we were in puerto vallarta, in the middle of a sunny mexican vacation, when i turned on the tv to check out some spanish programming and found out instead that benazir bhutto had been assassinated. i was shocked. it seemed surreal. of course there had been the deadly bomb blasts in karachi, killing 140 people in a ppp (pakistan people’s party) rally, assembled to welcome her home after 11 years of self-exile. there had been all the threats against her and her insistence on getting better protection from the government. but it still seemed unreal. my friend sue once described benazir bhutto as a rock star – she certainly had the entourage and that dramatic “big production” feel about her. she was also strongly backed by the u.s. it was galling to see her negotiate her party’s “package” with musharraf from the safe confines of the united states, like the exacting ceo of an american multi-national (so much for pakistan’s sovereignty). all of this made her seem untouchable, impervious to danger. yet, there it was. she had been shot. benazir bhutto was gone.
let me start by saying that benazir bhutto was not liked by most pakistanis. she was prime minister twice and both times she disappointed, monumentally. i remember the first time she was elected prime minister in 1988. this was after 11 years of oppression at the hands of general zia ul haq. the country was ready, no desperate, for change. we were suffocating. and benazir seemed to be the answer to our prayers. she was 35 years old. she was a woman. she was well-educated. and yes, she was zulfiqar ali bhutto’s daughter. we were glued to our televisions as she was sworn in – we could hardly contain our joy. democracy was finally working. we the people had elected benazir and we had high hopes for her. this euphoria lasted about a week. as soon as benazir came into power she made it clear that she intended to run pakistan like her ancestral fiefdom, back home in sind. this was her turn to loot the country and no one was going to tell her otherwise. the corruption charges just kept piling up. her husband was her front-man and they were making out like bandits. in 20 months, she went from being the darling of the people to pakistan’s most brazen plunderer. she thought that she had the power and pizazz to pull it off until she was removed from office by the president. she got re-elected in 1993 to be booted out once again in 1996, under similar circumstances. what a waste! what a gargantuan, wretched, miserable waste of an opportunity. this had been her moment in history. she could have changed the nature of pakistan’s military-dominated politics but she squandered every opportunity, twice.
were things going to be different this time around? not a chance. in the minds of many americans, benazir had bravely stood up to musharraf and asked for freedom and democracy. not so. while she had been busy outlining the demands of her executive package and finding mutually beneficial ways of working with musharraf, it was the lawyers, journalists and activists of pakistan who had shown astounding courage and stood up to a military dictator. they were the ones who were putting their lives on the line for the restoration of freedom and justice. when benazir realized that musharraf had no political currency in pakistan she conveniently latched on to this grassroots movement and began to talk the talk. yet the major political parties in pakistan did NOT lend their support to this movement. so while benazir was being portrayed as a righteous, house-arrested, populist heroine of pakistani democracy by american media, her party was not fighting that fight on the ground. the real heroes, lawyers like ali ahmed kurd, tariq mahmood, atizaz ahsan and munir a. malik, were on their own, left to cope valiantly with jail time and torture.
after musharraf sacked the supreme court and appointed his own cronies to legitimize his bid for “elected” head of state, instead of boycotting this sham election and asking for the restoration of the supreme court, benazir was more than happy to participate. these were the so-called elections she was campaigning for when she died. her death has come as a shock to the world but let’s not indulge in a diana-style romanticizing of her life. let’s not compare the bhutto dynasty to the kennedys. let’s not disneyfy her legacy. like william dalrymple has said: “bhutto was no aung san suu kyi”.
although i did not like benazir bhutto and had no confidence in her abilities as a leader or her intentions to govern pakistan in an honest and fair manner, i am deeply disturbed by her assassination. i am mortally afraid that this might have opened a pandora’s box. i do not want the politicians of pakistan to contest elections by having their opponents assassinated. i do not want the people of pakistan to live with the fear of being bumped off for any anti-establishment statement they might make. this is what frightens me – this sense of absolute power concentrated in the corrupt hands of a few. and this is why it is crucial that benazir’s death be investigated in the most meticulous fashion, by an impartial, international team. the perpetrators must be found and held to account. american aid must be contingent upon such an investigation. the stakes are huge. if we want stability in pakistan, and this is the refrain we keep hearing in the media, then we must make it clear that assassinations cannot become a political strategy, our faith in and adherence to realpolitik aside.