Benazir Bhutto was a leader of great promise but the hurdles she faced prevented her from realising her potential. Political commentators who have so far assessed her career disagree violently among themselves on her legacy.
However, what stands out above all controversy is her high stature as an indomitable leader of resistance to authoritarianism and as a promoter of reconciliation among the democratic forces.
A career in politics was chosen for Benazir by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Founder-Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (1967-1979) and Prime Minister (1973-1977); its course was determined by the shifting sands of the country’s politics and her resolve to overcome the odds stacked against her.
Born into a house that enjoyed power and prosperity both, Benazir successfully completed her education at Harvard and Oxford universities and was aiming in 1976 no higher than a career in Pakistan’s foreign service and a family life away from media glare. Her father, however, chose politics as her domain.
But before she could be formally baptised into the rough and tumble of politics, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted from power (1977) and hanged (1979). At the age of 27, Benazir became her mother’s partner in leading what still was the country’s largest political party. Between 1980 and 1986 she was gradually accepted as the political leader who could best fulfill the people’s aspiration for freedom from Gen Zia’s dictatorship and revival of the democratic order.
What were the factors that propelled Benazir to this position?
She had inherited considerable political capital from her father who was believed by a large part of the population to have been unjustly executed. But perhaps an equally important reason for her popularity was her courage and firmness during her imprisonment, including long spells in solitary confinement, and the determination to fight for democracy she displayed during the MRD agitations (1981-1983).
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By the time she returned home in 1986 after several years in exile she had been acknowledged by the people as the woman of resistance to arbitrary rule.
Benazir’s resistance to authoritarianism continued even while she was the prime minister during 1988-1990. She had emerged as the leader of the single largest party in the National Assembly in the 1988 elections, despite the military’s efforts to get her defeated. But the establishment ensured its favourite Islami Jamhoori Ittehad to win power in Punjab and imposed harsh and unlawful conditions on her before inviting her to take oath as prime minister, the first woman in the Muslim world to assume that office.
She was to have no say in several matters and she had to accept the establishment’s nominees as foreign and finance ministers. Later on she was compelled to nominate Ghulam Ishaq Khan as the president.
The debate in her party on whether she should have accepted power on these terms continued for quite some time. Time has perhaps proved her right. In case she had decided to sit in the opposition, the country would have been subjected to an extension of the Ziaul Haq regime’s agenda for another decade or so and a return to democratic rule might have become more difficult than ever.
Benazir Bhutto is also blamed by the small socialist group in her party to have diluted the ideology of the party by making it more of a liberal outfit. The point is valid, but the shift had been started by ZAB on the eve of the 1977 election when, rhetoric apart, he embraced the feudals his party had defeated in 1970 and by rejecting Dr Mubashir Hasan’s advice for moving further to the left in favour of concessions to the religious right. Besides, ten years of Ziaul Haq’s rule had pushed society so far towards the right that pragmatism called for a step backward in order to stay in contention.
Throughout her first stint as prime minister, Benazir remained under pressure from the establishment and personal ambition alone could not have kept her going. That she was dismissed much before completing her term proved that she had not given up her resistance to the establishment’s designs. This view was further confirmed when the establishment manipulated her defeat in the most blatantly rigged election of 1990.
In her second term as prime minister (1993-1996) she began with having more space to carry out her mandate but was unable to go very far because of the party’s failure, to which she also contributed, to get rid of the corrupt elements in its ranks.
Dismissed once again and forced into self-exile for nine years, Benazir’s reputation as a resistance woman suffered a decline.
A lesser politician would have been finished there and then but Benazir was able to regain something of her reputation as a champion of democracy by going into a legitimate reconciliation in the form of the Charter of Democracy of May 2006.
At last the two largest parties had realised the need to stop treating one another as their worst enemy and the biggest obstacle to the realisation of the people’s dream of democratic governance. This was a great gift to the people of Pakistan from Benazir and Nawaz Sharif. The politicians of the country would greatly imperil the most vital interests of their people by deviating from this charter.
Gen. Musharraf started having cold feet when Benazir Bhutto decided to return home before the 2008 general election. He tried to scare her out of her decision and failed. Not even the attack on her convoy in October 2007 could deter her from playing her part in the restoration of democratic governance in Pakistan.
While the people of the country were still debating over her position as a democratic leader the anti-democratic forces decided the issue. She was so great a threat to authoritarian rule that it could be warded off only by physically liquidating her.
What then is Benazir Bhutto’s legacy apart from being a source to women political workers across the Muslim-majority states? First, the clouds of authoritarianism are again gathering on Pakistan’s horizon and the people will need to follow Benazir Bhutto’s spirit of resistance to save democracy. Also, her contribution to the urgency of reconciliation among the democratic elements will be her precious legacy to her people.