By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Indeed, Benazir Bhutto would be remembered from here to eternity as the strongest woman to ever lead a male dominated Pakistan. In 1988 when she won her first populist election to seek prime minister’s office, there were variety of forces-overt and convert-opposing her. Till the last moment the then President Ishaq Khan resisted her claim. However, the travesty of circumstances and centrifugal forces made opposition to her least effective by all put together.
My 35-year long association until her assassination on December 27 was witnesses to a roller coaster history in which she was the central figure. Many amongst us associated with her could not grasp importance of her historic role against all challenges. Her astounding rise, her travel through chequered destiny and what it meant to be as the first Muslim female head of the government- Benazir Bhutto shocked her male antagonists by her climb to universal fame leading the way for the less empowered women who had never had dreams of their own that reflected in the life of women leaders like Human rights activists Asma Jehangir.
What an irony indeed it was that Benazir Bhutto became the first woman leader to rise to be prime minister in a country that only a few years earlier ‘had passed a law to reduce the status of a woman’s testimony in court to half that of a man.’ No doubt Bhutto inspired millions of others all around the globe, not just with her daunting climb to power but also with her charm and wit, her political intellect and her personality that refused to surrender before the toughest of opponents such as Generals ZIA and Pervez Musharraf. Like her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy as the leader of the masses, Benazir’s legacy as the most influential Pakistani to ever live on despite her death. She has been a role model to inspire, ignite, empower enthuse and motivate women and the marginalised – both within Pakistan and abroad. For us she was a symbol of hope and inspiration. In her death we seemed to have lost everything and are pushed in a state of deluge.
Was she daughter of destiny, a scion of dynastic politic- as she or her heir is usually accused of by her opponents. No doubt she was chosen by her father to be his political heir, she earned every bit of it to be worthy of a legitimate claim. I remember her in good grace, fragile and yet beautiful in Simla in 1972 when she accompanied her father Bhutto Sahib to be part of a negotiated peace agreement with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that has lived much after the death of the three.
General Zia’s coup, ouster of Bhutto sahib and his fabricated judicial murder, long periods of incarceration for her mother Begum Nusrat Bhutto and herself provided circumstances that made her leader by her own right. Her assumption of leadership role during the period of his trial and long incarceration provided her most challenging circumstances to prove her leadership mettle. Bhutto sahib’s hanging ignited her imagination and commitment to politics. His unfinished agenda that included ‘roti, kapra and makan’ became her life long mission and democracy- like her father’s -was the vehicle to that goal. As such, democracy became the primary goal of her life -a struggle that she continued relentlessly till her last drop of blood.
Recently -despite having survived a severe attack of cardio spasm and hospitalisation for days, i could not let go the opportunity to be present in a landmark Oxford Union function to commemorate Benazir Bhutto by her Oxonian friend, former Prime Minister Theresa May. Indeed, May’s speech truly captured the immortal qualities of head and heart that she said that God had gifted Benazir Bhutto as leader of the world. According to May, Benazir was a brilliant student and excelled in oratory at Harvard and Oxford, ‘inspiring not just minds but also connecting hearts’. And as far as May was personally concerned- it was May who was who introduced by Bhutto to the former husband Philip May who would later become her husband. Her friends described her to be shrewd politician and a committed family woman, Indeed, Benazir left a golden legacy that refuses to die despite plethora of lies against her by forces that see in her formidable legacy the symbol of resistance to the status quo and its resistance to the empowerment of the masses.
Benazir never had any inhibitions about being a Muslim women leader. Like the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she carved a unique niche in the hall of fame for all time great by force of her character and conviction in the pristine values of her religion Islam. She did not compromise the framework ‘when hyper-masculinity was the norm for women making it into a man’s world,’ she took on politics on her own accord. She gave practical meaning to Margaret Thatcher’s words that ‘women can have it all’ when she became the first woman prime minister to give birth to her second child- Bakhtawar- while disposing off flies and not taking a day off on maternity leave.
Benazir Bhutto’s life long fight was a long drawn battle with heaviest of odds. Her two brief stints in office (1988-90 and 1993-96) during which she was more occupied in defusing intrigues and machinations by powers that be, deterred her dream of leading the way forward to the ultimate empowerment of the people.
From day one into power she was targeted by her political foes including the all powerful Establishment. They created hurdles at each and every step and yet they could not stop the wheels of progress. Had the Establishment and the bureaucracy let her on her own with her progressive vision Pakistan by now would have been among the first 20 nations of developed world.
Like her father Bhutto sahib Benazir too wanted better ties with India. I remember well the element of sincerity in her meetings with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi aimed at paving the way for long lasting roadmap to peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, the hawks did not let it go down well and their dream remained a dream.
Bhutto was well equipped to press for a National economic agenda for the greatest good of the largest number. Unfortunately there were forces opposed to it all. Her ambitious economic programme was resisted tooth and nail and she was restricted to achieve not much. Had she and the Establishment being on the same page as now, course of our history would have been much different for the better.
Bhutto was constantly opposed by the clerics who would leave no stone unturned to dislodge her. Remember the fatwa that a government headed by a woman was un-Islamic. Many of her generals were reluctant to salute a female prime minister as un-Islamic. Yet she managed to leave behind her legacy of total commitment to democracy, economic empowerment of the masses and social equality has no rivals to her.
Indeed, it is tribute to her that successive governments despite hurdles of the bureaucratic machinery that impeded many of her ideas, she gave us the Benazir Income Support Programme that has proved a welfare lifeline for those who are on the threshold of poverty. Her introduction of the Lady Health Worker Programme that has become the backbone of the family healthcare system across Pakistan. It is perhaps the only family planning programme to control population.
Education was her highest ideal. Her dream was to see an educated Pakistan through promoting the idea of higher education. It was her dream that germinated into the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST) that now has multiple campuses across Sindh and Pakistan into the teaching of law, liberal arts and humanities as well.
Healthcare for the needy, establishment of network of hospitals and dispensaries etc. were some quo non for a prosperous and healthy nation. She gave priority to hospitals, schools, roads and many other development initiatives that go unnoticed in the larger political canvas -currently such Medicare networking is visible in Sindh where cardiovascular centres have been established to to cater to heart diseases.
Due to a deepening political malaise of hating each other fostered by General ZiA and GPM, she was denied due credit for many of her achievements due to shortened tenures. Some of these came to light and were acknowledged after her death – as is the case with a posthumous United Nations Human Rights Prize conferred on her in 2008.
While she had pinnacle points, she had her lows too. Her government was loaded with plethora of corruption charges like all politicians and that she faced host of corruption charges that remain unproven even after her death.
Benazir Bhutto was mountain of courage. Her defiance, her resilience to face challenges -even death threats and terrorist attacks had been a clear manifestation of symbolic of what it meant to be a woman of rare qualities with unmatchable courage.
When she opted to return to Pakistan she knew what lethal threats were waiting to receive her. Her main political rival General Musharraf had made it known to her that she would be killed if she opposed him. And when I asked her why was she returning home, her response was her people were waiting for her. What price? Her answer was simple – one should die for the cause that one has lived for. In her case it was democracy and she died for it. May she rest in eternal peace. Ameen!
Benazir Bhutto continues to reign on as perhaps the most influential Pakistani for all times. She was the only leader who challenged the Jihadis and earned their fatal wrath so that her people hold their heads high.
(The writer is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK, a life-long advisor to Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan and a veteran journalist.)