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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Benazir Bhutto: An Intangible Legacy

Former Executive Editor of The Express Tribune discusses Benazir Bhutto’s tumultuous life, legacy, and the impact she left on the Pakistan Peoples Party and others.

Eleven years is a long time. But it is still very difficult to accept that Benazir Bhutto is no more. She is missed, she is mourned and she is remembered with fond memories by many, including scribes like me who had the good fortune of observing her from very close quarters while covering her as she began her tumultuous political career that spanned over 30 eventful years and then also having had the misfortune of writing her obituary.

But much has happened since her assassination to turn her, at the national level, into a fading memory because the national party that she had left behind has in the intervening period turned into a provincial one in size and reach and today it is confined to the rural part of Sindh.

The left-oriented slogan, “Land to the Landless”, proved irresistible to the peasants. The working class and labour movement quickly flocked to the party.

Second, the uplifting political narrative that she and her father had used to rally political support of the downtrodden has meanwhile been assumed by other mainstream parties including PML-N and PTI, with the latter employing it more effectively. Third, General Zia’s legacy of Islamisation and Jihad has shrunk the political space for parties anchored to progressive ideologies.

She challenged a ruthless military dictator, suffered for her daring, managed to revive a political party which had gone into doldrums, and made history by becoming the first woman to win the coveted office of Prime Minister of a Muslim country and that too, twice. But all this has turned into an intangible legacy; unlike that of the General Ayub era, which is remembered for the fast-paced industrialization, the military pacts he had entered into with the US and the Indus Basin Treaty that he signed with India.

Her father is remembered for giving the nation the 1973 constitution and his legacy of nationalization. Zia is remembered for Islamisation and Jihad. Nawaz would perhaps be remembered for the motorways he built. And Musharraf would probably be remembered for letting terrorism take a deadly hold on the nation.

At 29, Benazir was locked in an acrimonious confrontation with a military dictator who had a rubber-stamp Supreme Court send her father to gallows on trumped-up murder charges; suffered a couple of years of solitary incarceration in Sukkur which sizzles in summer and a five-year-long exile. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) at 29 was already a government insider.

Read more: Benazir Bhutto: Pakistan’s Iron Lady

It was perhaps the ruthless persecution of PPP by General Zia ul Haq that sucked Benazir into Pakistan’s political cauldron. Still, she was 26 when she became co-chairperson of the Party. And by the time she eased Begum Nusrat Bhutto out of the Party office, Benazir was a mature lady of 34. Benazir did not automatically inherit her father’s political mantle. First, she was not the first of ZAB’s children.

Second, she was a woman in an overly man’s world soaked in an obscurantist version of Islam. When Zulfiqar Bhutto launched the PPP, he was more mature and experienced at 34, as he had already for a couple of years held the office of Secretary-General of the ruling Convention Muslim League besides having held a number of portfolios in Ayub’s cabinet including that of the country’s foreign ministry.

Benazir had also needed, in view of the fact that it was now a unipolar world with the U.S. at the helm, to amend PPP’s anti-American stance.

When ZAB returned home after attending Berkley, Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, he was 27 and one of the most highly educated young barristers in the country. By the time Benazir went to Harvard and Oxford studying governance, philosophy, politics, and economics, she was not an exception. There were many girls in the country with a similar upbringing.

ZAB launched the PPP as the Vietnam War was winding down in the late 1960s and the world was being swept by left of- center winds. Western Europe and even the U.S. to some extent, had become social welfare states with public sector catering for the nations’ education, health, transport, communication, housing, energy, and water. Bhutto’s program directly targeted the country’s poverty-stricken masses.

Benazir waves to a crowd in Lahore upon her return in 1986.

The left-oriented slogan, “Land to the Landless”, proved irresistible to the peasants. The working class and labour movement quickly flocked to the party. Many other members of society who had felt stifled and repressed by the authoritarian regime also joined the new party. The party’s manifesto attracted the country’s numerous sectarian minorities.

Eventually, the socialist-oriented catchphrase ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makan’ became a nationwide rallying-call for the Party. However, by the time Benazir returned home in 1986 to a memorable welcome, the world had undergone a qualitative change on the ideological front. Soviet Communism was breathing its last gasps. Europe and the U.S. were on their way to the era of less government. British Prime Minister Mrs.

Read more: Who killed Benazir Bhutto? The theories behind the murder

Thatcher of the Conservative Party had forced the opposition to morph into New Labour, which ideologically seemed similar to the Conservatives if not identical. In Reagan’s U.S. social infrastructure carried a price tag. In Pakistan, nobody knew what had happened to the unencumbered billions that had come in by way of rent for our assistance to the U.S. in its war of attrition against the Soviets in Afghanistan.


And by the time Zia died in an air crash in August 1988, our kitty had bottomed off forcing the then finance minister, late Mehbubul Haq to run to the IMF, for a paltry standby loan, which the fund agreed to provide but only to the winner of the 1988 elections. So, the winner, Benazir led PPP, walked straight into the Washington Consensus that was opposed to the social welfare agenda of ZAB’s PPP.

Benazir had also needed, in view of the fact that it was now a unipolar world with the U.S. at the helm, to amend PPP’s anti-American stance. She also needed to establish working relations with the country’s establishment that had bitterly persecuted the PPP all through Zia’s 11-year rule. The establishment suspected her credentials. Some even branded her as a security risk.

The former was roughly estimated to be about 33 percent and the rest was anti-Bhutto. But most of these anti-Bhutto votes were scattered over a number of right-wing political parties.

Here let me digress a little. The return of Benazir in 1986 from exile, had happened at about the time when the U.S. administration was distancing itself from President General Zia ul Haq because the latter was opposing the Geneva Accord talks, which had begun in 1985 between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. These Accords were finally signed in early 1989 between Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan and Soviet-backed Najibullah’s Afghanistan with the U.S. and the Soviet Union standing in as guarantors.

Zia was perhaps opposed to Benazir’s return as well but the then Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo who had started asserting his independence had facilitated her return, presumably on the advice of the U.S. Of course, there is no tangible evidence of money having been used in the 1988 elections. But the then ISI Chief General Hamid Gul according to his own public admission did put together the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (or IJI), a conglomerate of almost all the right-wing parties of the country in September 1988 to stop Benazir Bhutto led PPP from winning the forthcoming November elections.

Read more: Did Zardari’s ‘thug security’ cost Benazir Bhutto her life?

However, the PPP still managed to win the 1988 elections. But in the next elections called in October 1990, the establishment did not take any chances. According to another former ISI chief Asad Durrani’s admission, he had distributed millions of rupees among Pakistani politicians including many of those belonging to the PML and Jamaat-i-Islami in 1990 “on the instructions of the then army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg and late President Ghulam Ishaq Khan”.

Benazir’s homecoming rally in Karachi, 2007.

Here one needs to remember that Benazir did not actually inherit the Party that ZAB had founded. It had been completely decimated by General Zia and his cronies by the time Benazir came of age and took over the chairperson’s office from Begum Nusrat Bhutto, who despite the destruction of the Party at the hands of Zia had succeeded in keeping its vote bank intact. ZAB had founded a left-of-center party which was more left than center.

Benazir, on the other hand, when she died left behind a party which was more center than left. Throughout the three decades leading up to the turn of the century, the electorate in Pakistan was divided into a pro and anti-Bhutto vote. The former was roughly estimated to be about 33 percent and the rest was anti-Bhutto.

It was Benazir who had selected the candidates and issued them tickets to contest the 2008 elections. Zardari was not even remotely connected with this selection process. 

But most of these anti-Bhutto votes were scattered over a number of right-wing political parties. Over the last two decades or so, the anti-Bhutto vote seems to have disappeared gradually. That is why no political party, even staunchly opposed to the PPP, tries to mobilize political support with anti-Bhutto rhetoric anymore. Most avoid criticizing the Bhuttos in public. It is not considered good politics.

That is another reason why perhaps the PPP is finding it increasingly difficult to attract voters using the name of Bhuttos. ZAB had subscribed to the Fabian philosophy that had fostered the idea of advancing the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort rather than by revolutionary overthrow. And Benazir, on the other hand, was inspired first by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s politics and later seems to have persuaded herself to subscribe to what was called the New Labour when the British Labour Party morphed into a caricature of Conservatives.

Read more: International Women’s Day: GVS pays tribute to Benazir Bhutto

While trying to adjust their respective political aspirations to the ground realities in Pakistan both ZAB and BB had gradually become centrists attracting a large nation-wide crowd encompassing people belonging to right-of-center and left-of-center, as well as pure centrists. Most of these voters now seem to have gone over to the PML-N and the PTI because of the quality of governance of the PPP during the last ten years, five of which were at the center and an entire decade in the province of Sindh.

It was Benazir who had selected the candidates and issued them tickets to contest the 2008 elections. Zardari was not even remotely connected with this selection process. Had she been alive and led the election campaign perhaps she would have swept the polls hands down. However, her tragic assassination did not seem to have attracted enough sympathy votes.

Benazir Bhutto legacy

In fact, it lost many, because of the uncertainty that had engulfed the Party when Asif Ali Zardari took over after her assassination. Benazir’s return from self-exile in 2007, like in 1986, was facilitated by the U.S. as like then differences had presumably cropped up between the U.S. administration and the then Pakistani military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf over how to go about restoring peace in Afghanistan.

Benazir’s condition for returning home was removal of the constitutional bar against contesting for the third time for the office of the PM. The demand was rejected by Musharraf but he accepted the alternate demand that had asked for withdrawal of all cases of corruption instituted against her and her party leaders including her husband. A National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was promulgated by the President making way for return of both Benazir and Nawaz.

Read more: I persuaded Benazir Bhutto against returning to Pakistan: friend

An attempt was made to assassinate Benazir in Karachi on the very day that she returned from her self-exile which she escaped. But she could not survive the second attempt made in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. Like most high profile assassinations in this country, hers too seems likely to join the list of Pakistan’s blind murders like that of Liaquat Ali Khan and Murtaza Bhutto. Indeed, a decade is too long a period for leads, both hard and circumstantial, to have remained alive. Still, the hunt must continue.

Muhammad Ziauddin is a freelance Journalist with a Postgraduate Degree in Journalism. In his 55 year career, he was Executive Editor at The Express Tribune, Former Resident Editor Dawn, Islamabad, and Former Editor, The News, Rawalpindi. He was also named among the ‘100 information heroes’ list published by Reporters Without Borders (RWB) to mark the World Press Freedom Day (May 3, 2014).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.