It Takes A Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto, the outstanding icon of Pakistan’s struggle for democracy, is gone. For those who only saw her as a distant political figure, her human dimension clearly did not matter. That applies to those who vilified her throughout her life, those who failed to protect her and those who actually killed her. But for everyone whose life she touched, her humanity transcended the politics.

I was among those who got to know Benazir Bhutto, the person — a daughter scarred by the assassination of her father, a sister injured by the killing of her brothers, a wife hurt by the disparagement and imprisonment without conviction of her husband, and a mother who was robbed of the opportunity to see her children grow into adulthood. With all the verbal and physical abuse hurled at her, she remained amazingly loving. Her loss is a personal loss to me and millions of others who admired her. Her assassination also creates serious challenges for the integrity and future of Pakistan.

Although many outsiders and most elite Pakistanis may not support the Pakistan Peoples Party’s decision to elect Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and husband Asif Ali Zardari as co-chairs of the party, this decision is absolutely the right one in the context of the PPP’s populist tradition. It will be welcomed by the majority of the party’s supporters — underprivileged Pakistanis who recognise the party as one that has consistently fought for the democratic rights of every Pakistani citizen.

Some view the Bhutto legacy as a thorn in Pakistan’s history. To the family’s supporters, the Bhutto name does not imply a dynasty. It means far more — a wealthy family that has stood up for the poor; that focuses on economic improvements through education and infrastructure rather than on religious dogma; a family that calls for democracy instead of seeking to protect its privileges by aligning itself with military dictatorship. The Bhuttos have not been perfect, as critics remind us on a regular basis but they have stood ready to integrate the largely moderate Pakistan into the world.

This visceral association with the Bhutto family and the PPP of millions of Pakistanis is not easily understood by those who do not take into account the value of sentiments in political choices. Drew Weston’s book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in deciding the fate of the Nation demonstrates that Pakistan is not the only country where feelings influence political choices.

What Pakistan needs most right now is stability and a bringing together of a fractured nation. As the largest party in Pakistan, the PPP will play a critical role in stabilising Pakistan’s currently chaotic situation. While it may sound absurd to a western ear, the 19-year-old Bilawal and his father can bring this stability.

The PPP already has more support in Pakistan than any other faction. Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination has enhanced the aura of martyrdom that initially came with the execution of the PPP’s founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the hands of Islamist military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. For the party to continue its success for the people of Pakistan, it is imperative that it win a majority of the votes in the upcoming election. Given the party’s legacy, party unity can best be maintained and votes garnered under the leadership of the Bhutto/Zardari family. Any other leader could have been a brilliant administrator or politician but none commands the same popularity and recognition as the family members of a martyr.

Although Bilawal has four years to go before graduating from Oxford University, Pakistan will benefit from young political leadership. Today’s younger generation has been disillusioned by politics. Bilawal can help spark a renewed faith in Pakistani politics in today’s younger generation — just the way Robert F. Kennedy did in the US, or Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia are doing in India.

Now that the PPP and PML-N have agreed to participate in the polls, parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8 should not be delayed. The plans for poll rigging already in place for the benefit of the King’s Party, PML-Q, should be shelved to ensure that a rigged poll does not become the instigator of a new round of street violence. Musharraf has ruled alone for long enough. He should not put the country’s stability and prosperity in jeopardy by continuing with the political juggling that has kept him strong so far while making Pakistan weak.

There is no way the PPP will now lose the election, given the strong sympathy wave resulting from Mohtarma’s assassination. It led in the opinion polls, followed by Sharif’s PML-N even before the tragic episode. Cooperation between PML-N and the PPP, as well as other opposition parties, offers an opportunity to turn national sorrow into national unity. The establishment could hold on to power by use of force but that would only harm an already brittle nation further.

Indian Express , January 2, 2008