Face to Face with Benazir
By Zahid Hussain
In his 1872 book The Martyrdom of Man, British historian William Winwood Reade wrote: “God has ordained that mankind should be elevated by misfortune, and that happiness should grow out of misery and pain.” Pakistan’s twice former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s life was, in a way, a manifestation of this quote.
Born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth in one of Sindh’s elite families, Benazir started life in the most privileged of environments. She was just five years old when her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, donned the mantle of a central minister in the government of Pakistan, subsequently becoming the country’s foreign minister, then president and, finally, prime minister.
Being her father’s eldest and favourite child, Benazir attended the best schools, studied at the universities of Harvard and Oxford and — while still a student — accompanied him in his meetings with world leaders. She was loved, adored and lived a luxurious life that few could even dream of.
But then life changed, and it changed for the worse. Bhutto’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a military dictator who ushered in the worst era of persecution in Pakistan’s history and Benazir watched helplessly as her father was entangled in false cases, arrested and ultimately hanged in 1979.
As Benazir Bhutto’s 70th birth anniversary approaches on June 21, Zahid Hussain’s book of interviews with the late former prime minister is an apt reminder of her views on Pakistan, politics and her life
Benazir herself went through terrible persecution for seven years, from 1977 to 1984, and was subjected to imprisonment and detention in the most horrible conditions. As she wrote in her autobiography, Daughter of the East, the “searing heat turned my cell into an oven … My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets … My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful.”
She continued: “Insects crept into the cell like invading armies. Grasshoppers. Mosquitoes. Stinging flies. Bees. Insects came up through the cracks in the floor and through the open bars from the courtyard. Big black ants. Cockroaches. Seething clumps of little red ants. Spiders. I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe.”
However, such adversities only toughened her more. Her determination and courage for the cause of democracy as she fought against dictatorship earned her worldwide respect and recognition, converting her image into a sort of goddess of democracy. After 11 years of hardship, she made history by taking the oath of office as the first female elected prime minister in the Muslim world.
But this great achievement did not result in a happy ending to her story. In fact, it proved to be the beginning of a new journey, studded with spells in power and alternated with, again, terrible persecution. These ups and downs of her life gave Benazir — already in possession of an inquisitive mind and an outstanding academic background — a unique mental outlook and intellectual depth.
It is thus heartening to read seasoned journalist and author Zahid Hussain’s new book, Face to Face with Benazir. Comprising 14 interviews with the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — one is reminded of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci’s Interview with History, which is also a collection of interviews with 14 world leaders — the book provides valuable insight into Benazir’s thoughts, ideals and aspirations on a wide range of subjects.
Benazir Bhutto had seen and experienced Pakistan’s political system from the closest quarters. She was privy to its immense weaknesses and wanted to change it. She considered the system corrupt, where tons of money were required to win elections and where there was constant threat of lawmakers changing loyalties.
In one interview, she says: “A corrupt system corrupts even honest people … There is [a] need for change in the election laws. We would like election laws to prevent the influx of drug money which undermines the electoral process.” However, despite her efforts and intentions during her two — albeit abruptly terminated — stints in power, she never had enough of a majority to effect constitutional changes to the system.
Another interview gives a glimpse of her thoughts on the subject: “We feel politics has become an expensive business; everyone does not have money. We are now examining the question of proportional representation … to get a greater social mix in parliament ... We feel that political parties are held ransom by the necessities of elections and our policy planning group is examining ways to overcome this. We need to end this political oligarchy.”
Benazir felt that the electoral system favoured the moneyed class, particularly from rural areas: “Candidates from the middle classes have a chance in the urban areas, but in the rural areas they stand very little chance of winning elections. So, the elections do throw up a predetermined social background. We have so many dedicated workers who have given their lives to the party, but don’t stand a chance of winning the elections.”
Instead of so-called ‘electables’ — candidates belonging to landed aristocracy, having secure constituencies and winning seats on their own influence — Benazir wanted political parties to be strengthened. She advocated capacity-building and the establishment of think tanks. Her recipe was that the government “must give funds to political parties on the basis of number of votes to secure two purposes: one, to train their workers in communication, and two, to help political parties form think tanks which can help them formulate policies and legislation on a full-time basis.”
Another subject close to her mind and heart was women’s representation in elected assemblies and women empowerment. “It is not a question of giving [women] just 17 seats. Women form 50 percent of the population and have been in a disadvantaged position for so long; now we should rectify the imbalance.” The way she wanted to proceed was to have a system where at least one candidate contesting elections in each district was a woman.
It remains a fact that, during both her tenures as prime minister, Benazir took several initiatives to empower women. Under her orders, women pilots were inducted in the national airline for the first time in the country’s history, The First Women Bank was created to provide loans and other facilities to women and women judges were appointed to the superior judiciary.
The interviews also touch upon Benazir’s marriage. As a young, unmarried woman, she was relentlessly targeted by her opponents and doubts — both overt and covert — were cast upon her chastity. After her wedding to Asif Ali Zardari in 1987, her detractors found an easy way to inflict pain by constantly assassinating her husband’s character, who was frequently imprisoned.
To all such allegations, she responds: “My husband is an innocent person, and he is in jail not because he has done any wrong, but because he happens to be my husband.”
As Benazir Bhutto’s biographer, I too am privy to her admiration for her husband for his courage and for sacrificing the best years of his youth in prison because he refused to leave her or cast any allegation on her. She was fully convinced, as she states in one interview with Hussain, that Zardari was “seen as a convenient weapon by which to blackmail and pressurise me.”
Face to Face with Benazir is a valuable source of information on Benazir Bhutto’s thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, such as social development, education, health, foreign policy, the nuclear programme, democracy, civil-military relations, the role and scope of intelligence agencies and the judiciary. It is a good read for anyone interested in the history and politics of Pakistan.
The reviewer is author of Benazir Bhutto: A Political Biography and has served as vice-chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University, Karachi. He can be reached
and he tweets @DrMAliShaikh
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 18th, 2023