Here in Medialand we love to fall for the iconic figure, the convenient allegory, a Western-style protagonist to help explain complex events in distant lands. Hence the lovefest, nay, near deification, surrounding Benazir Bhutto.
The comfortable narrative, repeated endlessly, is worthy of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The woman who saw her destiny as Pakistan’s next prime minister was, according to post-assassination analysis, Pakistan’s version of Eva Peron: A people’s hero, a Muslim feminist, a democrat, pure hope in a corrupt, unstable country riven with medieval Islamic fundamentalism and bristling with a nuclear arsenal.
That’s the easy narrative. But its also a dangerously naive and inaccurate
one. The reality is that Bhutto was in most ways a throwback to the old Pakistan, and an old Asia, that would best be left behind. She has proved this from the grave by protecting precisely what Pakistan does not need: A family dynasty, and not a particularly good one.
Knowing she might be assassinated by enemies upon her return from exile to return to politics, Bhutto apparently left behind a will crowning her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of her Pakistan Peoples Party. Zardari, known derisively around Islamabad as “Mr. Ten Per Cent” for his alleged cut of government contracts, then declared their 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto, would be the party’s co-chairman. In the meantime he will finish his studies at Oxford and get ready to take over the family dynasty, becoming the third Bhutto to be Pakistan’s prime minister. He would follow the steps of his murdered mother and his grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged for allegedly authorizing the murder of an opponent.
This may seem the way of politics in Asia. India has its Ghandis, North
Korea has the cult of the tyrant Kim Jong Il. Thailand worships its king
above its democracy. But political dynasties and cults, call them what you may, are ultimately destructive for a nation. Make a dynasty and corruption follows, violence becomes a political tool, the elites enjoy inside access to power and the delights of the treasury.
Bhutto, of course, claimed she was different — a true democrat. Yet her
final political act from the grave, handing over power by fiat to her
husband, suggests otherwise. Perhaps we should have expected it. After all, despite her rhetoric about championing universal suffrage, the
self-described “daughter of Pakistan” served as “chairman for life” in her
What does the Bhutto dynasty now offer? Very likely the prospect of the
younger Bhutto, who has spent most of his life in gold-plated exile,
returning to Pakistan when he is 25. Then it will be constitutionally
possible for him to run for prime minister and keep the dynasty alive.
Terrific. Just what the world needs. A young, inexperienced leader in charge of a nuclear arsenal. How on Earth could he run a country he hardly knows?
It’s not even clear the thoroughly westernized Bhutto can even speak his
country’s national language, Urdu, though his English is perfectly British. I expect he’s now signing up for some intensive language courses to be ready for the destiny that awaits. But he has a lot of studying ahead if he’s going to be able to handle Pakistan’s mullahs and tribal warlords, the men who have been running the country while he’s been attending the Oxford Union learning how to debate.
There will be those who argue that, despite her flaws, her vanity and
tremendous ego, Benazir Bhutto is a historic figure by virtue of being the
first woman to lead Pakistan. That is an undeniable accomplishment. But the measure of her legacy should be what she did with her two terms as prime minister.
Did she crack down on honour killings of her fellow Pakistani sisters or
repeal laws that now make it almost impossible for a Pakistani woman to bring a rapist to justice? No. Did she alleviate poverty? No. This is a
woman who, in her first term as prime minister, saw fit to take $6 million from the treasury to buy herself a supply of Evian water while many in her country can’t get clean water from their wells.
Did Bhutto cut deals with the Islamic extremists, whose backing she needed, and pave the way for the Taliban rise to tyranny? Yes. Did she really give Pakistan’s nuclear technology to North Korea in exchange for missile technology? Yes.
By all means, shed a tear for Benazir Bhutto, who lost to the barbarians
when she was murdered in Rawalpindi. At least she professed to be a
democrat. Who knows, she may really have taken on the mullahs if she had become the prime minister a third time. But I weep more for Pakistan, a country so desperate that millions of its citizens believed this was the best leader the country could offer.