Memories, pain and grief
HAVING been fairly sceptical and critical of Benazir Bhutto since my resignation from the PPP in 1995, during her second tenure as prime minister (1993-1996), I was shocked at my own self for two of my reactions on Dec 27.
In the afternoon, in response to a friend’s question as to who I would vote for on Jan 8, 2008 , I spontaneously replied to the effect that if I did vote, it would be for the PPP. In view of my earlier condemnation of the decision by major parties to take part in the polls being held under a dispensation violative of the fundamental principles of justice and fairness, I was surprised at my own answer.
Despite all my reservations, developed over the past decade and more, about certain aspects of PPP’s top leadership, I have now come to realise that if the electoral process is to be used to combat the demons of darkness in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was the most potent rallying point to combine the forces of modernism and secularism.
To recognise her primacy in the struggle against obscurantism was not to detract from the sincerity or the strength of other political personalities and parties that share the same broad approach. By being forthright on this issue, by refusing to equivocate with provisos and qualifiers, she was mobilising a new politically credible resistance to primitivism.
My second reaction on Dec 27 came when I heard of her death on my way home. Fortunately, I was not on the steering wheel. The driver too was taken aback by my reaction. Leave alone he, I too was unprepared for the pain and grief that suddenly surged in me.
Between the tears and gasps of shock, there came up enormous affection and empathy for her, sentiments I had obviously pummelled deep inside my psyche over the past ten years, as one’s cerebral views took over almost entirely from partly emotional responses.
Our first meeting was in 1986. As a member of the independent parliamentary opposition group I joined other members in welcoming her to a meeting in Rawalpindi. Our last meeting turned into a three-hour, one-on-one lunch in, of all places, Damascus in 2000 where she had come to pay homage to a good old friend of the Bhutto family, the late President Hafez al Assad. I was representing Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf at the state funeral.
We maintained a cordial, formal and sometimes warm relationship. In the past seven years, on random occasions, through common friends, we exchanged brief messages of goodwill. But now I regret I did not make an attempt to seek a meeting since our last chance encounter.
In the 15 years during which we did meet, particularly in the 1988-1990 phase in which I served in her first cabinet as minister of state for information and broadcasting and later, for science and technology, I often became conscious of her vulnerability and her fragility, qualities that one does not normally associate with a person of exceptional verve, composure and determination.
Behind her public persona of a bold defiance of dictators, of her bland, imperturbable expression that would deflect and reject queries from interviewers about corruption charges, there existed a sensitive private person thrust into public life through cruel twists and turns without a single day’s direct experience of parliamentary membership or of executive responsibility.
To be the daughter of a famous leader long accustomed to public office is one thing. To become prime minister in her own right, in a sense overnight, at a critical period without any prior personal exposure to public office caused severe stress and strain on her, is another. On rare occasions, these became visible. This made her all the more endearing.
My working relationship with Benazir Bhutto was sometimes tense and troubled, marked by strong disagreements on some policy issues. Yet there was also amiability, affinity and humour. Whatever the mood or situation, it was always memorable. In spite of our divergent perceptions on certain issues, she sometimes entrusted me with extremely important tasks, a confidence on her part which I greatly respected.
She was a leader of global calibre, and not just a daughter of the east. She inherited a powerful political legacy and sustained it in many ways while also enhancing it in some respects and diminishing it in others. In the new era of globalisation in the last two decades of the 20th century, in the face of dramatic geopolitical changes that swept the world, in the context of the traumatic turmoil that has marked Pakistan’s history in the first seven years of the 21st century, she remained, at home and in self-exile, a unique and formidable leader.
Assassinated by a cabal of cowards and conspirators who should be urgently traced and punished, her tragic loss opens up new challenges for society and the state of Pakistan. Every citizen who felt the grief and the pain at her demise now has a duty to render an active role to curb mayhem and disorder, to unite all progressive forces and to achieve the ideals she fought for.
More than ever before, there is a need to secure and strengthen the Federation of Pakistan for which she sacrificed her life.
The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister.
Her march into history
OPEN a newspaper or tune in a news channel and odds of Pakistan being in the headlines are at least 50-50. But Dec 27, 2007, would sadly be immortalised in the annals of history.
It is the day when the leader of Pakistan’s largest political party, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated. Despite the fact that Ms Bhutto was not a sitting prime minister, her assassination would be remembered as an event that shook the world, just like the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy did decades ago.
Who is to be blamed for her brutal assassination would be debated for a long time, but there is little doubt that her untimely death will shake the foundations of Pakistan. The gravity and the magnitude of the tragedy could be judged from the fact that virtually every single news media outlet was exclusively focused on her assassination. The news of her death triggered the sell offs on the Wall Street, dipping the stocks deep into negative territory. In impromptu press conferences world leaders like the US President Bush and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon did not lose a moment in condemning her assassination.
It would be hard to imagine how the Musharraf government could have had any role in Ms Bhutto’s assassination; because even a person with marginal intelligence could foresee how even a hint of the government’s complicity in the crime would spell the end of Musharraf’s rule. And still, at minimum, Ms Bhutto’s assassination will write the final chapter of Musharraf’s rule.
Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Pakistan’s first-elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Media savvy Ms Bhutto was considered to be a contemporary political genius rivalling the likes of President Bill Clinton. Outside the political arena, Ms Bhutto was widely believed to be a devout mother and a sincere wife. Regardless of one’s political differences, millions upon millions of Pakistanis revered the daughter of Pakistan for the distinction of becoming the first ever female prime minister of a male-dominated Muslim country. One can criticise her for the way she ran her governments in her two terms, but one cannot deny her invaluable services in strengthening the roots of democracy in Pakistan. She proved her resolve by courageously standing her ground in the face of not one but two military dictators. There is hardly any doubt that had she lived long enough, she would have swept the Pakistani elections, but her untimely exit at the verge of political victory over a military dictator will earn her political immortality. History will see to it that Benazir Bhutto’s name will be written alongside the names of political giants like Sir Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy.
I may add here on a personal note that I have been a hard-hitting critic of Benazir Bhutto’s party and her political career. But I believe in defeating or marginalising a politician through votes or arguments, and not through violence or the cowardly act of suicide bombing. The only time I spoke directly to her was on CNN’s Larry King Live show in the mid-90s. She was kind and courteous to address my concerns in detail. She left me impressed by the depth and clarity of her knowledge.
Rest well, rest well daughter of the east. May your ultimate sacrifice bring sanity and peace in the lives of tired and grieving Pakistanis.
The end of a journey
SO the much feared end has come. Benazir Bhutto is no more. Ever since she was sworn in as prime minister 19 years ago, she had lived under the shadow of sudden and violent death at the hands of those who bitterly opposed her in the name of religion, patriotism, or out of sheer hatred of her for she was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter. Today they have succeeded and all of us have lost.
One is unable to reconcile with the fact that Benazir is no more, but the reality, howsoever nightmarish, cannot be blotted out of one’s mind. It cannot be wished away. Our days of mourning are going to be long, hard and bitter. Long will we helplessly fiddle with the possible consequences we cannot guess, with the future we cannot know, with the ramifications we cannot comprehend yet. Long will we remain mired in ever new controversies, conflicts and uncertainties, but one thing is for sure: mad men will have more influence on our lives than the sane, even if they are much larger in numbers.
In a moment like this one feels bitter about things that ordinarily do not cross one’s mind. Why do, one may ask, good men and women fall easy prey to killers and murderers, while the evil men generally do not? Gandhi, Kennedy and Sadat fell easily with a single shot, but no one ever attempted to kill Stalin, Franco, or Pol Pot.
Hitler even survived a bomb blast. Benazir Bhutto dodged fate for two decades but, at last, fell to the assassin’s bullets. Such are the puzzles of life that we mortals are asked to unravel.
Much will be written and spoken about Benazir by her friends and foes, admirers and detractors, for years to come. A lot of it will be based on half-truths, hearsay or deliberate effort to edit the truth either way. Such is history as told by historians, often if not always.
She did, indeed, make mistakes, even blunders, as all great leaders have, but, surely she had some great qualities that made her a leader of global charisma. She did indeed inherit the formidable mantle of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but was not worn down by the weight of it. Instead she gave it a touch of her own that fascinated, inspired and enchanted millions of her admirers across the country and abroad. Often in most unexpected places.
Within one week of her taking over as prime minister in December 1988, the hastily reassembled prime minister’s secretariat (it had been disbanded after the dismissal of the Junejo government) was flooded with more than one hundred thousand letters and telegrams from across the country and all over the world.
The small staff at that time could hardly cope with that. Most of it remained unopened and unread. Among those that were read was a letter received through the Soviet embassy. It was a letter sent by an octogenarian from Uzbekistan who was that very day celebrating the birth of his 28th grandchild.
He had written the letter to Benazir to congratulate her and inform her that he had named his newly born grand daughter Benazir. All of us in the secretariat were thrilled at the thought that an old man in Uzbekistan, who probably did not even know who the queen of England was, or who the president of the US was, knew our prime minister and was inspired by her. Such was her global charisma. But how about her blunders?
It is commonly believed, and almost taken for granted that her first administration failed to complete its constitutional tenure because of her inexperience and her arrogant disdain for the ‘seniors’ of the party. This day is, perhaps, as good an occasion as any to correct this notion while memory serves.
There are many examples that would clear this notion but let us consider the biggest cause of controversy: her moves against the provincial governments of Punjab and Balochistan during the early months of her first administration.
One of her staff members suggested to her as early as April 1989 that in order to have a stable civil administration, free from the machinations of the visible and invisible hands, she should try to form a coalition with the Muslim League. The coalition government should be led by the Muslim League in the Punjab and by the People’s Party at the centre. It may surprise most of the readers that contrary to the assumptions, impressions and stories about her confrontational politics, she liked the idea and found it worth pursuing further. But that could not happen.
The ‘seniors’ assured her, instead, that the Punjab government would be ‘toppled’ in a matter of weeks, and one senior party leader wrote a two-page letter explaining to her how the Balochistan government could be toppled. In the context of current politics, this is the most significant fact of her political life that should be widely known.
Had Benazir followed her own instincts (her first reactions were usually correct) our history after 1988 would have been quite different. Her phenomenal memory, her amazing stamina for work, her charming sense of humour, her courage and determination, her global support, would have steered the course of our history to a far better future.
But we cannot re-write history. For Benazir it is the end of her journey. For Pakistan it could be the beginning of the end.
The writer was Additional Secretary (Personal) in the PM’s secretariat in Dec 1988-Dec 1989.
Hope and dream of the poor
IN the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s shocking assassination, there is understandably more fog than clarity about the future of Pakistan. As her rightfully angry supporters take to the streets, Pakistan’s viability as a state is even under deeper scrutiny than usual from within and outside.
It is obvious that her loss will be felt in our politics and society for years to come. But right now, hours after ingesting non-stop televised doses of the horrific news of her demise, it still seems like a dreadful nightmare. With nightmares, however, there is at least the benefit of eventually waking up. In this case, there is just seemingly endless despair, helplessness and disbelief.
She cannot possibly be dead. If only she had stayed inside the car. If only this or that had happened, she would still be alive. But slowly denial turns to outrage. The state could have done more to save her. She was the democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan, twice. She had been asking for more robust security, which was denied her time and again.
This is no time to point fingers, but her death is not something that the establishment should be allowed to sweep under the carpet. It is a crime against the people of Pakistan, and they deserve to know at least for once why a popular leader has been killed and by whom?
Her chilling email message to Mark Siegel, her friend and confidante in Washington, DC, written on Oct 26 points to the complicity of the highest office of the state. In that message which was to be disclosed in the event of her death, she wrote: “I have been made to feel insecure by his (Musharraf’s) minions...There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him.”
Be that as it may, how does one respond to her loss? There is little consolation in believing that popular leaders live in their death more than in their mortal life. It would not be unreasonable to say that by following in her father’s footsteps, she has once again immortalised the Bhutto legacy and charisma. But her death feels like a mortal blow in the gut, and not only because it is a cruel reminder of our own mortality.
The larger than life Benazir Bhutto, the public orator, the populist politician, the former premier, is no more and there is nothing anyone of us can do about that. She was flesh and blood like all of us. But she was much more.
She represented the hope, the desire, and the dream of a better Pakistan for poor, working class Pakistanis unable to cope with the grinding poverty and inflation rained upon them by the bureaucratic-authoritarian coalition that rules Pakistan by coercion. It was no surprise that they turned out in the hundreds of thousands to greet her despite a clear and present danger to their own lives.
She was not perfect. But no one is, at least not in the overexposed world of public life. It is no surprise that she had many detractors, especially on the right of the political spectrum. The military establishment was always suspicious of the ‘populist’ legacy she inherited and espoused, not to mention her conciliatory policy towards regional conflicts. So they left no stone unturned to tarnish her political credibility by singling her out as the “most corrupt politician”.
The extremists loathed her bold stance against their violent, anti-democratic politics. Even for many so-called democratic-liberals in civil society, she was just a power grabbing politician disguised in secular/moderate trappings, who had cut a deal with the generals to conceal her corrupt practices.
But in her conviction to stick her neck out for her political beliefs and in her death, she has silenced her detractors. After all, she did not have to expose herself and her family to the risk of her violent death. But she chose to.
They say there is the Kennedy curse. There surely is the Bhutto curse too. Virtually the entire family has been wiped out in this or that criminal conspiracy. But as distasteful as dynastic politics might be to Pakistan’s anti-political state and societal elites, the fact is that political leaders enjoying nation-wide support are not born every day. They cannot be harvested, or genetically incarnated, and not for lack of trying. After all, the military, at least since General Ayub Khan’s time, has tried and failed to master that science.
Her death is a loss to Pakistan and its people -- an exceptional calamity whose significance extends far beyond the end of her life. Given her international stature and her domestic legitimacy, she offered the hope of a progressive Pakistan at peace within and with its neighbours. As a national leader whose appeal stretched from Khyber to Karachi, she symbolised Pakistan’s ability to exist as a viable democratic nation capable of dealing with its internal divisions peacefully.
Before her assassination, Pakistan was potentially inching closer to a democratic centre that she and the country’s only other national leader, former premier Nawaz Sharif, were trying to build despite their differences. Today, we are in a veritable mess. She is gone forever and he stands wrongfully disqualified from holding public office. Elections or no elections, the real question remains: How many more national leaders and tragedies would it take for the generals to realise that they have basically taken us to hell in a hand-basket?
|© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007|