Benazir Bhutto grew from an exceptional college student to a world personality in what seemed like a matter of minutes. She rushed to the role of Pakistani leader after the execution of her father with all the confidence her family’s vast support system could muster, personally and politically.
When she exiled herself to Dubai in 1998 just before the military coup the next year, she continued to operate behind the scenes through her political instrument, the Pakistan Peoples Party. Her influence remained strong even though she was convicted in absentia of corruption.
As shocking as it is, it was hardly surprising she was assassinated. Ever since Benazir Bhutto became prime minister at age 35, she was outspoken in defense of democracy in Pakistan; though many said she was primarily interested in maintaining the ascendancy of her own political allies. The problem she faced was not only the entrenched traditional power of the military, but the equally powerful opposing tradition of civilian political corruption.
Bhutto’s defenders always have been quick to point out that any corruption with which she was later tainted was not of her doing. Her husband was the bad guy and did the jail time, to be given early release by Musharraf in 2004. It was a debt she owed to the general that wasn’t publicly discussed much. She was characterized as the tool of a system that required vast sums of money to aid in the democratic process. Her family’s powerful economic and political role in her native province of the Sindh was offered as an explanation of her many advantages.
Others, including most of Pakistan’s military hierarchy, saw these “advantages” as simply an extension of her father’s questionable dealings while in office.
The fact is that all parties in the country regularly charge each other with “stealing from the people.” It’s a mantra of political office seekers in Pakistan, and in many cases contains a great deal of truth.
THE BIG QUESTION has been why Bhutto, safe and secure in various homes she owned in the U.K. and the Gulf, would want to return to the turmoil of her homeland.
Some said she was driven by patriotism and a commitment to democracy. Others cynically said she simply was exercising the droit du seigneur so typical of the privileged classes throughout South Asia who expect power as their natural inheritance.
That Benazir Bhutto carried herself as a queen was not disputed. She was nonetheless extremely smart and a considerably practiced politician. Her regal manner was well supported and earned; all of which lent justification to the opposing characterizations of both her enemies and followers.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of this lady was her personal warmth. This style was commented on by journalists and the numerous foreign politicians with whom she came into contact over the years. She could work a room of European and American leaders like the pro she was.
Afterward she would buttonhole a targeted politico whose support she desired and charm him or her one-on-one. She knew her job and how to do it.
If Bhutto had a shortcoming — and she did have a few — it was that she had a tendency to give everyone she wanted to please the impression that they had her complete agreement on key issues. This was particularly true of important people within her rather large Western social circle. They thought that the lady was not for turning, but, often, analysts found the opposite was true.
Along with the fashionable haute monde of the foreign policy elite, certain American and European journalists were favored with her attention. None of the latter ever forgot, at least initially, to call her “madam prime minister.” Some select female correspondents, though, were drawn into her confidence on a first name basis. She had considerable media savvy.
She died as she expected — at the hand of an assassin. One wonders if she actually sought martyrdom or simply had no way to avoid it. Her death will convulse Pakistan once again and the military will once again have to step in. She must have known that would be the case, too.