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The Legacy of Benazir

A striking, courageous woman, she lent herself to being a symbol. In

Sunday 6 January 2008, by WILLIAM DALRYMPLE

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is another body-blow for Pakistan,
whose trajectory is every day appearing more and more distinct from
that of its estranged sister, India. The killing has already caused
widespread rioting; if government involvement in the shooting is
proven, or at least widely suspected, it might even push Pakistan
into full-scale civil war.

The fatal assassin’s bullet in Benazir’s neck removes from the scene
a courageous, secular and liberal woman who continued to fight on
despite a suicide bomb attack aimed at eliminating her the day of her
return from exile, and who shrugged off the clear danger to her life
that further campaigning entailed.

It gives further momentum to Pakistan’s jehadis in their campaign to
turn Pakistan into a Taliban-like Islamist state, and may well lead
to the postponement of the January 8 election though the caretaker PM
for the moment has said they will be held on schedule. Nawaz Sharif,
leader of the rival Muslim League (N), has said his party will now
boycott the poll, which already makes its results meaningless.

Benazir’s death is also, of course, a personal tragedy, both for the
striking woman who embodied the hopes of so many liberal Pakistanis,
and for her family. Benazir Bhutto has three children who will now be
left motherless, and a party—the most popular in the country—which
will be left leaderless. She has no clear successor, and trained up
no one as a deputy who can easily fill her shoes. As she said herself
in her last speech, shortly before being killed, "Bomb blasts are
taking place everywhere", "The country is in great danger."

The West always had a soft spot for Benazir. Her neighbouring heads
of state may have been figures as unpredictable and potentially
alarming as President Ahmadinejad of Iran and a clutch of Afghan
warlords—but Benazir has always seemed reassuringly familiar to
Western governments. She spoke English fluently because it was her
first language. She had an English governess, went to a convent run
by Irish nuns, and rounded off her education with degrees from
Harvard and Oxford. For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn’t was possibly more attractive even than what she was: she wasn’t a
religious fundamentalist, she didn’t have a beard, she didn’t
organise mass rallies where everyone shouts ’Death to America’, and
she doesn’t issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors—even though Salman Rushdie went out of his way to ridicule her as the Virgin
Ironpants in Shame.

However the very reasons that make the West love Benazir are the same that leave many Pakistanis with second thoughts. Her English may be fluent, but you can’t say the same about her Urdu which she speaks like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently but ungrammatically. Her
Sindhi is even worse: apart from a few imperatives, she is completely
at sea.

Equally, the tragedy of Benazir’s end should not blind us to her as
astonishingly weak record as a politician. Benazir was no Aung San
Suu Kyi, and much of the praise now being heaped upon her is
misplaced. In reality, Benazir’s own democratic credentials were far
from impeccable. She colluded in massive human rights abuses, and
during her tenure, government death squads in Karachi were
responsible for the abduction and murder of hundreds of her MQM
opponents. Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world’s worst records of custodial deaths, killings and torture.

Within her own party, she declared herself the lifetime president of
the PPP, and refused to let her brother Murtaza challenge her for its
leadership. When he was shot dead in highly suspicious circumstances
outside her home, Benazir was implicated. His wife Ghinwa, and her
daughter Fatima, as well as Benazir’s own mother, all firmly believed
that she gave the order to have him killed.

As recently as this autumn, Benazir did and said nothing to stop
President Musharraf ordering the US and UK-brokered "extraordinary
rendition" of her rival Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, and so remove
from the election her most formidable rival. Many of her supporters
regarded her deal with Musharraf as a betrayal of all her party stood

Benazir also, famously, presided over the looting of Pakistan. In
1995, during her rule, Transparency International named Pakistan one
of world’s three most corrupt countries. Bhutto and her husband, Asif
Zardari—widely known as ’Mr 10 Per cent’—faced corruption charges
in Pakistan, Switzerland, the UK, and the US.

Moreover, personally, as well as intellectually, she was a
lightweight, with little grasp of economics; nor did she subscribe to
any firm political philosophy. Benazir’s favourite reading was royal
biographies and slushy romances: on a visit to her old Karachi
bedroom, I found stacks of well-thumbed Mills & Boons lining the
walls; a striking contrast to the high-minded and cultured Indira
Gandhi, in some ways her nearest Indian counterpart in their flawed
centrality to their respective nations’ histories.

Partly as a result of this lack of ideological direction, Benazir was
a notably inept administrator. During her first 20-month-long
premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of
major legislation, and during her two periods in power she did almost
nothing to help the liberal causes she espoused so enthusiastically
to the Western media. It was under her watch that Pakistan’s secret
service, the ISI, helped instal the Taliban in Pakistan, and she did
nothing to rein in the agency’s disastrous policy of training up
fundamentalist jehadis to do the ISI’s dirty work in India and

enazir was a feudal landowner, whose family owned great tracts of
Sindh. Real democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because
landowning remains the principal social base from which politicians
emerge. The educated middle class—which in India gained control in
1947—is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political
process. Behind Pakistan’s swings between military government and
democracy lies a surprising continuity of interests: to some extent,
Pakistan’s industrial, military and landowning elites are all
interrelated and look after one another. The recent deal between
Musharraf and Benazir, intended to exclude her only real rival, Nawaz
Sharif, was typical of the way that the army and the politicians have
shared power with minimal reference to the actual wishes of the

Today Benazir is being hailed as "a martyr for freedom and
democracy", at least in the American networks. Yet in many ways she
was the person who did more than anything to bring Pakistan’s strange
variety of democracy—really a form of ’elective feudalism’—into
disrepute and helped fuel the growth of the Islamists.

Now, amid the mourning and shock, there is also some hope that
Benazir’s death could yet act as a wake-up call for the secular and
moderate majority in the country. The PPP still contains many of
Pakistan’s most talented politicians—such as the leader of the
lawyers’ movement, the articulate Cambridge-educated Aitzaz Ahsan, or the stylish human rights activist, Sherry Rehman, who was a former
editor of Pakistan’s best newsmagazine, The Herald. If such people
were to take over the party, rather than more Sindhi feudals like
Benazir’s corrupt husband, Asif Ali Zardari (today apparently the
frontrunner at the beginning of the race), or the PPP’s vice-
chairman, Amin Fahim, they could open it up to the urban middle
class, and steer the party into power as a genuinely democratic,
meritocratic and moderate force for good.

If this were to happen, there is still a glimmer of hope that
Benazir’s death might yet strengthen democracy in Pakistan, and end
the long and disastrous period of power-sharing between the country’s
landowners and their military cousins. But sadness at the demise of
this courageous woman should not mask the fact that she was as much
part of Pakistan’s problems as its solution.