the presidency that was later vacated by General Musharraf.
The party Benazir inherited from her father was treated as family heirloom upon her death. Like a scene from a Shakespearean play, her widowers pulled out and waved ‘her will’, scribbled on a piece of paper and questionable at best, before the party’s executive council whose members were too stunned to challenge it and he usurped the party. Most ludicrously, her teenage son hastened to suffix his name with ‘Bhutto’ to secure Pakistan’s throne in the future.
To sanitize their image, her political successors are now systematically creating her larger than life image and call her death ‘martyrdom’. They have coined slogans such as “Benazir died for restoration of democracy”. Had it not been un-Islamic, they might have gone as far as granting her sainthood. Even the American government took the unusual step of posthumously branding her a ‘champion of democracy’ through an advertisement in local newspapers on her first anniversary.
“The obituaries painting her [Benazir Bhutto] as dying to save democracy distort history”, said William Dalrymple (author of "The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857") in New York Times, January 4, 2008.
Those who extol her ‘democratic’ virtues do not make a convincing case. Her political record simply negates their claim. She neither served democracy nor human rights in her life or in her death. In fact, she had a disdain for both.
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Axis of Logic Columnist, Shahid R. Siddiqi
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