Benazir was 19 when I first met her. I was the same age. At the time she was vice president of the Oxford Union and I was her counterpart at Cambridge. She had come to our union to propose the motion — ‘This house would have sex before marriage’. It was a tongue-in-cheek joke debate but just the sort of thing to spark the union chamber. We were stuffed to the rafters and overflowing.
Halfway though her speech, I leaned across and grabbed the president’s bell. I rang it sharply. Benazir stopped and a hush descended on the union’s chamber. Rising to my feet, I said: “Madam, I see you are proposing sex before marriage. Would you care to practise what you preach?” The chamber erupted in laughter. Mine was the sort of interruption deliberately designed to produce softer humour.
Very cleverly. Benazir waited for the applause to die down. When it did, she swirled her feet, stared me in the face, removed her glasses, wrinkled her nose and with great aplomb replied, “Certainly, my dear, but not with you!” The laughter was even louder. Her reply had carried the day.
To my mind, that story encapsulates Benazir’s sense of timing, her sense of humour and her deft ability to riposte. But there was another side to Benazir — the warm, understanding, caring and deeply human.
Many years later, in ’89 when she was the Prime Minister of Pakistan for the first time, my wife was in a coma at a hospital in London with encephalitis. I had just returned from a visit to Pakistan where I had met Benazir. Suddenly, one morning when I visited the hospital, the nurses were all aflutter. There was an enormous bouquet that looked like a tree in Nisha’s room. “What’s this?” I asked. “It is from the Prime Minister of Pakistan!” one of the nurses blurted out excitedly.
Later that evening, Benazir rang and asked why I hadn’t told her about Nisha. I muttered something but she interrupted and said, “Remember Karan, We are friends”. For the next 3 weeks as Nisha lay dying in London, Benazir made a point of ringing late at night at least every other day. I never forgot what she repeatedly said: “Karan, you must learn to talk about what you are going through. Believe me, it is the only way of coming to terms with it. I have been through it and I know what I am saying.”
Benazir was a supremely confident person. She had a great ability to determine how people saw her. But inside she was a lady who often had deep doubts. She never showed them but they made her human.
She told me about the last moments on the plane in 1986 which was the first time she returned to Pakistan and took the country by storm. She deliberately chose to fly back via Lahore. As she said, I have to make an impact in Lahore If I am going to make an impact in Pakistan. She took a Pakistan International Airline flight from Saudi Arabia to Lahore and sitting in first class, alone she stared out of the window into the clouds and said to herself, in just a couple of hours I will know if I have a future or not.
When the plane landed, she scanned the horizon from the windows dismayed that the airport looked empty and there wasn’t a soul in sight. As she told me later, “my heart sank”.
When she walked out of the plane, there were three solitary figures at the bottom of the stairs. They were from her party. They looked at her, “Bibi jaan, don’t, there are a million people outside but Zia won’t let anyone into the airport”.
It took her over 19 hours to travel from the airport to the centre of town and in those 19 hours, a new political star was born. She repeated that performance days later in Peshawar, then Quetta and then finally, at her home, Karachi.
By the end of that first week, Pakistan knew its future prime minister would be Benazir Bhutto. It was just a matter of time before she took over.
My last conversation with Benazir was four days ago. Roughly a week before that, I had interviewed the National Security Adviser, MK Narayanan, who had expressed doubts about Benazir’s ability to deliver on her promises to India. He pointedly mentioned that in 1988 she had made certain commitments to Rajiv Gandhi, which she had, he claimed, failed to deliver on.
This infuriated Benazir. Within hours of the interview being broadcast, she rang me, upset and angry.
“Why did he say this?” she asked. “If he had questioned my constitutional position caught between the President and army chief, I could have understood, but he didn’t. Instead, he questioned my ability to deliver. He seemed to be questioning my integrity.”
I tried to assure her. I told her that she was reading too much but she would not listen. “What is worse”, Karan, she added, “is that he then went on to mention an incident in 1988 when he claims I made a commitment to Rajiv which I did not deliver on… The truth is that Rajiv made a commitment to me that Rajiv backed out of. But I never spoke about that and I never will. So why are these false allegations being made.”
Days later, I mentioned this to G Parthasarthy. In ’88, Partha was part of Rajiv’s PMO and had visited Islamabad with Rajiv. Years later, Partha was high commissioner to Islamabad. Partha confirmed that what Benazir said was correct and the NSA’s scepticism of Benazir was misplaced.
Partha told me that Rajiv had made commitment on Siachen which he had not been able to keep. When I said if he would say this in public and set the record straight, he laughed but declined: “I cant defend Benazir by letting down Rajiv.”
Tonight, when Benazir is dead, and so tragically killed, I hope Partha will understand if I make this story public and I hope the NSA will appreciate the reason why I am sharing with the world Benazir’s side of the story.
That conversation led to two or three more. I warned her to be careful.
“Don’t take silly unnecessary risks,” I said. Benazir laughed. It was an infectious little girl laugh.
“Karan, I can’t live with fear in my heart. I can’t fight terror scared of the terrorist. And if ordinary people have to face up to death, then politicians must be ready to face that situation first.”