Remembering Benazir

SIXTEEN years ago this day, Benazir Bhutto became the highest-profile victim of terrorism. The wound inflicted by the assassination of one of Pakistan’s most charismatic leaders has not yet healed.

With the country facing what is perhaps the most difficult and testing time in its history, the loss of Benazir Bhutto is felt more than ever. The long shadow of despotism is hanging over the country yet again.

Benazir galvanised a people wary of a long period of authoritarian rule and gave voice to the dispossessed and disenfranchised masses. Even her bitterest political opponents gave her credit for her courage and defiance, which may have ultimately cost her her life.

The controversy over how Benazir was killed exposed the chasm of trust between the Pakistani state and its people. It is still not known who plotted her assassination.

Benazir undoubtedly had her weak points but her sincerity to the cause of democracy was beyond doubt. I was a witness to the era that marked her epic struggle. As a journalist, I was privileged to be with her at various stages of her political struggle.

During that period, I had numerous on- and off-the-record conversations with her, giving me a rare insight into her political evolution. She was a fighter all the way.

She began her political career as the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto but turned out to be a leader in her own right. She had the intellectual capacity to engage with even her strongest critics, a quality rarely found in our political leaders. Her loss is more than that of a political leader. She came to symbolise the unity of an uneasy federation. Her death exacerbated political divisions and polarisation.

Benazir served twice as prime minister but both her terms were short-lived. Her first stint came after the PPP swept the polls in 1988 following the death of Gen Zia in an air crash. It was apparent that the generals conceded reluctantly to the people’s verdict. The handing over of power to the PPP was not unconditional.

Sixteen years after the death of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan once again finds itself at a crossroads.

It was fairly obvious that the powerful generals had never reconciled with the idea of a Bhutto government. But she accepted the challenge. “I am a fighter and fighters don’t give up,” she told me in her first interview as prime minister. And that she was.

The generals waited for an opportune moment to strike. After just one and a half years in power, the PPP government was removed in August 1990 in what was described as a constitutional coup.

Benazir was implicated in a number of cases. Every effort was made to rig the elections. Against this backdrop, the 1990 election results did not come as much of a surprise. “Elections have been stolen,” a shocked Benazir said as the elections results were being announced on television. She was in tears.

That was darkest period for Benazir. She spent her time going from one court to another. It was, perhaps, the most testing of times for the former prime minister with demoralisation gripping her party. There was also a move to disqualify her and force her to leave the country. However, all that failed to break her determination.

Her triumphant return to power in November 1993 marked the culmination of another period of struggle. With a majority in the National Assembly and a president from her own party, she felt comfortable. She also seemed to have learnt from her past mistakes and was much more chastened. She wanted to move forward and leave behind the treatment meted out to her.

There was a much better environment for her new government to function in. She was more familiar with the system of government. But the challenges were no less. Despite an extremely favourable political situation, the second Benazir government started floundering midway through her term.

The fate of her fledgling government was sealed when her brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed in September 1996 at a police shootout outside his house. The tragedy shook Benazir. She believed that her brother’s murder was the result of a larger conspiracy to destabilise her government.

It summarily brought to an end the three-year-long second Benazir Bhutto government. There was a sense of déjà vu as an elected prime minister was sent packing yet again. She was implicated once more in multiple cases and she left the country to escape persecution.

Benazir finally returned to Pakistan on Oct 18, 2007. As her procession proceeded, suddenly, in quick succession, two huge blasts struck her truck. Mayhem ensued, with mutilated bodies littering the street. It was the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. Benazir survived. But the assassins pursued her. On Dec 27, 2007, a second attack on Benazir in Rawalpindi succeeded. She became a victim of the same terrorism she had vowed to fight.

Pakistan is once again standing at a crossroads as it observes the 16th anniversary of her death today. It is a nation maimed, its very existence threatened by growing internal fissures and rising extremism. Social and cultural divides have become more pronounced, with growing economic disparity, and increasing discontent in the ranks of the new underclass.

A major question before us now is whether the country can continue on a democratic path or whether it will be ruled by the forces of authoritarianism. The country needs political reconciliation. It needs another charter of democracy on the lines of the 2006 document that Benazir Bhutto signed with her arch-rival and another former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. There has to be a charter of economy to take the country out of the present crisis as well as a new social contract recognising the democratic rights of all nationalities in order to keep the country united under a federal system.

But the main question is whether such reconciliation is possible with the widening political divide. The security establishment is now far more deeply entrenched in all aspects of the country’s power structure, turning Pakistan into a quasi-military dispensation. The challenge to democracy today is no less than what it was when Benazir was alive.

Thewriter is an author and journalist.

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