Had Benazir Bhutto not been martyred on 27 December 2007, she would have celebrated her 66th Birthday. What a brave and bright leader this country had after the Qaid and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. She had matured into political statesmanship all through the hardships of exile and had returned to the country to make amends for her past mistakes in serving her nation by strengthening plural democracy, establishing rule of law and ridding the country of bigotry, religious extremism and sectarian fragmentation. Her return to the country posed a challenge to the power of the anti-democratic forces but kindled a ray of hope for the down trodden. She was just overwhelmed by sentiments on having touched the sacred ground of her land on 18thOctober 2007 as reflected by her flowing tears. This was the second occasion that I also had tears of joy.
The first occasion I had soaked my face was the 2ndDecember 1988, when the stage was set in the grand and sprawling presidency in Islamabad for the swearing-in of the young, intelligent and elegant Benazir Bhutto as the Prime Minister of Pakistan after the oppressive Martial Law of 11 years. The history of this nation was being rewritten. She was hardly 35 years and was taking over as the first elected leader of a conservative Muslim country. The ceremony illustratively represented the vindication of constitutionalism over dictatorship. The presidency echoed with thunderous slogans of the PPP workers in the selected audience who had toiled in sweat and blood for this day of restoration of plural democracy in the country.
Born on the longest day of June 21, 1953, Benazir Bhutto, the brave daughter and political heiress of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto along with her mother stood like a rock to face the gruesome conditions from July 1977 to April 1986 having suffered the incarceration of her father, his mock trial and execution. In November 1983, under pressure from the USA, the dictator allowed her to go into exile abroad. She returned in April 1986 to the tumultuous welcome by the people of Pakistan in Lahore. The day reflected the victory of ideals over coercion and courage over brute force. That day, the adulatory multitudes of almost one million confirmed Benazir Bhutto as the undisputed leader of Pakistan People’s Party and the most popular leader of the country.
On 17 August 1988, General Zia-ul-Haq along with a number of military officers and the US Ambassador died in an aircraft crash in Bahawalpur. The accident changed the situation altogether. The general election and transfer of power could be no more deferred. The anti-Bhutto forces created the IJI and unleashed a barrage of insidious propaganda to discredit Benazir Bhutto. The mudslinging against the Bhutto ladies climaxed in the airdropping of obscene pamphlets. The PPP won the elections with a thin majority. Benazir Bhutto was confronted with tough conditions for transfer of power that included election of Ghulam Ishaq Khan as the president, appointment of General Yaqub Ali Khan as the Foreign Minister, and noninterference in the security and nuclear policies of the country. These conditions betrayed the establishment’s phenomenal distrust of Bhuttos.
Whilst Benazir resolutely battled to thwart the machinations of the establishment and the powerful Presidency determined to circumvent her powers, the growing tales of corruption engulfing her spouse Asif Ali Zardari made her position vulnerable. The gentleman earned the grand title of Mr. Ten Percent within the first year of the Benazir Government. She hardly survived two years in power when her Government was undemocratically dismissed in August 1990 on charges of corruption and incompetence. Many corruption charges were filed in the courts of law against the couple. It was the deep nationalism of Benazir and her political astuteness that she patiently bore this unfair treatment.
Benazir, redoubtable and resilient as she was, did not concede to despair and battled for political comeback. She tilted to the president in his quarrel with the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After the dismissal of Sharif Government, she won the elections of October 1993 and formed the governments at the centre, and in Sindh and coalition governments in Punjab and KPK. Thus, she began her second term with her lieutenants Syed Abdullah Shah and Aftab Sherpao and an ally, Manzoor Watoo saddled with power in Sindh, KPK and Punjab. She had Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari whom she always addressed as Farooq Bhai due to his loyalty and commitment elected as the President.
What her admirers expected this time round was that she would set herself in earnest on good governance and socio-economic transformation of Pakistan. However, within one year, her relations with the powerful pillars of the state – Judiciary and the Presidency – began rupturing to the dismay of her followers. The opposition under Mian Nawaz Sharif relentlessly pursued and highlighted the instances of corruption by Mr. Zardari that included the purchase of Rockwood Surrey Palace in London and kickbacks in ARY Gold Scheme.
Her political problems further compounded when Mir Murtaza Bhutto decided to return to Pakistan on 12 November 1993 after winning from exile a single seat of the Sindh Provincial Assembly from Larkana in the October elections. The bitter criticism of her brother against Benazir apart, what disturbed her the most was the growing animosity between Mir Murtaza and Asif Zardari. Mir was reorganizing his faction of the Pakistan People’s Party and touring cities and towns of Sindh including Karachi with armed guards. The administration of Sindh, irked as it was, confronted him near 70-Clifton on 20 September 1996 for disarming his guards. In the ensuing armed clash, he was fatally wounded while six of his bodyguards were killed. He succumbed to his injuries in a nearby diagnostic clinic.
Benazir was pulverized with grief but the damage had been done. Taking advantage of the situation, her so called brother, President Farooq Leghari dismissed the federal and provincial governments and dissolved the National Assembly along with four provincial Assemblies on 6 November 1996. Asif Zardari was arrested and charged in corruption cases and the murder of Mir Murtaza Bhutto. He would remain incarcerated for a decade or so with Benazir facing this ordeal all alone shuttling between jail wards and courts with her small children in tow. Her patience and tenacity were indescribable.
From abroad, Benazir tried to improve her relations with the establishment with the help of her American friends and lobbyists. She held secret talks with General Musharraf for a deal reportedly brokered by President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007. The deal was formalized by a National Reconciliation Ordinance issued by General Pervez Musharraf giving relief to Benazir and her spouse in corruption cases. In two of the cases the foreign courts, as reported by the international media, were about to give adverse verdicts.
After the closures of the judicial proceedings, she decided to end her exile in October 2007. Her caravan was attacked and scores of PPP loyalists lost their lives on 18 October. However, this did not hold her back. She toured the length and breadth of the country addressing public meetings. The public response to her was overwhelming and reflected the undying charisma of the Bhuttos. Unconscious of the evil stars in the dark skies and the vicious smile of the destiny; she scheduled her last public meeting in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007 in the Liaqat Garden. She was in a combative mood throwing thunderous challenges to the militants and the dogmatic, intolerant and anti-democratic forces. She kept the people spellbound with her usual firebrand speech for over an hour.
As she leaving the venue, she stood up in her car to wave to the charged workers. Her enemies were waiting for this opportune moment to strike. There were few revolver shots followed by a powerful explosion. She slumped down in the hands of her companions with blood gushing from her neck. She was shifted to the hospital. But it was too late. The angel of death was quicker and the last icon of the Bhuttos; the hope of a democratic and progressive Pakistan; the indisputable leader of the underprivileged had already succumbed to her neck wound. A dark cloud of gloom and anger engulfed the horizon of her land she had so eagerly sought to retrieve from the jaws of dark forces of dictatorship and dogmatism.
Benazir was a redoubtable and resilient politician of international standing, an intelligent political strategist, consummate lobbyist, prolific writer, and a proficient communicator. She was the true reflection of her father’s populist leadership. Her foibles as a person and a political leader apart, she was an asset to Pakistan. Sadly enough, she wasted her two terms of power in unnecessary quarrels with the powerful pillars of state and could not leave behind any marked legacy of political and economic achievements that could withstand the unbiased scrutiny of future historians.
However, she successfully maintained Z.A. Bhutto’s mystic union with the multitudes, his instinctive understanding of the people’s mood and intuitive empathy with their woes that rekindled their hopes and bonded them with Pakistan People’s Party. In my view this was her only legacy that ensured the continuous popularity of the PPP under her leadership. This, in itself, was a monumental achievement. Benazir has been vindicated in her strong faith in democracy countless times since the last ten years. Her firm defiance of obscurantist forces is now widely lauded and she has become the beacon of light for pluralistic forces in the country.
The people of this country have never lost hope that one day her assassins will be brought to book and justice done to her.