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Portrait from the lady

Benazir Bhutto's posthumous book Reconciliation presents her world as black and white. Which could explain why reading it is a colourless exercise.
By Lalita Panicker | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2008 07:14 PM IST

Ill fortune has pursued Pakistan's powerful Bhutto family as relentlessly as the Furies in a Greek tragedy. In Reconciliation, the book that former Pakistan Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) completed shortly before she met a violent end, she speaks with sadness of the blood-soaked history of her now fanatical and dangerous country.

She hopes that she, the 'true inheritor' of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto could bring it out of the deathly grip of fundamentalism and militarism and into the modern age.

But in a telling statement following the first attempt on her life after she made the last fateful journey to Pakistan following eight years in exile she says, "in Pakistan things are almost never as they seem".

To her credit, she has not gone down the path of blaming either the West or colonial oppressor for the mess that Pakistan and other Islamic countries are in today. The blame lies largely within, she says, as extremist Muslim has turned on moderate Muslim.

She projects herself as secular, democratic and the hope for the future. True, she was all that, but she has whitewashed her own dodgy record when she was PM of her country twice (1988-90 and 1923-96). As also her father's often deleterious policies and political naivete that eventually led the wily general Zia-ul Haq to get the better of him.

Benazir rightly points out the unholy nexus among the secretive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), fundamentalists organisations within the country and shadowy figures from the Taliban. But did she, experienced politician that she was, not see this coming? If she did, she did precious little to stop it Like most politicians, she too was not averse to supping with the devil for short-term gains. This explains why she looked the other way - or as some sources have it, colluded, while Pervez Musharraf unleashed the dogs of war in Kashmir.

Bhutto's world is black and white. The pristine Bhuttos, including her notoriously corrupt husband, dubbed 'Mr 10 per cent', in Pakistan on one side and the evil generals on the other. That the Bhuttos were not averse to using these generals for their own ends is deftly glossed over.

She dwells at length on the democratic credentials of the Bhuttos but sees nothing wrong in her inheriting the mantle of her father and thence passing it on to her husband and son. The Bhuttos, she seems to suggest, are in some monarchical way the custodians of a democratic system that need not necessarily apply to themselves.

When the Islamic world's first woman PM and a pivotal figure in Pakistan politics writes what is a political biography, one would expect to come away with a greater understanding of what exactly transformed Pakistan from Mohammad Ali Jinnah's vision of a modern, inclusive society to a terrifying haven for terrorists.

But, instead, Bhutto devotes page after page to try and project Islam as compatible with democracy and Islam as a just and fair religion vis-a-vis women. The Prophet's wife, Khadija, she tells us, was the world's first Muslim. She then dwells at length on the contemporary histories of Islamic countries across the world ranging from Tunisia to Mali.

She also naively asserts that with development and education, the forces of fundamentalism can be vanquished. But we have seen from recent experience, starting from 9/11, that the disgruntled fanatic could well be your educated and urbane neighbour There is little in the book on India with whom both she and her father had a love-hate relationship.

Both Zulfikar and Benazir hyphenated the two countries, at once grudgingly acknowledging India's success with democracy, but also vitriolic about what both perceived as its hegemonic ambitions. She does not dwell enough on the historic Shimla accord or her interactions with Rajiv Gandhi at a time when these two young leaders offered the hope of deliverance for the fractious subcontinent.

Had she not met such a gruesome death so shortly after the first attempt the day she arrived in Pakistan, one could have been forgiven for feeling that she was being paranoid. She talks of lights dimming at street corners as her cavalcade passed; she refers to jammer failures; she laments Musharraf's refusal to give her the kind of security she needed.

Over 179 people, her supporters, died in that attack. She claims a baby whose clothes were lined with explosives was used to trigger off the explosions. But she seems to take it for granted that those who worship the Bhutto dynasty would give their lives for the magical name. Many of the dying, she says, uttered 'Jeay Bhutto!' (Long live Bhutto).

She does not even allude to the fact that despite the full knowledge that an attempt would be made on her life, she did not hesitate to put the lives of so many innocent people in danger. Despite the many shortcomings, her narrative makes one thing clear She had learnt her lessons from past mistakes.

She was no longer prepared to have alliances of convenience. She minced no words about either al-Qaida or the Taliban, and she saw no future for a system in which dictators would cal1the shots. She also held what is perhaps a Panglossian view that the clash between Islam and the West could be resolved. But tragically she did not live to see which way the dice would roll.

As Pakistan goes to elections tomorrow, and as her party takes on a mighty army machinery, it remains to be seen how much the 'Daughter of the East' is able to influence the outcome from beyond the grave. A victory for democracy would validate in many ways the life and times of Benazir Bhutto.

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