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Benazir Bhutto, the prodigal daughter

She wanted it all - from Oxford Union's presidentship to Pak prime ministership for the third time. Vir Sanghvi takes a look at her career.

india Updated: May 15, 2012 17:21 IST

In the end, it's the first impression that lasts. Certainly, that's how it was for Benazir Bhutto and me. I never knew her well and what little interaction we had was professional — a TV interview, her visit to the


Summit etc — but the image that has stayed in my mind is of the first time I ever saw her.

It was in 1976. I was an undergraduate attending his first debate at the Oxford Union and marvelling at the verbal dexterity of the speakers. Benazir had finished with Oxford but had stayed on — or so it was widely believed — because she desperately wanted to become president of the Union. At the time, her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Prime Minister of Pakistan, and she was a glamorous figure, hanging out with a socially-desirable set and dressing expensively.

A Union tradition requires the first speaker of the day to tear into all the other speakers. On that occasion, Benazir was speaking and the first speaker, Trevor Bench-Capon, began by outlining her many unsuccessful attempts to become president of the Union. "Miss Bhutto's failures hold a lesson for us all," he boomed. "If at first you don't succeed, then don't try and try again. Just give up!"

The audience laughed and Benazir managed a tight smile. But worse was to follow. "Miss Bhutto's claim to fame," he continued, "is her father. He is a tradesman of some description. A butcher, I gather."

The audience roared again but I could not take my eyes off Benazir. She looked as though somebody had slapped her. And she never recovered her composure that evening.

I bumped into her infrequently after that first debate (but not memorably: when we met again many years later as interviewer and interviewee, she had no clue who I was), and I was struck by the persona she had chosen to adopt for her Oxford days. She hung around with very few South Asians, her pals were upper to upper-middle class Brits, she dressed Western, looked Iranian (after her mother) rather than Pakistani or Indian, and was unfailingly charming to everyone she met at the Union bar.

But nobody could ever forget that she was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter. In 1976, five years after the massacres that led to the creation of Bangladesh, there were many in Oxford who held ZA Bhutto responsible for the killings and it was common to refer to him as 'the Butcher of Bangladesh'.

Though the stigma surrounding the Bhutto name was largely unfounded, it wounded Benazir deeply. It was clear that she worshipped her father; she drew her sense of identity almost entirely from being his daughter; and most people believed that her relentless determination to become president of the Union stemmed from a desire to emulate his political success.

At the end of that year, Benazir did finally manage to get elected as president and pretty much her first act was to get the British-Pakistani Trotskyite Tariq Ali released from a Pakistani prison so that he could fly back to England to take part in a debate. (It helps when daddy runs the country).

Her term as president was uneventful, lacklustre even. It is customary now to refer to her debating prowess at university but as I remember it, she was a mediocre speaker, reading out speeches from a series of index cards in a self-righteous nasal drone. Even the few jokes she cracked were the usual staples of the Union circuit.

Her stint at the helm of the Union over, she vanished from Oxford, strengthening the suspicion that she'd only hung around to win the election. Her friends visited her in Pakistan and declared that she would be her father's political heir.

Nobody could have predicted what happened next, though. Within months, the senior Bhutto had called an election and had rigged it so blatantly that riots erupted on the streets when the results were declared. The deteriorating law and order situation led the army, under General Zia-ul-Haq, to take control. Zia threw Bhutto in jail, tried him for murder and, as the world watched appalled, hanged him.

Benazir Bhutto found that her future had changed forever. The father she worshipped was dead. The new Pakistani government was entirely hostile to her. And as she participated in the resistance to General Zia's regime, she was arrested.

She was 26. And the Oxford Union seemed a long way away.

Many years later, Benazir Bhutto told me that she believed that the moment things began to go seriously wrong for Pakistan was when General Zia took over. My first reaction was to think: well, you would say that, wouldn't you?

But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that she was right. Consider Pakistan as it was in Bhutto's day. Visitors from India always commented on the absence of visible poverty. Economic projections were optimistic.

The army had returned to the barracks, humiliated by its defeat in the 1971 war. Bhutto, it was true, was something of a demagogue: willing to play the feudal patrician when it suited him and then eagerly donning a Mao cap and talking the language of the Left. But for better or for worse, Pakistan was just another struggling Third World democracy.

It was General Zia who changed the complexion of Pakistan. While military-dictators before him (Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan etc) had believed in Scotch whisky, Zia believed in Islamism. He overhauled the penal code to introduce Islamic punishments, sang the virtues of prohibition (and this from a military man!) and Islamicised the till-then largely secular Pakistan army.

Could he have got away with it? In the long run: probably not. But God has a way of sending American angels to help Pakistani dictators. Just as Pervez Musharraf benefited from 9/11, so Zia was saved by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He offered the entire state of Pakistan up to Washington as a sort of giant aircraft carrier from which the Americans could launch a war against the Russians in Afghanistan.

The Americans took up his offer with alacrity. By the early 1980s, the largest CIA station in the world was in Pakistan and billions of dollars were being funnelled to the Pakistan army for disbursement among Afghan rebels.

The trouble was that the rebels were not up to fighting the Russians on their own. So, the Pakistanis and the Americans renamed the struggle against the Soviets as a global jehad and invited rent-a-Islamic-warriors from all over the world to join the battle. Maniacs and mercenaries from all over the globe zeroed in on Pakistan. The ISI and the CIA trained them in sabotage and assassination, and sent them off across the border.

Such figures as Osama bin Laden came to Pakistan at the behest of the US. Their organisations were trained by the CIA through the good offices of General Zia and his army — all in the name of Islam.

Benazir told me, many years later in an interview for the


, that the Zia regime not only introduced the concept of an Islamic jehad to South Asia but it also created a state within a state. "The generals and their sons made millions of dollars and set up private armies which they were ready to use for any cause — political, Islamic or just terrorist," she said. "It's no use blaming today's generals or the ISI. We now have a situation in Pakistan where ex-generals run their own armies and where no single individual is in control."

Did she accept, I pushed her, that these jehadis were the ones now fomenting trouble in Kashmir? Yes, of course, she did. But prophetically, she added, "the problems they are causing you are nothing compared to the problems they are causing us."

In 1988, after General Zia had been bumped off in a plane crash (there's still no agreement over who was responsible), democracy returned to Pakistan. Benazir won the election and became the first woman Prime Minister of a Muslim country.

I later suggested to her that she had not used the opportunity to de-Islamicise the Pakistani army or to return to the more secular values her father had represented. She did not agree but the truth is that her hands were tied. The army still had close links with the Americans, the Afghan 'jehad' continued and, in any case, she was dismissed after just 20 months in office at the behest of the generals.

By the time she won re-election in 1993, she had already abandoned many of the qualities that made Indians warm to her during her first term. By then, the Afghan jehad was over and the unemployed mercenaries were being diverted to Kashmir. There is no evidence that Benazir did anything at all to halt the steady spread of terror into India. In fact, her speeches during this period were stridently anti-Indian.

She encouraged Kashmiri militants, accused the Indian army of deliberately destroying the Charar-e-Sharif shrine (damaged in a gun battle with terrorists) and even went so far as to claim that a Brigadier of the Indian army who was assigned the task of burning mosques was the same man who had also destroyed the Golden Temple.

When the new regime in Afghanistan refused to take orders from Islamabad, the ISI and her government backed, armed and trained the Taliban to overthrow it. It did not bother her in the slightest that the Islamists of the Taliban were even worse than the mercenaries who had flocked to Zia's Pakistan during the Afghan jehad.

I asked Benazir about her government's role in the creation of the Taliban and about her refusal to stand up to the army and to the rent-a-jehadis who were now Pakistan's principal export (the US having cracked down on the heroin trade).

Her answers were vague and unsatisfactory. She had not been aware of what the army was up to. The Taliban was not her creation. No Pakistani government has any real authority over the shadow government of retired generals with their own agendas and their private armies.

Look at the brighter side, she said. At least there had been no war with India. And then, in a revelation that made headlines all over the world, she said that when she was Prime Minister, General Musharraf had actually presented her with a blueprint for the Kargil invasion which would use 'mujahideen' (rent-a-jehadis) backed by Pakistan regulars.

"I turned him down," she said.

This was significant but it did nothing to quell the uneasy feeling that even if she returned to office, it would be business as usual for the jehadi establishment.

"I want to tell the people of India," she declared defensively, "not to remember my second term but to think of my first when Rajiv Gandhi and I were both young Prime Ministers who tried to bring our two countries together."

The tone and tenor of her pronouncements was distinctly friendly. The old hatred of India, so visible in her second term, had vanished.

Why did she go back to Pakistan a few weeks ago? Did she know she was putting her life at such risk? Was she that desperate for power?

With Benazir gone, we can only speculate. What seems clear is that she did not return on some whim. Her arrival in Pakistan was preceded by many rounds of hectic diplomacy between the US and General Musharraf’s regime.

Like Zia before him, Musharraf had been saved by Afghanistan. In the post 9/11 situation, he became America's key ally in the so-called War on Terror. The ISI arrested some of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and masterminds it had trained while helping the others escape. But Musharraf convinced the Americans that only the Pakistan army (and he himself) stood between the status quo and an Islamist takeover of Pakistan.

Benazir was part of an American-backed slow transition to democracy. Musharraf would have remained President but she would have been installed as Prime Minister — assuming, of course, that her party won the election.

It was not a terribly attractive option — playing second fiddle to Musharraf under Washington's eye — but it was her only hope of returning to Pakistan without being jailed on corruption charges (an amnesty was part of the deal).

She must have been aware that she was risking her life — she said as much to interviewers. But I suspect that she did not realise how much Pakistan had changed in the seven years since she had gone into exile.

All leaders risk death — whether in India or Pakistan — when they campaign but most believe that adequate security will offer some measure of protection. I think Benazir did not understand that the cancer of Islamic militancy had eaten so deep into Pakistani society that the normal rules of law and order had been abandoned. The disorderly civil society she had left behind had descended into a bloody anarchy during her absence. In this kind of society, no security can ever be enough — especially if your assassins are willing to kill themselves along with you.

What happens next has important consequences for India. I am prepared to accept the claims of her friends that she would have softened Pakistan's hostility to India — no more safe haven for Dawood Ibrahim, fewer terrorist training camps across the Kashmir border etc.

What I'm not clear about is how far she would have got with these good intentions. She herself suggested that as private armies and jehadi networks expanded, it was difficult for any government to function effectively. The circumstances of her assassination suggest that the situation is worse than she had realised. Even the Pakistan army, the cornerstone of that nation's polity, seems to be groping for authority.

So, how will we remember Benazir Bhutto? I still think back to that first debate at the Oxford Union, 31 years ago. I see a determined girl, plodding away at emulating the successes of her beloved father and being judged as little more than her father's daughter.

Like Bhutto — and unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, founder of India's key dynasty — she had few core values. She stood for no clear ideological position and did whatever she thought was best in the circumstances. If she had to play the globe-trotting liberal, she did so. If she had to create the Taliban, well then, that too was okay. If she had to oppose the army, then that was her filial duty. But if she had to do a deal with that same army, then that was fine too.

You could argue that because Pakistan has no liberal-democratic tradition, its politicians do not have the opportunities that India's do. You could argue also that a state created solely on the basis of religion is less equipped to fight religious extremism than secular India.

But judging by Benazir's record — right till the moment they killed her on Thursday — there's no real evidence that she was the great political leader that the obituary writers claimed she was on Friday.

She was bright, charming, decent even. But she was a dynast, doing what she needed to do to get daddy's job for herself.

Her designation said it all. She wasn't just chairperson of the PPP. She was "Chairperson for Life".

And because of her tragic and untimely demise, she may well end up being the last Bhutto, daughter of a dynasty that tried and tried and tried again.

And never gave up. Till it had no choice.