For decades, Benazir Bhutto mesmerized the people of Pakistan. Her beauty, charisma, exuberance, and intellect gave her a string of qualities that rallied people around her. But more than all this, what gave her a mass appeal, were the circumstances under which she took on the mantle of Pakistan Peoples Party, her father’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s most important legacy. A young woman in her mid-twenties took on the challenge to lead Bhutto’s party after he had been hanged in a farcical trial by a military dictator. General Zia’s coup brought a repressive regime, when many People’s Party workers were incarcerated, hanged, lashed, and several thousands went underground for years. The young and fiery Benazir Bhutto, leaving her own suffering aside, became a source of strength for her party, which she would lead from the front henceforth.
The Bhutto persona has been the backdrop to all of my life. I experienced Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise and fall as a child, and then Benazir Bhutto’s powerful presence, through my father, who has been on the PPP landscape ever since its inception and has remained a central political figure in the party. My own relationship with Benazir Bhutto was formal, with few communications, but I always awaited her occasional assignments for the party that she would send out from time to time. Of course, Benazir also gave me the first major push into Pakistan’s murky politics by nominating me for the position of Nazim of my home district.
Benazir adeptly transformed tragedy, oppression and threat into opportunity. She withstood arrests and exiles with admirable courage. Her contributions towards strengthening and evolving Pakistan People’s Party are impressive. As a party head, she sang praise for those workers who suffered during the Zia regime, and those who gave their life. She managed to string together dissenting groups and individuals, and manage the conflicts within the party, and yet be cohesive force. There were important continuities of the organization from Bhutto’s time. The concept of the ‘PPP worker’ continued to be its defining feature. Under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP worker, called jiyala, was defined as a vocal, highly emotional, full of fervour, aggressive, straight speaking party activist, who would tell it straight to the higher leaders of their weaknesses. The PPP worker did everything from raising slogans, to participating in meetings to mobilizing people on the ground, to resolving the day-to-day issues. And most importantly the worker was fearless, immune to government pressures, threats, arrests, and FIRs. This highly stylistic PPP worker has survived all trials and travails.
It would be more difficult to discuss Benazir’s contributions as a Prime Minister, primarily because even when she was at the helm of power, her rule was subject to back door intrigues by the dark forces, and was allowed little space to execute her policies with a free hand. Here too, she was sinned against, not for once being allowed to stay in power for the five years that people voted her for.
If I were to choose one enduring legacy in all of these aspects – it would be of her role in defining the shape and agenda of popular politics in Pakistan. From Movement for Restoration of Democracy to Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, Benazir Bhutto’s politics could simply be summed up as a struggle for restoration of a democratic order in a country that is increasingly perceived as a failed and fragmented state hostage to a cartel of greedy and roguish commando generals reeking of US dollars, arms, nuclear and drug trafficking, conspiracies of terror, sleazy deals– and bloodshed.
As she landed from her Dubai flight, we all noted that even physically she had become larger than life itself. She seemed to be caste from marble, and she seemed invincible, standing out as a surreal image, as someone descending from the skies. She was the quintessential heroine, a mythical character, and the stuff of a Greek legend.
In her election rallies, the tone and tenor of Benazir’s speeches riveted the crowds, and her voice echoed far and wide. She continued to voice the needs of the dispossessed and the poor. Her language was simple and crisp, but she spoke a fairy tale script, a classic battle of good against evil. “I have come to save Pakistan,” she repeated often. These made the entire nation believe that she would conquer and rescue their country from the forces of evil. Of course she knew very well that the road was rive with dangers, that there were conspiracies to end her life. But even at her most vulnerable, see seemed the most invincible. Her last images show her fighting posture, her confidence and her will.
Eventually her idealism and her belief that good will prevail over evil killed her. And of course, her love for her people killed her. She said in one of her interviews, that on Oct 18th, her procession was bombed because “They don’t want me to meet my people – but I will meet my people.”
On that fated evening, she came out of her Toyota sunroof, to meet the people she loved and who loved her. She raised her hand and said, ‘Jiye Bhutto’ “Bhutto lives,” as her final answer to her snipers, as they ended her life… And so, Benazir’s family narrative of dramatic and heartrending sacrifices endures in her own death.
In her twenties, Benazir buried her father at Garhi Khuda Bux, Bhutto ancestral graveyard. She then began to build the mausoleum, where she buried her younger brother Shahnawaz, and later Murtaza Bhutto both killed by the similar conspirators who took the life of the elder Bhutto. When she returned to her ancestral home two months back, her first visit was to Garhi Khuda Baksh, where she sat and recited verses from the Quran in front of her father’s tomb for a long time. She surveyed the work on the mausoleum, and paid homage to her elders. Who could tell then, that what she was examining in detail, would be the place where she would permanently rest in a few weeks time. Garhi Khuda Baksh would, from now on be not only the country’s most important political shrine, but one which treasures its history of political struggle and sacrifice.
We, the people, instinctively know the insidious and shadowy killers of Benazir Bhutto. We can sense them. We know it’s not Taliban or their mutants. They are far more sinister. We have seen them attack us before, by attacking those we have raised to pitch battles against them. But we don’t know yet how to name them.
But Benazir Bhutto’s shadowy killers must know that physical death does not stop history from taking its course. And Benazir has already set the terms of history in this region. In this Benazir was always a step ahead of her killer’s plans. Her prophetic words that echoed in all her later speeches were: “How many Bhuttos will you kill, a Bhutto will come out from every house” – and “Yesterday Bhutto lived; today also, Bhutto lives, already showed that Benazir had already moved beyond life, and become an icon.
In her death, she is even more powerful a symbol of strength and resistance than Benazir who lived among us. And the People’s Party is more entrenched than ever. As I overheard a PPP worker, “PPP is now more than a political party, it is a fiqh.”
If people loved Benazir Bhutto on the eve of her death, they worship her now. All over in the country, her photographs have been put up as garlanded shrines. If people cheered and followed her before her death, they have now become her devotees. The enemies of the populist politics have created a cult called Benazir, which will continue to fight the shadowy dark forces in this miserable land. Siyasi murshid siyasi pir, Benazir, Benazir.