TEN years down the road, the wound inflicted by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is yet to be healed. Her death left a gap in Pakistan’s politics that is hard to fill. Her last words at the rally minutes before still resonate: “The country is in danger. We have to save it with the power of the people,” she exhorted her supporters. But the assassin reached her before Ms Bhutto could lead that battle to its end.
Twice prime minister, Ms Bhutto may not have been unimpeachable, but what distinguished her from other Pakistani politicians was her courage of conviction. Even her most bitter political opponents admire her for her determination, and her defiance of the religious extremism and militancy that ultimately cost Ms Bhutto her life.
She was the most high-profile victim of terrorism and the violent extremism that remains an existential threat to the country. Ms Bhutto had evoked the wrath of the extremists by pledging to fight fanaticism and militancy. There has been little doubt about who killed Ms Bhutto, though justice was never done. More than anyone else, her political heirs were responsible for not pursuing the investigation into her murder seriously.
Benazir Bhutto’s loss was more than that of a political leader.
The controversy over who killed her has also exposed the chasm and mistrust between the state and its people for the authorities’ failure to prevent the tragedy. The lacklustre manner in which her murder trial has been conducted and the prime suspects freed reflects on the flawed system of justice and process of investigation in this country.
Ms Bhutto’s loss was more than that of a political leader; she had come to symbolise unity for an uneasy federation. Her party’s appeal cut across province and ethnicity. The decline of the PPP after her assassination has dealt a massive blow to liberal politics in this country. That vacuum has yielded the entire political space to right-wing parties and religiously inspired extremists.
It is indeed a great tragedy that the once most formidable national political force has been reduced to virtually a regional party. The progressive ethos of the party is fast diminishing. Even worse is the danger of its becoming a party of shrine keepers selling her martyrdom. Her death anniversary is becoming more and more ritualised and is used as a means to fortify hereditary politics. It has little to do with what the party essentially stood for.
It is encouraging to see Bilawal Bhutto trying to invoke some of the party’s old values regarding social justice and reviving his mother’s pledge of fighting against religious extremism. But with his father’s stranglehold, there is little hope of the party changing tack. Moreover, it needs a whole new thinking and understanding of the changing domestic and international dynamics to reinvigorate the party and help it regain its lost mass base.
There is a lesson to learn from Ms Bhutto’s political struggle and pragmatism that provided a new direction to the party. Undoubtedly, her rise to leadership initially owed to her being the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but it was her own struggle that made her a leader in her own right. No other Pakistani leader has gone through such trial and tribulation as she did.
As a young girl with no experience of politics, she fought against the most retrogressive and tyrannical military dictatorship that had executed her father and the country’s first elected leader. She suffered the worst kind of imprisonment but never gave up.
Not only did she spend years in detention and exile, she also encountered struggle within the party — which shaped her politics. It would not have been possible for Ms Bhutto to take command of the party without getting rid of the ‘uncles’. It was not easy for a young woman totally new to the ruthless game of power politics to win that battle. She was not willing to live under the shadow of the old guard who worked with her father.
While she took forward the legacy of her father, she also put her own imprint on party policy. She broke away from her father’s policy of bureaucratic socialism and his anti-American stance. Her politics, too, was different from her father’s more authoritarian approach. Ms Bhutto strongly believed in democratic values and upheld them even against the many odds she faced.
Although Ms Bhutto may not be remembered for governance in her two terms in office, she is rightly credited for granting complete freedom of expression. No other Pakistani political leader has shown such a degree of democratic tolerance as Ms Bhutto did. It was a marked departure from her father’s way of politics.
It is true that she had never been allowed free space by the security establishment, and both her terms in office were cut short by establishment-backed constitutional coups; her own inexperience and the corruption charges against her had also been factors in her governments’ downfall. She, too, had weaknesses that proved disastrous. Her conflict with the then chief justice and bad governance brought down her second administration.
But to her credit, she never bowed down. Gen Musharraf’s regime tried to keep her out of politics. Yet not only did the party survive, it also remained a powerful political force with a support base across the country.
The Charter of Democracy, 2006, was certainly a positive move, but she did not live to see it being implemented. It was a good document and its implementation could have helped create favourable conditions for the establishment of institutional democracy in the country. But neither of the two parties — the PML-N or the PPP — has the will or desire to implement them. As a result, democracy has failed to deliver good governance and rule of law.
Ms Bhutto had returned to the country in 2007 with much greater confidence. She was clear about her objectives and the major problems confronting the nation. But the terrorist got her before she could lead her party to another electoral victory. It was the tragic end of one of the most courageous leaders this country has ever produced.
Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2017