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Sunil Sethi: Benazir Bhutto's flawed destiny


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Another martyr was added to the subcontinent's tragic listing of political assassinations on Thursday. It is a cycle of killings that started with Gandhi's in 1948 and has continued intermittently for sixty years: Liaquat Ali Khan, Sheikh Mujib, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa. And the litany goes on, if you count the freakish deaths of plutocrats, dictators and monarchs "" such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's in 1979, Gen. Zia ul Haq's in 1988 or King Birendra's in 2001. It must be a serial record without parallel anywhere in the world and given the chronicle of misfortune "" and Benazir Bhutto's own flawed destiny "" hers was perhaps a death foretold.
In 1978, on Atal Bihari Vajpayee's trip to Pakistan as foreign minister, I remember asking Benazir Bhutto why the two countries had taken such different political routes since Independence and where Pakistan's fault line began. Pakistan's ill fortune, she said, was that it had lost its founding fathers so soon after its birth; India was fortunate that its leaders had lived long enough to secure the country's democratic foundations.
It was the heyday of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and she was 25 years old. Her father Zulfikar Bhutto was being tried for murder and languished in Rawalpindi jail. Her mother Nusrat and she had been at the barricades leading PPP protestors before Zia placed them under house arrest. But if it was inadequate security that ended her life at the political rally on Thursday, such was the laxity of official surveillance then that a mutual friend smuggled me without difficulty into the high-walled compound of the famous Bhutto residence at 60 Clifton in Karachi, a stone's throw away from the Indian consul general's residence.
With passion she argued the case of her father's frame-up at the hands of an evil military dictator. She made a caustic remark about Sanjay Gandhi and damned Indira Gandhi with faint praise. Even then it was clear that she "" rather than her mother or her ill-fated brothers "" took precedence in the Bhutto family as rightful heir and party mouthpiece. There is an unmistakable air of noblesse oblige about anointed political heirs that borders on arrogance: as if the well-oiled flow of speech, the summoning of entourage members at the flick of a wrist or waving to adoring hordes are gestures they learnt in their cradles. Benazir Bhutto was to the "manor" born, and wasn't likely to shed her feudal hauteur.
I only met her casually a few times after that first meeting "" once when she was the chief guest at Harvard University's graduation ceremony in 1990 and a couple of times in London "" but by now she was living the life of an itinerant exile. Her pulling power was a combination of charisma and the hovering possibility of her return to power in Pakistan. She was a much-sought-after guest and interviewee. It ensured there was always a fawning coterie of lobbyists, admirers and hangers-on. In the US it was the likes of Peter Galbraith, the son of the economist, in London and Dubai, a mixture of wealthy overseas Pakistanis, fellow PPP exiles, assorted diplomats and journalists, often bickering and falling out over who had better access to the pretender to Pakistan's "democratic throne".
Her marriage in 1987 to Asif Zardari, the son of a Karachi cinema-owner, had brought her little credit. Zardari's reputation as a corrupt deal-maker had earned them the label of "Mr & Mrs 10 Per Cent". By the late-1990s, however, with Zardari in jail and Benazir again thrown out, it was clear that after an initial happy phase of family life, it was no longer a marriage made in heaven. Yet one of her admirable qualities was that she stood up for her disorderly spouse. She was a faux-democrat "" and a woman "" caught in a dangerous game played by snarling generals and trigger-happy jehadis, just out of Big Brother's line of command. Could she have survived the rogue bullets "" and for how long?

First Published: Sat, December 29 2007. 00:00 IST