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The life and times of Queen B

Benazir Bhutto was an artful leader and, in life and death, a classic product of Pakistan's political culture, says a new biography. Pramit Pal Chaudhary tells more.

india Updated: May 20, 2008 13:52 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhary

Goodbye Shahzadi: A Political Biography of Benazir Bhutto
Shyam Bhatia
ROLI RS 295 PP 130

At the heart of the fatal estrangement between Benazir Bhutto and her brother, Mir Murtaza, was the question of whom their father actually had in mind as his political successor. Shyam Bhatia, who over three decades met both repeatedly, says all the evidence favours Murtaza.

In college, Benazir didn't see a future much beyond being a diplomat.

Circumstances shuffled them down different paths. Pakistan's generals kept Murtaza in exile, but let her return. The brother took to the path of terrorism, making him persona non grata in Washington and Rawalpindi. Benazir took to street politics – and proved so good at it that when Murtaza did get a chance to campaign he couldn't swing the family seat of Larkana.

Given her political career was based on such a twist of fate, it is perhaps no surprise Benazir's spiritual beliefs were touched by Sufi concepts of fate. This was not merely subconscious: Bhatia recounts her flying to Bangladesh just to get a charm from a mystic pir.

This personal anecdote-cum-potted biography of Benazir is an easy introduction to the personality of this ‘daughter of the east'. It usefully encapsulates how she moved on and off the Pakistani political stage, battling with her own family the generals, civilian rivals like Nawaz Sharif and the conservativeness of her own society.

How different her life might have been if her beloved father had not been so brutally executed (she told Bhatia in tears how General Zia-ul Haq had Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's corpse exposed and his genitals photographed - because of rumours Bhutto was a Hindu and therefore uncircumcised), if Zia had not been killed, if she had not been so attractive to the US establishment and if her father had not had been responsible for getting Pervez Musharraf 's father sacked from his government job.

Bhatia strongly defends Benazir from the criticism she was a ‘do-nothing' prime minister. He is critical of her support for Kashmiri militants, though this seems more understandable given how much she regularly compromised with the realities of Pakistan's mix of army, Allah and America. He is too willing to accept Benazir's blaming the Taliban's creation on the military – the evidence is that their adoption by the ISI came after their nurture by Benazir.

Benazir described herself as the "mother of the missile programme" of Pakistan. She told Bhatia how she had flown to North Korea, her coat filled with CDs of uranium centrifuge blueprints. A Nodong missile, disassembled, was in the aircraft on the return trip. Benazir also insisted Pakistan was ready to carry out a nuclear test by the late 1970s.

As always with tales of Pakistani politics, the amount of American involvement in Islamabad's politics and how complicit Pakistani leaders are in this interference is striking. Benazir was particularly artful in playing the Washington card. However, her return as part of the US's BhuttoMusharraf dream ticket and her death by Pakistani forces well outside Washington's influence is a testament to how much Pakistan's centre has shifted, and how Benazir was less and less representative of her country .