Benazir Bhutto: Woman of substance

Benazir Bhutto: Woman of substance


Her eyes are the windows to her soul – and her spirit. Expressive and eloquent, one minute they flash fire and the next turn demure and downcast. That is also, perhaps, an equally eloquent expression of the evolution of Benazir Bhutto, from a glamorous, westernised and somewhat high-strung socialite to a woman who would be queen.

Some are born to greatness. Some achieve it. Others have it thrust upon them. With Benazir, the three have been so inextricably intertwined as to transform her personality into a paranthesis of paradoxes. The greatness lies in the fact that she has been able to transcend her past – and her prejudices – and emerge as eminently suitable for a position that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.

The secret lies perhaps in her strong sense of history and her part in its making which has so long been denied to her. For Benazir, the ascension to power in Pakistan is as much an expression of personal faith as it is a belief in her own destiny.

More remarkably, Benazir has achieved what is perhaps her greatest triumph. She has rendered her past irrelevant. Till now, Benazir’s biggest handicap has been, ironically enough, the fortuitousness of her birth. Born into affluence and the privileges of power, her early life – an exclusive convent, Radcliffe and then Oxford – was far removed from the bruising battleground of Pakistan politics. She may have been a daughter of the east but her initial orientation and psychological upbringing were predominantly western.

Benazir Bhutto outside her Karachi house in 1986: New maturity
Benazir Bhutto outside her Karachi house in 1986: New maturity

Even so, she had a certain mystique and independence of spirit that marked her as someone special. It was precisely that which prompted Bhutto to anoint her as his political heir rather than her two brothers or her mother, Nusrat.

She had a certain mystique and independence of spirit that marked her as someone special. This prompted Bhutto to anoint her as his political heir, rather than her two brothers or her mother.

Thus, well before fate – in the form of General Zia who ordered her father’s execution in 1977 – intervened to reorder her life and ambitions, Benazir was slowly and inexorably being drawn into the vortex of her destiny – as a future claimant to the throne of Islamabad.

At first, it seemed a very distant horizon. Benazir appeared to have inherited the most prominent characteristics of her father – imperiousness and arrogance. That coupled with a certain political immaturity dimmed the lustre, and appeared to reduce her chances of ever coming to power in Pakistan.

It may be the ultimate irony, but the man who perhaps did the most to restore her credibility and her resoluteness of purpose was Zia himself. For seven years after her father’s death, Benazir was put through a baptism of fire. Detention, solitary confinement, house arrest and exile, the shackles on her life were intended to break her spirit and deface her image. Instead, it had the opposite effect. She emerged charged with a new energy, the halo of a martyr and the look of a leader.

The fire had tempered her, like steel, into a deadly and sharp-edged weapon. The Benazir who returned riding in triumph through the streets of Lahore in April 1986 was a different person from the vengeful young woman who had chosen exile over humiliation.

The impetus for that came from the hysterical crowds who celebrated her return. Not even Zulfikar Bhutto, at the height of his popularity, had commanded such a massive turnout. But the hysteria also prompted over-confidence. “I can topple the Government any time I want,” she announced then. It did not take long for Benazir to realise that she had the support of the crowds but they were not ready to take to the streets and stage a showdown with the army for her. For that, she needed to prove that she would be able to work within the complexities of the system, not outside of it.

This was when the real flowering of Benazir occurred. Her arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner was as much an expression of her commitment to her country as it was a symbol of snapping her ties with her past. As she says in her autobiography: “An arranged marriage was the price in personal choice I had to pay for the political path my life had taken.” After Zia’s death, her pronouncements reflected the new maturity she had discovered in herself. She realised that the army had to be won over and carefully tailored her statements to reassure them that their exclusive status in Pakistan would remain intact, if more apolitical. More crucial, she made it clear that Pakistan’s special relationship with the United States would not be disturbed.

On another level, she set about restructuring the Pakistan People’s Party into the kind of political force she wanted behind her: people who belonged to her father’s generation were replaced by a new generation of leaders, more attuned to her own views and philosophy.

But it was during her election campaign that Benazir excelled herself. A mesmerising orator, she was nonetheless moderate and restrained. In the weeks of emotion-charged campaigning, she skilfully resisted the urge to dance on Zia’s grave – not once did she criticise him personally, merely his regime. In Pakistan’s conservative society, it was a gesture that bestowed her with an added aura of maturity.

Now, as she stands poised to become the youngest leader of any democratic country, it is perhaps fitting that she should be the one to guide Pakistan on its first hesitant steps towards a new era of hope and transition. She has no experience of governance. But in the last few weeks, she has succeeded in firing the imagination of not only the people of Pakistan but the rest of the watching world.

In the last few weeks she has also shown that she has the qualities and the political skill and flexibility to become an effective and democratic leader. The optimism may be short-lived. Benazir may turn out to be another Cory Aquino or, to use a closer parallel, another Rajiv Gandhi. But she has sacrificed too much and fought too hard for her rightful place in history to recklessly throw it all away. Now, finally, her destiny lies in her own hands.



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