South Asians are sentimental people. Over the centuries, their romanticism about revered historical and religious icons has shaped their political psyche of nurturing personality cults. To this add their ignorance about political realities due to pervasive illiteracy and you will know the reason behind the meteoric rise to power of charismatic leaders in recent history.
And when after their contentious stints with power these political heroes fell, mostly meeting violent deaths, they were transformed into martyrs, leaving their dynasties to rule after them – a throwback of the ancient monarchical system. In India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh this dynastic rule has created more turmoil from misuse of power and stymied the development of political institutions than it has strengthened these nascent democracies or improved people’s lives. Such political heirs have usually failed because they leapfrogged into power without prior political experience.
Pakistan saw the Bhutto dynasty emerge after the judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of Pakistan People’s Party, at the hands of a military dictator, which removed all his warts and transformed him into a martyr. Benazir Bhutto was the scion of his political dynasty, who lived and died a controversial figure.
On her first death anniversary her political heirs and their sycophants presented her larger than life image, exalted her as a democrat and called her death ‘martyrdom’. Had it not been un-Islamic, they might have even gone as far as granting her sainthood.
Most interestingly, but not surprisingly, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan also joined the chorus by inserting an unusual advertisement in local newspapers eulogizing her democratic credentials, calling her a “Champion of Democracy”.
Named political successor by her father from his death cell in 1978 a young and inexperienced Benazir matured into an astute politician, aggressive and enlightened. But was she indeed a champion of democracy as the U.S. Government wants Pakistanis to believe or do the Americans have a method in the madness when they join this sloganeering?
She was inspired and tutored by her father. No wonder then that in many ways she was like him – a brilliant, charismatic, shrewd, ambitious, self centered and autocratic politician with a visceral hatred for dissent. He championed socialism and the rights of the poor to gain popular support, when ironically he was a feudal to the core, by birth and by temperament. After climbing to power, he discarded his socialistic garb and surrounded himself with political pygmies who danced to his tune. To him ruthlessness was an instrument of power. Machiavellian in mindset, he let Pakistan dismember in 1971 because in that lay the promise of his power. He was different from Benazir in one way though – he was not greedy or corrupt.
Despite her claim that she stood for the cause of the disadvantaged and the poor, she remained an elitist and never personally identified herself with this lot. She had no interest to be a Gandhi. She went to live in Cannes after her father’s death – a place best known for being a very fashionable and expensive resort city of the French Rivera. And when came time to contest her first election she chose Lyari, Karachi, as her constituency. How ironic that she lived in Cannes – one of the richest areas of Europe, and represented the poorest of the poor community of Pakistan?
Soon after ascending to power Benazir mastered the art of manipulation and deception to become a successful con artist. She tolerated democracy because it was the only means by which she could get into power, but ruled her party and the country as an autocrat. By getting herself appointed as ‘chairperson for life’ – she rooted out any dissent and challenge to her authority within the party.
Benazir was prime minister twice and both her governments were dismissed prematurely on charges of corruption and bad governance. Not only were her administrations marked by mismanagement, nepotism, social injustice and massive corruption, but her human rights record was dismal too. She was widely criticized by Amnesty International and other Human Rights groups for death squads, abductions, torture and deaths of political detainees in police custody. Political opponents were hounded, harassed and jailed. Her own brother Murtaza was murdered by the police in Karachi during her own watch as prime minister. Murtaza after returning to Pakistan from exile had demanded party leadership and his share of the family fortune. The murder mystery remains unsolved.
After her second fall from power, without clearing her name in the charges of corruption and misuse of power, the leader of ‘Pakistan Peoples Party’ sneaked out of the country, abandoning ‘Pakistan’, ‘People’ and her ‘Party’. The interests of the people and democracy did not matter.
In exile Benazir continued to maintain her stranglehold over the party, knowing that the emergence of alternate leadership would mean her political demise. It is widely known that after 2002 elections she disallowed her party’s senior vice chairman and an old loyalist to accept General Musharraf’s offer to form the government sans Benazir and preferred the opportunity to go to her opponents because she feared being marginalized and ultimately made irrelevant. And in that event she also stood to lose her ability to bargain her return with the Army. So much for her respect for democracy within her own party!
Power is addictive. Benazir could not live without it. But being persona non grata for the army, any deal with it on her own was not possible.
A creature of insatiable ambition, she figured out her safest bet. She could ride back on the shoulders of the Americans who were looking for a credible and democratically electable partner willing to carry forward their agenda of ‘war on terror’. Aware that the Neo-cons were unhappy with General Musharraf, for he was dragging his feet in committing hara-kiri by acceding to their demands to ‘do more’ against the Taliban, she found this to be perfect moment to sell her services. She had no qualms about partnering with those she had at one stage publicly accused of her father’s ‘murder’. It was now time to seek their imperial shelter and support.
Benazir used her charm in the Western capitals to cultivate the political elite and the media. She presented herself as an astute, popular politician, a thoroughbred Western educated democrat and a proponent of human rights, struggling to restore democracy. For the Americans, she built her image as a brave Muslim woman, secular and liberal, who was willing to take on the Muslim extremists. They saw in her a person who could succeed where Musharraf had failed – to provide a politically popular civilian face to a pro-American military government. They loved her theme song: “Without her, democracy in Pakistan would be a lost cause” and cut a deal with her. In exchange for implementing the Neo-con agenda she would assume power for the third time. And then there was always a chance that she would position herself to eventually assume complete power when it was time for General Musharraf to go.
A politically damaged and vulnerable Musharraf capitulated and accepted a power sharing arrangement, absolving her of all charges. Her constituents continued to chant “long live Benazir” in the belief that she was their savior, unaware that neither they, nor the country, nor democracy ever figured in the deals she made. Only the urge for power did.
Benazir Bhutto died chasing power. The party she inherited from her father was treated as family heirloom. Like a scene from a Shakespearean play, her widower quickly pulled out her ‘will’, questionable at best, and took control of the party. Her teenage son hastened to suffix his name with ‘Bhutto’ to be able to inherit the party and the power, not because he is eligible but because he has borrowed that name. Her constituents, in a show of sympathy, catapulted her widower into the presidency. She had never allowed succession planning within the party. Senior party leaders who aspired to succeed her watched helplessly as they all got edged out.
Her political successors now coin slogans that ‘Benazir gave her life for restoration of democracy’. They do this to sanitize their own image and attain credibility. But “the obituaries painting her [Benazir Bhutto] as dying to save democracy distort history”, says William Dalrymple (author of “The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857”) in the New York Times on January 4, 2008.
Those who exaggerate her legacy as a ‘democrat’ do not make a convincing case as her political record does not substantiate their claims. She neither served democracy nor human rights, in her life or in her death. In fact, she had a disdain for both. One wonders why then is the Western political elite and the media so enamored with her. One wonders also why the American government now feels compelled to resurrect her image as a democrat. And what grounds did the United Nations discover to determine her commitment to human rights?