Today, 30 years ago

07 Aug 2020


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

“THE Government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was dismissed today by the President of Pakistan, who accused her administration of corruption, nepotism and other acts ‘in contravention of the Constitution and the law’.” Thus wrote Barbara Crossette in the New York Times, dated Aug 7, 1990. This is how a dream ended.

It was a short dream as compared to the marathon preparations that we have seen leaders undergo since then. It did not take Benazir Bhutto 22 years to come to power after she first laid claim to leading this country. Her struggle was half that long but it was much more power packed, very exciting for the young of that era who had absolutely no choice but to stand by her in her endeavour to embarrass and humiliate a dictator. More importantly, they egged her on to try and cancel a legacy that threatened to have dark repercussions.

That day, Aug 6, 1990, brought an end to whatever ideological promise was attached to BB by those who had chased the charismatic politician around ever since her victor’s return from exile in 1986. After that, for passengers on many of the buses in her originally charged caravan, especially in Punjab, it was a matter of making the best use of an opportunity to drop out.

More among them did it silently as compared to those who chose to go away with a bang. Many did so at the first opportunity of ditching the PPP, provided by president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, even though, for a party head who wanted to still take part in the new election for Oct 24 that year, BB did record her suspicion of other, unnamed actors behind the constitutional coup. She still seemed to have hopes of some kind of a fair deal from the man who had recently sacked her.

The 1990 dismissal provided Benazir plenty of reasons to rethink strategy.

That was the start of the quiet trickle-out from the PPP in Punjab that in later years opened a yawning gap for its precious resources to find their way into other more flourishing pools. Gradually, it turned into an exodus and those who knew what name suited what course benefited the most as had the custodians of family honour before them.

That is not the rarest thing. It is customary for power families to retain ministries and shift parties. It is not unheard of for them to take their time to realise, through many tenures in the federal cabinet under several governments of various dispensations, where a particular road in Islamabad actually led to.

The remarkable part is that BB had supposedly squandered the capital she collected over 11 years of an uncompromising, brave struggle in 20 months of failed rule. But the mohtarma, still commands respect from even those who are in parties deadly opposed to (what remains of) her PPP. And these admirers include this name-changing guy who may sometimes be found juggling Bahawalpur and Multan during his visits home southwards.

This is no mean feat since BB had established herself as a leader with glaring weaknesses quite early during her first power stint. Twenty months, just 20, it took for the experienced eye of Ghulam Ishaq Khan to see how corrupt she was and why. The reference to nepotism that we find in GIK’s rather rich and lavish dismissal order of Aug 6, 1990, may have been missing from allegations subsequently levelled against blundering, shameless politicians since then.

Maybe in the PPP’s case, a reconfirmation was hardly needed once it was established for all times to come that BB had been a puppet in the hands of her husband, and particularly for that term, had been exploited by her father-in-law who the NYT piece, which had been quite cautious in its remarks about the army etc, had mentioned as a crook in single quotes.

Also in single quotes, and on the authority of a Pakistani journalist, the article had noted that BB had married into the wrong family. So could it be this victim’s label, of being a well-meaning, determined soul imprisoned by the males around her with patriarchy jealously guarding its hold on power, that redeemed Benazir?

Or was it the aura of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto which repeatedly came to her rescue, salvaging her image as the mohtarma even in areas where her party was routed over the years following her first dismissal from power? BB was warned against resting on whatever popular monument existed to ZAB’s memory. She was advised to create her own appeal based on her own slogans at a forward distance from the original PPP chants of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’, anti-India-ism and socialism, glasnost having already taken root by the time she was sworn in as the Muslim world’s first woman prime minister. She was asked to opt for experienced men and new ideas. She embraced novices and chose to pedal outdated ideas.

The 1990 dismissal provided BB plenty of reasons to rethink strategy and resultantly, a new passion came into the work of those whose sole political purpose it seemed was to block the PPP’s way to power using foul means. The sentiment was reflected in the orchestrated attempt to defeat the party in the 1990 election which gave Nawaz Sharif his debut term as prime minister.

The PPP rhetoric didn’t change from roti and kapra. Deep within, however, an urge was created that sent the newly awakened PPP politicians at the top of the party’s ladder seeking acceptability across the wall with the kingmakers. After August 1990 a process was set in order that slowly had one ideal — that of winning favour with the real powers— trumping all others in the PPP discourse.

What did actually give Benazir Bhutto, the martyr of Aug 6, 1990, her longevity in Pakistan’s political arena? Her grit in the face of adversity stands out. She is no less well known for the art of compromise, of the possible she learnt with time, with that order by Ghulam Ishaq Khan a big turning point in her journey. It was a defining moment in the making of a legacy of a rebel who turned to reconciliation.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2020