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When Benazir launched her poll campaign in London

Updated June 27, 2018

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Back in 2002, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto kicked off her election campaign from London’s Trafalgar Square.—File­
Back in 2002, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto kicked off her election campaign from London’s Trafalgar Square.—File­

IT was the third week of August, 2002, and the general elections announced by Gen Pervez Musharraf were still more than six weeks away. He had, by then, got himself elected as president through a controversial referendum in May that year and put together a coterie of politicians loyal to his regime under the banner of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q).

Everybody, including London’s small journalist corps, was thinking that Benazir Bhutto would return to Pakistan to lead her party in the elections scheduled to be held on Oct 10.

Despite all odds, her party had done well in the local body elections held under the Musharraf regime in 2000, winning the office of nazims and naib nazims in town and cities throughout the country, especially in Punjab where the Pakistan Muslim League of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had left a vacuum after his departure for Saudi Arabia.

Benazir Bhutto was then in London, living in exile after a number of cases had been filed against her in accountability courts.

Then we received intimation by her party’s local leadership that she would launch her election campaign at a public meeting in London’s Trafalgar Square on Aug 24. This was a surprise, as it was not only going against the party stand about her imminent return to Pakistan but also a sign of weakness.

Those who have seen elections in Pakistan know well that the absence of a party leader doesn’t bode well for the party’s prospects at the polling station. On the one hand, it dampens the enthusiasm of party workers, and on the other, it gives the message to voters that they are wasting their vote — nobody wants to be on the losing side.

But when the day came, there was an impressive show on display at Trafalgar Square. Amidst the amazement of tourists, her party workers bussed to the venue from as far as the Midlands, West Yorkshire and Scotland.

It hurts me to see that since the overthrow of the democratic government in 1996, poverty has increased in Pakistan, retrenchment at a wide scale is taking place, and insecurity is spreading. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto speaking at Trafalgar Square in August 2002.

With tri-colour PPP flags serving as a stage background and party banners welcoming her to the event, it looked like public rally venue in Lyari in Karachi or Mochi Gate in Lahore.

“Daughter of East, Leader of Democracy”, read a banner brought to the venue by an office-bearer of the Asif Zardari Release Committee, urging her to come back and lead the nation amidst “deepening political and economic disaster”.

Trafalgar Square resounded with “Jiye Bhutto” and “Jiye Benazir”. “Zinda Hai Bhutto Zinda Hai”, "Ya Khuda Ya Rasool, Benazir Beqasoor” and “Bhutto De Nahre Wajan Gai” slogans. The open area around the lions’ statues and the fountains was almost full, even before the arrival of Benazir Bhutto.

When she arrived, the pace of drumbeats and accompanying dance accelerated; the whole atmosphere was electrified. Clad in a black overcoat, oyster-coloured headscarf and her trademark glasses, she waved to the cheering crowd.

“My dear brothers and sisters, I thank you all for coming here and joining us in this historic Trafalgar Square to announce the beginning of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s election campaign,” began her brief speech. “The Pakistan Peoples Party is entering this election campaign with the promise to bring peace to South Asia.”

“I promise our youth that we will create the conditions in South Asia that can lead to progress and prosperity,” she continued. “It hurts me to see that since the overthrow of the democratic government in 1996, poverty has increased in Pakistan, retrenchment at a wide scale is taking place, and insecurity is spreading. At this time, when the world community is saying that president Mugabe held a fraudulent referendum, it is important for it to apply the same standard to Pakistan.”

Khawaja Shafique, the UK president of the PPP at that time, seemed pleased with the outcome.

“As you can see today, we have gathered quite a few people here and this just shows how much support we do have. We are very proud of the people gathered here to listen to their beloved chairperson and their leader Benazir Bhutto,” he told journalists after the rally. “We are waiting for the outcome of our appeal to the High Court [of Pakistan] and if that is successful, she will return,” he said, keeping hope alive for his workers.

Despite the absence of Benazir Bhutto from the election scene, the PPP didn’t do badly in the October 2002 elections and emerged as a major party. Going by the PPP leadership in the UK, the late Makhdoom Amin Fahim, head of the PPP-Parliamentarians (the party registered to take part in 2002 elections), was even offered the office of prime minister.

“Your prime minister is travelling to London,” was what I was told when I asked about the whereabouts of Makhdoom Amin Fahim, with a hint of enthusiasm.

But he was not allowed to take up the offer and had to hurry back as an MNA. Resultantly, the Musharraf regime had to carve out PPP-Patriots from within the party to secure the numbers needed to get Mir Zafarullah Jamali elected as prime minister.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2018