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My friend, Benazir

It was an explosive return. But I doubt Benazir would have wanted to die of old age. Instead she died a hero, a martyr and an inspiration for many, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Dec 29, 2007 19:02 IST

Sitting in my digs at Cambridge after dinner during the Easter vacation of 1976, Benazir, who had driven over from Oxford that morning with her friend Tricia, suddenly suggested we dash out for ice cream. So we bundled into her MGB sports car which was parked outside. But instead of driving towards the centre of town, she headed for the A40.

“Where are you going?” I asked perplexed.

“London! It’s the nearest Baskin Robbins I know.”

Benazir loved ice cream. She could eat vast quantities of it. In later years, her favourite became Ben & Jerry’s. Whenever I finished a particularly acrimonious interview, she would insist that we eat ice cream together. “It will cool you down!” she would laugh.

There were several interviews that annoyed her, a few that upset her and at least one that riled her. But she never held that against me. She accepted that a journalist had a job to do just as she insisted that a politician couldn’t answer every question. She always ensured that our professional relationship — as interviewer and Prime Minister or Opposition leader — remained separate from our friendship.

As a young politician, in the years after her father’s cruel hanging, she often consciously modelled herself on Indira Gandhi. I remember her fascination for the traditional Indian namaste. “It’s dignified, friendly but not familiar,” she once said. I suspect the adab that she made her personal greeting was in her eyes an equivalent.

In 1984, when Maqbool Butt was about to be hanged, Benazir wrote to Indira Gandhi pleading that he be saved. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. I couldn’t understand her need to write the letter. I thought it was a mistake. “I have to, Karan,” she explained. “I’ve lived through my father’s hanging and I know the trauma it created for the family. I can’t watch someone else go through the same misery without doing what I can to prevent it.” Indira Gandhi never replied but Benazir didn’t hold that against her.

As a Bhutto daughter, Benazir was always conscious of her family’s similarity with the Gandhis. After Sanjay Gandhi’s plane crash and Indira’s assassination in the early 80s were followed by her brother Shahnawaz’s mysterious death, she once commented that there was a curse on both families. At the time, Rajiv’s killing and her own were still far in the future. Today there can be no doubt about that curse.

In 1988, when Rajiv visited Islamabad, during the early weeks of her first prime ministership, she invited him and Sonia to a private family dinner on their first night. Her husband Asif, her mother Nusrat and her sister Sanam were the only other people present. In those days, a common joke in both countries was that Rajiv and Benazir should marry each other and sort out their two countries’ problems. Benazir told me they laughed over it at dinner.

“Rajeev”, as she always pronounced his name, adopting a misplaced Punjabi accent for a Westernised Sindhi, “is so handsome,” she said when I next met her. And then she added, “But he’s equally tough.”

During the BJP years, Benazir forged a link with the Advani family with equal facility and friendship. A few months after her first meeting with L.K. Advani, we were together in Washington for the Prayer Breakfast of 2002. During a break in one of the sessions, she insisted that I accompany her shopping. “But we’re walking, okay? I need the exercise and so do you!”

As we sauntered down Connecticut Avenue, she stopped outside an old-fashioned bookshop. Minutes later she bought a Robert Kaplan paperback as a gift for Advani. I carried it back to Delhi. It was the first of several similar gifts she sent to him through me.

I know that as Prime Minister, her two terms in office disillusioned many. Her fans were disappointed whilst her critics felt justified. But between 1989 and 2007 the change that characterised her attitude to India and Kashmir in particular steadily progressed and didn’t falter. From the young prime minister who would shout on television “Azadi, Azadi, Azadi!”, she became the first, the most consistent and perhaps the strongest proponent of a joint India-Pakistan solution to Kashmir. As early as 2001, she began to speak about soft borders, free trade and even, perhaps unrealistically, a joint parliament for the two halves of Kashmir. Musharraf’s concept of self-governance and joint management draws heavily upon her original thinking.

When I last interviewed her in September, days before her return to Pakistan, she went further than ever before. Not only did she forcefully repeat her commitment to clamp down on all private militias and shut terrorist camps but, in addition, she promised to consider the extradition of Dawood Ibrahim and even the possibility of giving India access to men like Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed and Masood Azhar.

In private conversation, she would readily admit that the strident prime minister of 1988-89 was a mistake. In fact, she came close to saying as much on television as well. Had she lived to become Prime Minister, I feel certain she would have fulfilled this commitment. This is why she was so upset, actually angry, at the National Security Advisor’s scepticism of her. Her death is, therefore, an irreparable loss for India as well.

The two months since her return to Pakistan have proved beyond doubt her incredible bravery. But it wasn’t just death that she refused to be frightened of. She was equally fearless of failure. In 1986, at the peak of the Zia dictatorship, an untried and inexperienced 33-year-old flew home to challenge the might of the General and his loyal army. “Are you worried?” I asked on her last night in London. “When something has to be done, fear is the last thought in my mind.” To some that might sound pompous, but I took it as a reflection of her steely confidence.

This October, when I asked her if she could repeat the miracle a second time, she shot back with the question, “Why do you ask?” I told her that now she was 54, she had been Prime Minister twice and disappointed many and Pakistan was a very different country.

She heard me in silence and then softly smiled. Her eyes seemed to take on a knowing but playful look. When she spoke, her words sounded measured and well-considered. “It will be an even bigger return home.”

In fact, it was an explosive return. But I doubt Benazir would have wanted to die of old age. Instead, she died a hero, a martyr and an inspiration for many.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the father she adored, would have been proud of his Pinky. But she leaves behind three young children and an ailing mother who will miss her sorely. And there is a hole at the heart of Pakistan’s return to democracy that may never get filled. Was she her country’s last chance of a peaceful, moderate, enlightened, Muslim future?

The day after her death, I received Benazir’s New Year card. It reads, ‘Praying for peace in the world and happiness for your family in 2008.’ Unfortunately, they were denied to her.