Martyr of democracy By Nasim Zehra
The News, January 02, 2008
The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst
The recording room had broken into an audible weep. The news hit us like a ton of bricks, as if the sky had fallen. There was a sense of utter disbelief among the weeping women and men. Only minutes earlier there was news of Benazir Bhutto's injury, now the bombshell that she was no more. One more wound in our tormented soul I thought. Twenty eight years earlier when one morning the news of her father's hanging hit us, darkness had descended on us for days, months and year. That ugly darkness never left a nation's soul so aware that the military-led state had committed a judicial murder of a democratically elected national leader. Crying, screaming, agitated, weeping for ourselves, for the country , for her children, for the Bhutto family and calling for the 'killers' to die we left the recording room to condole with Benazir's cousin. Dumbstruck her cousin would tell us that Benazir's sister Sanam had last left Pakistan saying she may have to return soon to bury her only living sibling.
While in office, operating within a context that accentuates and not rein in personal weaknesses, Benazir Bhutto, like Nawaz Sharif, was a flawed prime minister. Yet there was the novelty and charm of Benazir that withstood the pressure of all her other weaknesses. She was intelligent, articulate and courageous. The first ever Muslim woman prime minister, Benazir functioned within the space that the establishment allowed her with confidence and determination.
Pakistan's historians have detailed the negative effect of battles between the establishment and popular politics fought through Benazir and Nawaz Sharif's periods. Benazir's second term in office too, like Nawaz Sharif's, was a combination of some achievements, some battling and some blunders. The shadow of the establishment forever hovered over the elected politicians with propaganda machines exaggerating their follies and squeezing their constitutionally granted space for action. The quality of some cronies who hovered around her was often no different from what generals and others in powers accumulated around them. Yet like most who hovered around Benazir, they had often traded possible power and privilege for assured harassment and struggle. It is a tribute to her political acumen plus her charisma that for all the years in oppositional politics she was able to hold on to her vote bank. This despite the establishment's efforts to break the party through family intrigues and break away groups. Admittedly Benazir's politics often alienated the brighter and the better from within her own party, yet in her battle for political survival in the face of endless odds she succeeded.
Benazir's final stint in active politics began with her October 18 return. She entered the fray through an arrangement with the military ruler and the tacit support of the Americans. She knew as all others in Pakistan's power play that America and the army are key influencing elements in Pakistan's power construct. Musharraf allowed her return to legitimize his controversial presidential election process. In an environment where financial accountability was reduced to political victimization Musharraf let her off-the-hook on corruption cases. She learnt the lesson of the necessity of the American engagement more from the uniformed presidents of Pakistan, less from her father. In her last stint Washington saw her as the 'moderate' who would fight Al Qaeda.
Benazir's legacy of popular democratic politics, a counterpoint to the establishment politics, is a national legacy and not just a party legacy. After 70 days of her unparallel politics of courage and of conviction, leading from the front. Saying what was right; that the military must be back in the barracks, that the Balochistan operation must end, that inflation was killing the poor, that faulty policies had fuelled religious intolerance, that killing in the name of religion would destroy Pakistan, that politicians blundered because the establishment never allowed the constitutional system to take roots, that the king party's days were numbered, that she believed in a strong defence, that the elections were being rigged, that the PPP and the PML-N were the only genuine national-level parties.
In her last rally at Liaquat Bagh, much in her father's mode she had thundered: "Your country and my country is at risk. This government cannot handle this. We will defend it." As if refuting her own earlier controversial statements of allowing US troops she vehemently said: "Foreign countries are saying we will come and handle it. Why will they come? You and I will handle it. We will handle it through peoples force."
Benazir was true to her word. She returned to Pakistan more because she was a genuine leader. There was no doubt how vulnerable she was upon her return. The October 18 suicide bombing had left no doubt in people's minds about that. She still did not retreat but battled on -- as if it was her 'calling' and she fought till her last.
In the absence of genuine constitutional rule and strong credible institutions, Pakistan produces flawed heroes and pitiable villains. The father of Pakistan's bomb, A Q Khan, who the system individually or collectively allowed to proliferate nuclear technology, will always be Pakistan's hero, but undoubtedly a greatly flawed one. The pitiable villains are those uniformed presidents who self-destruct as they combine their simplistic thinking, their parochial patriotism and instinct for self-preservation to end up undermining the national spirit, torment the collective soul and destroy key institutions.
Working in a difficult and deviously constructed political context by the late dictator Ziaul Haq, Benazir's strategies in opposition did not always succeed. Yet a two-time opposition leader, saddled with a politically controversial spouse, a feisty and divided opposition, a Punjab-based political breed with shifting loyalties and the shadow of political 'uncles' who rightly or wrongly criticized her relentlessly, her hallmark was courage. Of her 28 years in politics Benazir was in power for no more than five. Her personal adversity outdid her political misfortune. Beginning with receiving her father's body from the gallows of Rawalpindi to the death of two brothers and the establishment's crass unproven accusation holding her responsible for her brother's assassination, Benazir's life was steeped in personal pain.
Her personal grief had not embittered her. Democracy was the best revenge is what her son Bilawal said on December 30 Benazir believed in. So she fought on for democracy through long periods in jail, through nursing an ill mother, through self-exile, through separation from her husband and her children. All her weaknesses in office notwithstanding, Pakistan has seen few leaders who like Benazir found a place in millions of Pakistani hearts.
These charisma-struck Bhutto supporters tend to only selectively register the flaws of their leader. Clean logic doesn't explain charisma. The chaos of the complex, the non-elite reality which sentiments of a large section of the society's have-nots calculate, the lived experiences of the marginalized that defies the dominant reason-based discourse are the factors that comprise the context within which charisma survives. Also, it is a life afflicted with tragedy and turmoil, one that lives through the pain and the anguish and still survives to play a role on the public stage. This is the stuff of charisma.
It is not for the PPP alone to appropriate Benazir's legacy. She leaves behind a national legacy, the legacy of a courageous no-holds barred struggle for democracy. Her last 70 days in politics will go down as the golden period of Pakistan's democratic struggle.
It was the best that Pakistan had seen of genuine politics. A brave woman undeterred by the repeated threats of death walked, without the crutches of the establishment, of the Americans and of manipulative politics, onto Pakistan's deadly political stage to render the ultimate sacrifice. She sacrificed her life for her homeland. Benazir did not shy away from what was clearly her calling. The last phase of her political journey will go down in the history of Pakistan's democratic struggle in golden words. Benazir, the 54-year-old dedicated mother of three, a loyal daughter of a judicially-murdered father and the sister of slain and poisoned brothers is Pakistan's first genuine martyr of democracy. As death stared her, this woman unmatched in courage and conviction, fought on. Benazir Bhutto died with her boots on. She will forever remain an icon of democratic struggle in Pakistan.
In her last speeches she repeatedly said she wanted a place in peoples' hearts. That she has found more than she could have every hoped for. My 82-year-old mother who had attended her father's rallies cries for her, my 13-year-old Mustapha who wasn't a Benazir supporter wants to 'kill' those who killed her, my friend Shireen Mazaari who had no time for Benazir said she couldn't stop hollowing for days, my amma who brings tea for me started her new year by walking into my room with tears saying "its impossible to stop thinking of Benazir." The pain for Benazir extends far beyond those who supported her politics.
In her death Benazir, has become many things to many people. For millions she is the queen of hearts, Pakistan's version of a Lady Diana. For millions fighting for a democratic Pakistan she is the inspiration. For a Pakistan striving to break away from a quasi-military vice-regal set-up, Benazir is the unrelenting fighter.
After less than 70 days of her last active politicking, Benazir Bhutto now rests in the 70th grave in the Bhutto family graveyard at Naudero in Larkana. Benazir would say she has supporters from Khyber to Karachi, that 1akhs had come to receive her on October 18. Now she must know that all of Pakistan, minus her killers, mourns for her. Pakistan salutes you, Benazir. Your martyrdom is supreme. You died fighting for what is indispensable for Pakistan's survival -- constitutional democracy.