Raza Habib Raja
This article tries to evaluate the politician Benazir Bhutto and the way she affected her party and the Pakistani political landscape. Since the article tries to adopt a CRITICAL approach therefore it points her weaknesses besides appreciating her strengths.
Cult of personality which has become somewhat of a rarity in the West is an integral part of the political culture here. Such personality cults form around Political leaders, particularly famous ones, in our part of the world. Strong political leaders are not merely the reflection of the society but are often strong enough to affect it. Late Benazir Bhutto was one of such political personalities. Charismatic personalities are often riddled with contradictions and like all such personalities she also had her strengths and weaknesses.
Benazir Bhutto though it is not often acknowledged was in many ways Pakistan’s only true liberal leader. Compared to her charismatic father who was ready to manipulate religious sensitivities to extract political mileage, Benazir Bhutto knew where to stop. Yes, she was pragmatic and like all politicians acted in rational self interest-Politics is after all realpolitiks- but she did not try to whip religion for that purpose.
Those who believe in a secular, liberal and plural Pakistan, like to remember Jinnah for his 11th August speech; likewise I would like to remember Benazir Bhutto through a statement she made in early 1990s when she said “Insanoon ke hath Paon Katne munasib Nayee Samajte. Khuda Zalim Nayee Hai. Zalim Quaneen ko Islami nayee manti” (We do not think amputating hands and legs of human beings is an appropriate thing to do. God is not cruel. I do not think that harsh laws can be Islamic). This statement, though now rarely quoted caused quite a stir in early 1990s. In fact the Imam of Badshahi Mosque even issued a fatwa against her. Other than her, I have never heard ANY politician utter such a statement. I wish that this statement had started a wave where people could have mustered enough courage to actually start a critical discourse on religious laws and on the role of religion in their lives. Sadly it merely created short term controversy and print media of those days lapped on it for creating sensational headlines. The statement could not define her legacy but nevertheless is an important indication of the stuff Benazir Bhutto was made of.
Benazir Bhutto inherited the party from Bhutto but in many ways she earned her title. After all when her brothers chose to stay outside and indulge in militant tactics she decided to adopt the political course and tried to engage with the supporters of her party. Even legacy politics need charismatic inheritors who can engage with the masses. It is that kind of mass populism which acts as a cancelling agent to religious fervour and its political manifestation at the mass level. Benazir Bhutto could do it brilliantly despite the fact that her Urdu was not as fluent as her father’s.
Her biggest achievement for the PPP was that she was able to glue the party after him. Her stature which was underpinned by much more than her blood linage ensured that unity prevailed. While it helped the party in the transitory phase as it needed a strong leader but in the longer run has proven counterproductive as legacy politics has become too entrenched.
In legacy politics the direction of a political party is often controlled by the cultish leader. PPP’s direction from 1986 owed largely to her vision and political outlook. PPP changed with times and Benazir while holding on to the legacy politics was very willing to embrace newer ideas. As socialism waned globally, Benazir was quick to reform her party’s ideological outlook and PPP started to transform from a centre left to economically conservative and socially liberal party. In fact the privatization program started with her tenure. She was also extremely keen on bringing in foreign investment and her second stint as Prime Minister witnessed huge investments in the power sector as several Independent Power Projects (IPPs) were set up. The move which was severely criticised by subsequent Nawaz Sharif government as being “unfair” to Pakistan, ultimately proved one of the most beneficial economic decisions taken by her government. As Pakistan suffered from terrible electricity shortages, the situation would have been virtually catastrophic if there were no IPPs.
Politically she was a realist though knew how to balance the pragmatism with ideological stance of the party. Her pragmatism emanated from her experience as a Prime Minister particularly her first tenure. She quickly realized that in Pakistan the “deep state” held all the keys and if her party aspired to have power, it could not go totally against the so called establishment. Therefore when Nawaz Sharif conspired to remove her from power in 1990, she returned him the favour in 1993 when she supported Ghulam Ishaq Khan in his efforts to remove him.
Moreover despite having liberal outlook she had no stupid romantic notions about militant parties like MQM. She was firmly behind the 1995-96 operation and understood that action was needed to eradicate militancy. She was pretty firm and did not yield to blackmailing tactics even when the killings mounted. At one time, corpses were being daily found in bags with chits attached to chest stating “Naseer Ullah Baber ke liey Tuhfa” (A gift for Naseer Ullah Baber).
I think it was her administrative quality which perhaps was her weakest trait. Her second tenure was riddled with severe controversies and in fact it alienated her core support which was reflected in 1996 elections. Although it is often claimed that in 1996 establishment rigged the elections but the reality was that PPP voter simply did not come out to vote. In fact throughout Punjab and NWFP, its candidates were getting less than 10,000 votes per constituency in the elections for national assembly seats.
It was the controversies of that tenure which continued to cast a deep shadow over the rest of Benazir’s life. All of the infamous cases are related to that period.
Despite going into exile in late 1990s, Benazir continued to have a lot of influence on the local politics and once Nawaz Sharif was again removed, her popularity witnessed resurgence. PPP became a key party after 2002 elections and in the last years of Musharraf regime was the most sought after party by the establishment and US alike for tackling rising extremism and for ensuring trouble less continuance of the battle against Islamic militants.
Things started to move in an uncontrollable direction after the lawyers movement started. Although now the PPP tries to call the movement “reactionary” but the fact is that during her life Benazir never publicly criticized it despite the fact that she knew that from pragmatic point of view, the movement though weakening Musharraf could also adversely affect her leverage. In fact PPP selectively supported the movement. An intelligent person like Benazir would have never supported the lawyers’ movement if it was totally “reactionary” particularly at that point. Of all the politicians, she was the best in striking a balance between political necessity and ideological orientation. In fact the fact that PPP in post Benazir time adopted delaying tactics allowed the right wing elements to literally hijack the movement. Had she been alive, things would have taken a better turn as she was far more astute than her successor.
Her death has obviously been a big blow to Pakistan’s prospects of becoming a more tolerant and moderate political entity. Religious extremism in fact benefited the most from her tragic death.
Moreover her tragic death also solidified the legacy politics as her successor had to be from her nearest relatives to keep the party intact. Dynasty politics became further entrenched and even Bilawal had to be renamed as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. It is claimed by the PPP that BB Sahiba nominated the current Joint Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari. By following him, they are actually following her desires. And yet the ones who were near to Benazir during her lifetime and even her final moments like Sherry Rehman, Naheed Khan and Amin Fahim are now out of the limelight. If her wishes were that dear to PPP then people on whom Benazir had trust should not be given such treatment.
To be fair to the current chairman, PPP led government has tried to reach out to various ethnicities and tried to adopt reconciliatory approach. In some constitutional matters the party has fared quite well and has successfully brokered an improved NFC award. Provincial autonomy has also improved. However the quality of governance remains a problematic area.
It has to be understood that eventually people judge a government not merely on its ideological orientation but also on its actual performance in economic and administrative realm. And yes there will always be those who despite ideologically agreeing with a liberal party will nevertheless assess the actual performance and vote against it. In USA the registered Democrats far outnumber the registered Republicans and yet there have been Republican presidents and legislatures. Even in the recent midterm elections the conservatives make a strong comeback.
Merely calling the critics as “Pseudo Liberals” or members of naive “chattering classes” or “closet conservatives” will not do the trick. Pakistan Peoples Party has to improve its governance and since it is the mainstream liberal party it is critical that it improves. Likewise whipping Benazir’s and Bhutto’s name won’t make the issues with it disappear. A Shaheed may act as a powerful rallying force in one election but cannot deliver performance. Post Benazir PPP needs to realize that.