Benazir Bhutto did five years of hard
time in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, after her father,
Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown and hanged by the
worst of Pakistan’s military dictators, General Muhammad
Zia-ul-Haq. But she was a woman who liked her privileges and her
luxuries, and she was never a very effective politician.
I got to know Benazir Bhutto a bit in
the mid-1970s, when she had finished her degree at Harvard and was
doing graduate work at Oxford University. She actually spent much of
her time in London, in a grand flat she kept just off Hyde Park.
If you knew a lot of people in town who
took an interest in Middle Eastern and subcontinental affairs (I had
been studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies), and you
weren’t too old or too boring, you were likely to end up at
her flat once in a while, at what some would call a salon but I would
call a party.
A fairly decorous party as those things
went in 70s London, to be sure, with everybody showing off their
sophisticated knowledge of the region’s politics and nobody
getting out of hand, but definitely a party. The hostess was
well informed and quite clever, and she obviously had money coming out
of her ears. We knew her dad had been prime minister of Pakistan before
Zia overthrew him, of course, but she was neither a serious scholar nor
a budding politician.
She seemed more American than Pakistani
in her style and attitudes, but beneath the Radcliffe and Harvard
veneer she also seemed like thousands of other young upper-class women
from Pakistan and India who were floating around London at the
time. They called one another by girlish nicknames like
“Bubbles,” they didn’t take anything very
seriously (including their studies), and they seemed destined for a
life of idle privilege.
Then Benazir Bhutto went back to
Pakistan in 1977, just about the time that Zia had her father sentenced
to death in a rigged trial. He was hanged in 1979, and Benazir was
thrown into jail for five years. But when she came out after Zia died,
she was already the head of the party her father had founded, the
Pakistan People’s Party, and by 1988 she was prime minister.
She was only 35.
She was prime minister twice, from
1988-90 and 1993-96, and was removed from power both times on
corruption charges. The charges have never been proved in court, but
the evidence of kickbacks and commissions, especially to her husband
Asif Zardari, whom she foolishly made investment minister, is pretty
overwhelming. But that was not the real problem.
The problem was that she never seemed to
have any goal in politics, apart from vindicating her father by leading
his party back to power. At the start she was hugely popular, but she
wasted her opportunity to make real changes in Pakistan because she had
no notion (beyond the usual rhetoric) of what a better Pakistan would
look like. Pakistan is already pretty good for her sort of people, so
it should not surprise us that there was almost nothing to show for her
years in office.
If she had become prime minister again,
which was a quite likely outcome of the current crisis, there is no
reason to believe that she would have done any better this time. Her
assassination just makes it harder to solve the crisis at all.
Benazir Bhutto’s party, the
PPP, has no alternative leader with national visibility. The other
major opposition party leader, Nawaz Sharif, is equally compromised by
his past failures, and is currently planning to boycott the elections
scheduled for 8 January. Ex-general Pervez Musharraf, who had
himself “re-elected” president in October and
imposed emergency rule in order to dismiss the supreme court judges who
would have ruled his “election” illegal, is totally
discredited and unlikely to last much longer.
The most probable outcome is a new
period of military rule under a different ruler, simply for lack of a
good alternative. It is pathetic that a country the size of Pakistan
should have so few inspiring or even promising candidates for high
The vast majority of
Pakistan’s politicians, and of the people who run pretty well
everything else in the country apart from the armed forces, are drawn
from the three or four percent of the population who constitute the
country’s traditional elite. It is a very shallow pool of
talent, made up of people who have a big stake in the stratus quo and a
huge sense of entitlement.
Look east to India, west to Iran, or
north to China, and by comparison Pakistan’s political
demography is absolutely feudal. So long as that remains the case, it
is absurd to imagine that democracy will solve Pakistan’s
problems. I admired Benazir Bhutto’s courage and I
am very sorry that she was killed, but she could never have been
Gwynne Dyer is a
London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45