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June 18, 2017


At the age of 19, Benazir Bhutto’s visit to Simla, India, on July 3, 1972, with her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was her first foray into Pakistan’s political arena | AP
At the age of 19, Benazir Bhutto’s visit to Simla, India, on July 3, 1972, with her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was her first foray into Pakistan’s political arena | AP

Benazir Bhutto has always cut a paradoxical figure in Pakistan. Born into immense privilege and growing up in a milieu largely disconnected from the travails of the people she would rule as prime minister, she nonetheless forged a connection with millions of people across Pakistan after inheriting the mantle of socialist politics from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

She was viewed as a beacon of liberal and progressive values even when two terms of often incompetent and undoubtedly corrupt government took much of the lustre off her reputation. For many of her supporters, Benazir was, more than anything else, a prisoner of her circumstances, forever constrained and impeded by an authoritarian, patriarchal political system that curbed her ambitions and sabotaged her governments. For her opponents, her personal flaws — arrogance, a sense of entitlement and increasingly unabashed venality — inevitably proved to be her undoing.

In Benazir Bhutto: Favored Daughter, Brooke Allen presents an eminently readable and engaging portrait of Pakistan’s youngest and first female prime minister, drawing on previously published work and interviews with some of Benazir’s closest friends and advisers to construct a narrative that illustrates the contradictory tendencies underpinning her life. Beginning with a brief history of her family, ending with the events leading to her assassination, and interspersed with insightful, everyday anecdotes, the book is an engaging account of Benazir’s youthful naiveté, her unexpected courage and fortitude during the Zia years, her undeniable charisma, and her growth as a seasoned politician of national stature.

An engaging portrait that attempts to explain the appeal and charisma of Benazir Bhutto

The first third of the book deals mostly with the elder Bhutto’s political journey and provides context for understanding the circumstances in which Benazir was born and raised. As a flamboyant member of the wealthy elite, with a penchant for expensive clothes and lavish dinners, Z.A. Bhutto’s meteoric rise to power was heralded as an epochal moment in Pakistan’s history. It was now that Benazir, till then leading a cosseted life in Karachi and as a student in the United States, was first exposed to Pakistani politics, as she accompanied her father to negotiations with India’s Indira Gandhi at Simla in 1972. Benazir cut a glamorous figure, writes Allen, as she stood by her father, showing the first signs of the charisma and political talent that would see her become prime minister less than two decades later.

Allen documents the culture shock Benazir experienced upon first moving to the US, and how she slowly but inexorably became involved in student politics. More significant was her debating career, which culminated in her being elected president of the Oxford Union. It was during her time abroad that Benazir developed friendships with people such as Peter Galbraith (an interview with whom is extensively cited in the book), who would go on to become one of America’s top diplomats.

Allen does not explain the exact circumstances leading to the coup that ended Z.A. Bhutto’s government — and life — in any detail. Instead, the focus is on his personality which — like his daughter’s — revealed a tendency towards monarchical, autocratic conduct masked by a veneer of charm and charisma. However, Allen’s account of the events immediately following the coup helps establish precisely how Benazir came to head the PPP over her brothers Murtaza and Shahnawaz.

Fearing that his male heirs would be obvious targets for the Zia regime, Bhutto had them move abroad, thus creating the space within which Benazir and her mother, Nusrat, could assume control of the party. Benazir remained in Pakistan, was subjected to intimidation and imprisonment and at one point kept in solitary confinement in a cell in Sukkur for five months, a period during which her health severely deteriorated.

This is an important detail because it highlights how, despite her many failings, Benazir was a woman of tremendous courage. Moving to London in 1984 — partly to recover from her time in prison — she immediately set about organising the PPP to continue in its efforts to oppose Gen Ziaul Haq. As her international profile rose despite the Reagan administration’s ambivalence towards her (given the central role played by the Zia regime in countering the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), Benazir returned to Pakistan in 1986 following concessions towards democratisation made by the government.

As Allen points out, Benazir’s first term in office was marred by compromise before it even began. The powerful troika of chief of army staff Gen Mirza Aslam Beg, head of Inter-Services Intelligence Gen Hamid Gul, and president Ghulam Ishaq Khan had secured guarantees that they would retain their positions following the elections. They continued shaping domestic and foreign policy, essentially sidelining Benazir from the decision-making process, and she spent the rest of her rule contending with an establishment and opposition colluding to undermine her government. Matters were not helped by allegations of corruption, at the heart of which was her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who had earned himself the sobriquet of Mr 10 Percent.

During Benazir’s second tenure in 1993, the PPP’s reputation for corruption grew, adding to the general perception that it was unable to deliver effective governance. As Allen points out, inequality and poverty worsened during the 1990s, national debt ballooned and Pakistan’s international standing deteriorated following the end of the Afghan war.

On one level, Benazir’s fall from grace was surprising: as a champion of democracy and the rule of law, the expectation was that she would usher in a new era of participatory government. However, as Allen implies in the last third of the book, Benazir essentially fell prey to the same kinds of character failings that had arguably undone her father: a paternalistic, quasi-feudal approach towards Pakistan’s citizens, a tendency towards autocratic behaviour and a lack of interest in actual policy that contradicted the rhetoric of her speeches and interviews. Moreover, Allen also correctly points out that unlike her father, Benazir was not particularly committed to socialist ideals. Neo-liberal in economic terms, hawkish on nuclear power and foreign policy, ambivalent about feminism and often willing to use religion as a means through which to justify and legitimise her rule (as well as the veneration of her father), Benazir was never really the progressive champion she was portrayed as.

While Allen does a good job of explaining how the military establishment hampered Benazir’s first years in power, less explanation is provided for the allegations of corruption against her and her husband. It is widely believed that Zardari amassed tremendous wealth and influence when his wife was in power. This would not have been possible without Benazir’s tacit approval, but no real reasons emerge for why her shortcomings as a leader would necessarily lead to corruption when in office.

While her supporters would undoubtedly argue that the allegations were politically motivated and entirely spurious, nevertheless Benazir emerged from the 1990s a much reduced and tarnished figure. That her return to Pakistan in 2007 was facilitated through a deal guaranteeing immunity from further prosecution in exchange for her political support did little to burnish her reputation.

Nonetheless, while the crowds that greeted Benazir in 2007 were smaller than those that had assembled 20 years earlier, they were still significant enough to demonstrate her enduring political relevance. That she was able to return at all also served to reinforce her centrality as one of Pakistan’s top leaders. Her assassination generated a wave of sympathy that saw her party win the elections of 2008, and though she may have left behind a decidedly mixed legacy, it cannot be denied that she was one of the most fascinating figures in Pakistan’s political history.

The reviewer is assistant professor of political science at Lums

Benazir Bhutto: Favored Daughter
By Brooke Allen
New Harvest, US
ISBN: 978-0544648937

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 18th, 2017