Friday, December 28, 2007

Daughter of tragedy

What ever else the mind-numbing killing of Benazir Bhutto in Thursday’s suicide attack will mean for Pakistan’s future, there is little doubt that politics in this south Asian country will never be the same again.

Bhutto's death was like a chronicle foretold. She had escaped a bigger suicide attack upon her return from exile in Karachi two months ago - a manifestation of the threat to her life, which extremists had pledged to carry out before her arrival.

These threats emerged after much publicised talks of a power-sharing deal with General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, which would enable her to return home and participate in the elections in exchange for allowing the beleaguered general to get himself re-elected as president. Benazir Bhutto has been killed in a suicide attack. What is next for Pakistan?

While the opposition resigned en masse from the parliament to block Musharraf's re-election in a year that saw a rejuvenated judiciary challenge the president's authority, Bhutto’s Pakistan People's Party merely abstained from voting providing the general an easy run.

The extremists were annoyed with Bhutto for her unqualified support to the US 'war on terror' and her willingness to play ball with the Bush administration.

This is a policy that Musharraf has found to his chagrin remains hugely unpopular in Pakistan but, which was seen by her party as a politically correct course in order to win back power.

Bhutto's apparent grandstanding in offering to give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan to probe his role in nuclear proliferation, and allow American troops to enter the Pakistani hinterland to take out al-Qaeda, sparked outrage even in the intelligentsia.

However, the general consensus was that she remained the country's biggest hope in pushing Musharraf for a transition to genuine democracy, which is what she professed to do in defence of her negotiations with a military ruler.

The Bush administration had been engaged in hectic diplomacy for more than a year to arrange a political marriage between Musharraf and Bhutto, a factor which contributed in alienating many of her fringe supporters and pushing them to search for an alternative.

To Bhutto's credit, she had managed to create space for other political aspirants despite her initial attempt at a solo flight, notably former Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister.

He, too, is credited for showing maturity in his readiness to join forces against Musharraf's alleged attempt to manipulate the forthcoming elections.

In fact, the two held a detailed meeting earlier this month and after failing to follow on Sharif's suggestion to boycott the polls, they decided to launch a joint struggle in the event of a rigged poll to oust Musharraf.

Both leaders have been alleging in the run up to the polls that the now-retired general was seeking to return his favoured Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid to power by resorting to massive rigging.

The irony of Bhutto's death will not be lost on many given that if she had agreed with Sharif on a boycott, she may have still been alive.

For much of Pakistan's democratic history, politics has been dominated by the Bhutto factor: Benazir successfully carried on the legacy of her father where only two kinds of forces were arraigned in a political contest - those who loved Bhutto or the ones who loathed him.

A string of military rulers, notably Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf, tried to break the corollary without success.

Bhutto was favoured to have a decisive say in the formation of the next government, especially after the Musharraf administration successfully manoeuvred to oust Sharif from the electoral race.

Family tragedies

An inescapable aspect of the near-Greek tragedy governing the Bhutto family is how three members of the twice-elected prime minister’s immediate family also fell prey to such grand ill-fortune.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father and the country's first popularly elected prime minister, was ousted by a hand-picked army chief, who later connived with a judiciary to have him sentenced to death over disputed and unproven charges of an opponent's murder in 1979.

Benazir then lost her younger brother, Shah Nawaz, who died in France seven years later after allegedly being poisoned.

The last surviving male member of the nucleus family, Benazir's elder brother, Murtaza, who staked a claim for the mantle of their father for many years, was gunned down outside his residence in Karachi eleven years ago in a shootout with the police under his own sister's government.

Benazir's father once said she would be more successful than India's 'Iron Lady' Bhutto's mother, Nusrat, who lives in Dubai, is also in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's. Benazir now becomes the first woman of the Bhutto family to have lost her life in tragic circumstances. The only other surviving member of the nucleus family, other than Nusrat, is Benazir's sister Sanam, who has remained in the shadows, choosing a totally apolitical life.

The Benazir saga is enigmatic and, at once, more fascinating than any screen epic. Father Bhutto, who initiated the rites of passage for her, was certain of a secure place in the annals of history for his daughter.

He once said of her: "Benazir will be more popular than Indira Gandhi - and even more successful." The inspirations were purposely nurtured when Bhutto took along Benazir to the Simla Summit in 1974 to have her meet the Indian 'Iron Lady' in person.

Uncertain future

Little would Bhutto have known that his Oxford, Harvard-educated daughter would tread the same tragic path as her father - and with little success.

Bhutto may have been the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country but was twice ousted as premier on corruption charges, which she fought for the rest of her political life.

Ironically, it was only recently that corruption cases against her were "washed" clean courtesy of a controversial ordinance passed by Musharraf on the premise of national reconciliation but effectively seen as a means to win her support for his continued stay in power.

Regardless of what modus operandi appealed to her - and she took many that surprised even her family not to mention, her political adversaries - Bhutto remained a force to reckon with right until the end.

In her death, Pakistan may have lost its most potent political player, who remained at least for its vast moderate and secular population, their best hope.

Given the vitiated international climate vis-a-vis the war-on-terror for Islamabad, deep polarisation within the country and the institutional instability, her loss is colossal not just for Pakistan but for the rest of the world as well.


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