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Benazir’s first victory

April 11, 2013

Photo shows former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto moments before she was assassinated at Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh.—File Photo

THE turboprop Fokker came to a stop on the tarmac. The tall brigadier, the commander of the Airport Security Force in Karachi, shouted to a subordinate: “Have Benazir Sahiba’s car brought here. Hurry up.”

As the PPP leader took the few steps down the ladder to the tarmac, the brigadier smartly saluted her: “Madam, we have opened the VVIP Lounge for you. A battery of foreign journalists is waiting for you. Would you like to talk to them?”

A beaming Ms Bhutto turned to confer with an aide and, with the tall officer showing the way, headed towards the lounge to address the first major press conference after leading her party to emerge as the largest single winner in the 1988 election.

This was the evening of Nov 17, 1988. When a journalist asked her: “Can we call you prime minister”? Ms Bhutto responded: “We can’t be that arrogant,” adding after a deliberate pause and a big smile, “yet”.

This was an unbelievable sight for some of us who had reported on at least some of the travails of the frail-looking but steel-willed young woman who went from being the apple of the eye of a powerful prime minister to someone who braved long years of solitary confinement during which she grieved in isolation as her father was executed.

Until then, the uniformed presence around Ms Bhutto had meant that she was either being escorted to confinement or exile.

The 1988 election was set when military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq couldn’t bear to coexist even with a handpicked civilian prime minister who assumed office after the 1985 party-less polls. The date for the new election had been set to coincide with the anticipated birth of the PPP leader’s first child.

Zia’s intelligence apparatus had let him down and baby Bilawal was born several weeks before polling day. By that time the dictator had perished in an air crash. But his pathological hatred for the PPP appeared to have been inherited by his institution as well as the caretaker set-up.

Among other nasty pre-poll rigging measures, an alliance was cobbled together by the ISI to ensure the anti-PPP vote went en bloc to one entity; the PPP was denied its election symbol (sword) from the earlier two national, and one local body election. The party was forced to accept the arrow as the symbol but responded heartily. Thus was born crooner Shazia Khushk’s Dila teer bija, the iconic campaign song, which electrified PPP cadres and whose tune is the one thing everyone recalls from that campaign.

The election was fought in the Bhutto name. The perceived martyrdom of the father and the steadfast defiance of the military regime by the daughter were the central planks.

Slogans such as “roti, kapra aur makaan” were revived and BB, though having become a mother just a few weeks earlier, embarked on a hectic campaign which took her to every nook and cranny of the country. Her constant refrain to her teeming supporters whether she was on the road, on the campaign train or in rallies was driving home the need to stamp the arrow.

The ISI under Lt-Gen Hamid Gul may have been surprised at the result but to those who travelled along the campaign route of the PPP leader it wasn’t difficult to see the defiant adulation of the dispossessed in Sindh and elsewhere. The disappointments, the poor governance, the corruption allegation were all in the future.

After the feverish campaign to the beat of Dila teer bija, polling on Nov 16 and the results that started to arrive by midnight, many of us thought change had arrived.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn