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Obituary: Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 03 - 01 - 2008


Obituary:
Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)
By Graham Usher
For the thousands of the rural poor who converged on her ancestral home of Larkana on 28 December, Benazir Bhutto was not simply an assassinated politician, the leader of Pakistan's most popular political party or the first woman to be elected prime minister in a Muslim country -- she was, always and everywhere, the daughter of her father.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan from 1971-77. He was a deeply flawed leader, autocratic and prone to violence. But he was elected in the freest elections the country has ever seen and, uniquely in Pakistan's history, rallied the nation's poor behind promises of "bread, shelter and clothing".
It was because of that mass base that the army ousted him in a coup in 1977 and, two years later, hanged him after a show trial tacitly supported by the Americans (who also distrusted Bhutto's populist, anti-imperialist rhetoric). The Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie encapsulated the mood in a novel of the time. It was entitled Shame.
Benazir -- then barely 26 -- represented an antithesis. After her father's ousting, she spent five years in jail. She saw her mother beaten to the brink of derangement by the regime's goons and her youngest brother, Shahnawaz, poisoned while in exile in 1985, probably by the regime.
Exiled herself, she returned to Pakistan a year later vowing to do battle with her nemesis -- Pakistan's Islamist and pro-American military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. She was young, glamorous, brave and beautiful in a land of men, military officers, cowardice and religious bigotry. Zafar Abbas -- a Pakistani journalist -- still remembers the radioactive power of her return.
"Zia-ul-Haq was still alive and entrenched in power, but when her plane landed in Lahore it was an amazing scene. It was like an ocean of people pouring in from all parts of Pakistan. In Lahore the streets were jam-packed with people."
She returned again in October this year, after eight years of self-imposed exile. There were tens of thousands too lining the streets in Karachi.
But this time she had come back not to fight a military dictator but courtesy of a deal with one, President Pervez Musharraf, brokered by Americans.
There were other reasons why the reception was cooler. Benazir was prime minister from 1988-90 and 1993-96. Both times she came to office promising to suborn the army to civilian rule, make peace with India and, above all, increase social provision for the poor. She barely achieved a thing. One reason was obstruction by the army and subversion by its intelligence agencies. Yet from the outset she was inclined to make pacts with those she called the "establishment" and view state resources as so much personal property.
Her minister of investment was her husband, Asif Zardari, known colloquially as "Mister 10 percent" for the alleged kickbacks he took on government contracts. In 1996 he was jailed on charges ranging from corruption to murder, including of her eldest brother, Murtaza, who had denounced him for "blackening the Bhutto name".
These memories left bitter traces, which the savagery of her murder has diluted but not erased. And the manner of her succession, a last "political will and testament" that made Zardari party leader who then "shared" it with her son, Bilawal, has reminded everyone that the Bhuttos are a dynasty and part of that aristocratic class that has misruled Pakistan ever since its foundation. Benazir may have championed the rights of the poor -- but her relationship with them was that of a feudal lord.
She also preached democracy from every global pulpit, casting it as the cure-all for everything from military dictatorship to Islamic militancy.
But in 1996 she made herself party leader for life. And she would brook no dissent over her decisions, including the tryst with Musharraf that saw her return and her "amnesty" of the corruption cases against her. "If she was innocent -- as she said -- why not fight her cause in court?" asked one veteran party leader, sadly, at the time.
Does this mean Pakistanis don't mourn her passing? No, their grief is real. Whatever Benazir Bhutto was or was not she was murdered for contesting elections against those and by those who rule without elections -- be they generals, Islamic militants, feudal lords or some lethal cocktail of the three. For Pakistanis her death means a victory for those most reactionary of forces. And the hope she inspired -- massively so in 1986 but also in 2007 -- has again become an antithesis: despair.


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