The Benazir They Knew

Posted by sepoy on January 01, 2008 · 14 mins read

Once again, sitting here, I find myself instinctively examining the media coverage since the 27th. Just like the JFK-inspired, home-brewed ways in which her assassination was discussed, these recent pieces all highlight some personal connection to Bibi, while offering their analysis. There is never a hint of any legislative or political legacy, any economic or social accomplishment. She is being remembered for who she was.

David Ignatius, The Legacy of Benazir Bhutto, WaPo: "I saw this effervescent woman many times over subsequent years, and I never lost the sense of her as an impetuous person embracing what was new ...".

Robert Novak, What Bhutto was Worried About, WaPo: "When I last saw Bhutto, over coffee in August at Manhattan's Pierre Hotel, she was deeply concerned ...".

Peter Galbraith, My Friend Died. Now Her Country May Not Make It., WaPo: "I was her guest at her family home in Larkana ...".

Ian Jack, Born to rule, Guardian. "Once I asked her if she had ever danced. 'No.' Never? 'No' ".

(And this last link - not easily categorized - I cannot offer without a firm statement: do _not_ click on the author's website. )

Daphne Barak, How Benazir let her hair down, Daily Mail. "We discussed girlie subjects alone and when men were present."

Two exceptions - though with problems of their own.

William Dalrymple who attempts to tie her government and her legacy to the broader socio-political phenomena: Pakistan's flawed and feudal princess, Guardian. "But there was something much more majestic, even imperial, about the Benazir I met ...".


Muhammad Hanif, who provides the view from a Pakistani supporter: How a 'Wisp of a Girl' Conquered Pakistan, NYT: "I last saw her in a London flat ...".

As I have been reading all these essays (Boy, did she have a sweet tooth!), I am struck by how utterly unrelatable she is deemed to appear to the vast majority of Pakistanis. Besides the most basic facts (a Pakistani born Muslim woman), her biography is read again and again as being utterly foreign from her nation. To each of the writers above, specifically Dalrymple, she appears detached, removed, distinct and incomprehensible to the lower or middle class. Yet, those were the very classes that provided the bulwark support for her since 1985. The explanations are probably just as banal as explaining the appeal of Paris Hilton for middle Americans or of Billy Graham for political leaders but maybe there is a lot more to it.

I know that my background (middle class Punjabi/Kashmiri Lahori) didn't really allow a teenager to hang out with political royalty, and the best I can claim is attendance at a couple of rallies and one talk. (and they call me a south asia expert). But, perhaps, one can learn something from my own encounters with Benazir Bhutto.


The elections were scheduled for November and everyone expected Benazir's PPP to win. She had returned home just two years ago - April 1986 - and Lahore had came out - in millions. Since then, my friends, their families, shopkeepers, slowly revealed their true colors - red black and green. You support PPP too? I would ask with an incredulous face. The biggest surprise came a month or so before the elections. Billa was the opening fast bowler for our cricket team - and hence, a person of some standing in the community. One afternoon, we were changing into our kits behind the peepal tree when I spied hundreds of tiny Elect Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan flags in his kit-bag. Are you working for the party? He shrugged. When not bowling medium pace deliveries, but with a killer yorker in his arsenal, Billa was a "compoder" (a homegrown pharmacist) in a local doctor's shop. I had never seen him express any interest in anything besides cricket and girls. I am going to start working for them. They pay a full dehyari (a day's wage) and all I have to do is put up the Arrows and take down the Bicycle. The Arrow and the Bicycle were the election symbols for PPP, led by the 35 year old Benazir Bhutto, and IJI, led by Nawaz Sharif and Ijaz ul Haq, respectively. Can I come with you when you do this neighborhood? He didn't look all too pleased. Ok, can you at least take me to a rally? He never took me to the rally. Also, we lost that game. I did see Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan speak a couple of time.

Instead, it was another coincidence that landed me at an IJI rally near Lahore's center. I had boarded a bus going to the Mall but IJI supporters stopped the bus, and booked the driver and his vehicle for the day ferrying supporters to the rally. I figured that since I would get literally a front-row view of Nawaz Sharif, I stayed on the bus. Nawaz Sharif, an industrialist and a Lahori, was the hand-picked protegé of General Zia ul Haq. I had heard he told great jokes at his rally. The warm up acts over, Ijaz ul Haq (son of Zia ul Haq) took the mic and started on a long, sexually explicit, deconstruction of Bibi's dress code. He spoke in thaith Punjabi and didn't even pause to hear the response of his crude one-liners. The rallying slogans, as well, turned menacingly violent. I started to make my way out of the throngs, when Nawaz Sharif took over. He began by saying that he had intelligence that Benazir was a Russian agent working with CIA. Right.

A few days later, I was sitting with Reza, whose father was a civil bureaucrat of some high order. You folks supporting Aitzaz Ahsan? I hate him and my dad hates him. He is holding up meetings in his house and the whole street is totally filled with stupid jayalas (stalwart PPP worker). In hindsight, it is easy to figure out why a high-ranking civil servant would be wary of a PPP regime. I wasn't all that observant back then. Well, I think it is great that we will have a woman Prime Minister. I tried to offer some reasons. I heard she went to Harvard. I failed to impress him.

Bibi won the elections and became Prime Minister. She even had some help from the religious right - who held up the example of Ayesha (the Prophet's wife) who led a military campaign. (That it was against Ali was an irony left unexpounded). There was an enormous amount of enthusiasm - for democracy, for breathing anew, for elections. Our neighborhood was promised paved streets and working sewage. Office holders of the local PPP chapter were sudden celebrities and every one wanted to take the civil service exam or get a government job. No more dreams of a military career for your middle class son.


My first trip back to Pakistan since having left in the early nineties was hard. Things were in a really bad shape. There was a strange malaise. Billa, now a jayala, had nothing good to say about Bibi or about Pakistan. Surprisingly, he had failed to open for Pakistan International XI (the fact that he was barely 5' 6" may have something to do with it) and his attempt to open up his own (fake) medical practice had failed dramatically at the hands of my mother. Bibi was in her second term. And the one refrain of everyone's lips: corruption. Uncles told stories of jobs taken and given to upper-level PPP supporters; people murdered for refusing to sell their property; examinations rigged; custom tariffs exploited; businesses and factories seized; immensely extravagant system of bribery codified as government practice.

We went to Shahi Qilla. Wandering around the elephant pathways, I noticed a door-shaped hole torn into the side of Sheesh Mahal. I immediately launched into a tirade over the lack of appreciation for our historical and cultural sites, but I was stopped short. Zardari took it. Say what? Well, apparently, his 10% of all business transactions in the country includes taking 10% of cool shit from historical sites. What would he do with a 16th century door??? Living room decoration, they offered. I later found that the problem was far greater than that. The museums at Lahore, Taxila and Harapa had all lost valuable artifacts to the powers-that-be. There was, of course, the usual trickle down effect. My aunts were busy buying old doors and windows for their own houses. Retro was in.


Benazir Bhutto came to speak at the University of Chicago. She defended herself against corruption (I don't know the details of my husband's businesses but they are all legal). She offered that back in 1996, her government was disbanded because of Islamist threats - specifically from Usama b. Laden. He had tried to kill her, repeatedly, she claimed. It was a strange sight when the audience gave her a standing ovation. Here was a brave, secular, woman who had fought the evil and lived to tell the tale.

No questions were allowed and so no one asked about her government's dealings with those Islamists.

I left utterly disgusted. She was pandering in the worst possible way, I thought. But, even so, I figured that at least she is providing a non-military face to the American public. I had really wanted to hear her take questions. I had really wanted to see her responses.

In retrospect, what I really wanted was a democratic Bhutto. The middle class (or the lower class) in Pakistan withdrew from PPP because those heady promises of 1988 were followed only by a deafening silence - no social progress, no economic progress happened on her watch. The past eight years of Musharraf highlighted how removed she was from public discourse in Pakistan. The archives of the Daily Jang or Dawn or Nawa-i Waqt carry little about her, or by her, outside of the court cases against her and her husband. There is no commentary about her legacy or her ideologies - a reflection of how little she advanced the ideological thrust of her father.

Note this, from the Hanif piece:

Not just any ordinary privileged heir to a political dynasty, but a girl half the nation swooned over; a sharp political operator, a speaker who even in her stilted Urdu could have a million people dance to the wave of her hand. And she was not a revolutionary by a long shot — but she could bring people to her rallies, and more important, polling stations by promising them jobs and reasonable electricity bills.

On Thursday a heartbroken Bhutto-lover called and left a teary message on my voice mail. He just wanted to share his grief, but reminded me of something else: “She might have lost her political battle, but look at it this way. She raised three kids, took care of an ailing mother and still managed to stay in South Asia's most notorious arranged marriage.”

In the end, she was popular because she was Bhutto. And, hence, her loss is felt - and memorialized - as the loss of a person, not a leader.

May she rest in peace.


Zack | January 01, 2008

Great post, sepoy. I seem to recall only a few jiyalas around me in the 1980s. I do remember several women who were very excited about the prospect of a woman Prime Minister. Then living through the late 80s and early 90s, everyone got disillusioned. BB's second term was the worst time ever and Zardari was universally (or at least among the folks I knew or talked to) derided as the most corrupt guy ever.

Saleem Siddiqui | January 01, 2008

Listen to the conversation from a Muslim analyst on the political ramifications on the War on Terror in Pakistan. Coverage of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Aziz | January 01, 2008

awesome post. I've added it to the Carnival of Brass.

Farhat | January 01, 2008

I have also been reading many op-eds written about BB and yours is the best one so far because it is not about her celebrity as much as it is about the 1980's and 1990's political scene and her mixed legacy. One of the questions I have been mulling over is the modes of connections to the people she and her father exemplified, their 'awami' style. You are the historian so you can think of the historical analogies but it seems to me that their way of connecting with the public had a lot to do with the notions of 'badashas' and their 'rayia' but mixed in with lefti populism. I wonder if anyone has studied Z.A. Bhutto's rhetorical style and why it seem to work so well…or at least that is what we are told. The tremendous outpouring of grief over BB death also reminds me of the Princess Di effect. This is the first time in Pakistan's history that there has been relentless coverage of a political murder and given her family history she made such a 'good' story. Somehow all of us watching felt 'it' whatever that 'it' was, for me it was someone so full of life and full of joy that particular day being cut down so quickly with such finality. My mother lives in Sargodha and has been a strong critic of BB because she had decided to take part in election and jettison Athizaz Ahsan. But now she tells me she might vote for PPP and that many of the women she had talked to during a relatives funeral in a nearby village had become major supporters of PPP.

John Abraham | January 01, 2008

You write: I am struck by how utterly unrelatable she is deemed to appear to the vast majority of Pakistanis. This unrelatability has not stopped her from sweeping the polls in Sindh and some parts of the Punjab. Mind you these are the rural and the poor folk. She might have done so this time round too notwithstanding the machinations of the Qaf League and the puppetmaster behind it. So who then are these vast majority of Pakistanis, I wonder.

Chapati said ‘giddy’ and fell silent! « baCk in aCtion | January 02, 2008

[...] to make BB their mascot girl. Sepoy seems to have been left with a similar impression — Boy! did she have a sweet tooth, he says. But since he frowned at most of the commentators’ who make BB out to [...]

Remembering Benazir « Kafr al-Hanadwa | January 02, 2008

[...] 2, 2008, 1:36 pm Filed under: Democracy and Human Rights, Desiland Manan Ahmed has a personal reflection on Pakistan under Benazir’s rule that’s worth reading next to the paens to the [...]

habby | January 02, 2008

Daughter of Pakistan? I agree that Benazir's death is sad and it was a hineous crime. However I would question her status in pakistans history. She and her family were landowners and landowners can not be so rich to have faboulous homes or palaces in Surrey, great houses in Dubai, hotels & buisnesses in Dubai, Switzerland accounts. Where has all this wealth come from? Clearly it has been stolen from the pakistan. Secondly - Did she go to pakistan to restore democracy? To help the poor masses? No, I dont think so. She went their to amass more wealth and satisfy her hunger for power? Thirdly did she trust God would help her in her quest? No I think she thought USA would help her in her quest?

Farangi | January 02, 2008

I'm not sure how G-d and the USA are different, Habby. Both have reputations sullied by representatives, both speak English only and are obviously white, and both have abandoned Pakistan.

Memories of Pinky « Lakshmi Gandhi’s Blog | January 02, 2008

[...] Mystery’s Sepoy also recalled his few encounters with Bhutto this week, describing his disgust after hearing her speak at the University of [...]

captainjohann | January 03, 2008

Sir, the elite Non Resident pakistanies cannot understand how this feudal lady was able to attract TEARS in baloachistan,NWFP and start her campaign from peshawar.These same non resident pakistanies were signing praise of Musharaff only 1 year back when karachi index was at its zenith. We the people of south asia are feudal and let us face it man.I in India feel for this lady because she has shown willingness to learn inspite of her corruption during her previous stint. is Bush or chen ey not corrupt? Her win would have unravelled the might of ordinary poor people of pakistan who donot follow the suitwallahs or jehadies.they just want food,shelter,security for their womnfolk, and education may be to get a greencard.

Rohit | January 04, 2008

Who is Daphne Barak, and what has she been smoking?

mikal | January 06, 2008

If journalists use their 'access' to Benazir, you too as an academic use the native/authentic subject Billa to tell the same story. Who is Billa in this story and why is he there? Narrative device or authenticity effect? While you are critical of similar characterizations but feel compelled to give a personal connection to Ground Zero in Pakistan yourself. And how caricatured is Billa in this account, in the end his only understanding of politics is reduced to a dehari?

saeed | January 08, 2008

Daphne Barak----->Ehud Barak------->Israel O my gosh is it just me or those conspiracy theorists seem to have got it right much before us common folk.

koonj | January 09, 2008

Middle class Punjabi/Kashmiri Lahori? I KNEW we were related, CM!

mazhar ali shaikh | August 19, 2008

plz sand me pic of bothoo fimaly

Faryaz Shaikh | November 22, 2008

Awesome post, good lines!

IRFAN ALI | June 12, 2009

I love very much to PPP due to legacy of Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. But alas! Now PPP leadership is totaly adapts such ways due to very rapidly Vote Bank of PPP is decreasing. Being a true party lovers I request to my leadership with this source please do work hard and honestly to promote PPP in the future. Other wise "JIALA PAN" will be eliminated from this party.

Noumaan Yaqoob | January 01, 2011

My mother was a supporter of PPP she never voted for anything but the Arrow. My father supported IJI and Jamat e Islami. But my siblings and I were more inclined towards Benazir because she was beautiful, charming and was like a princess to us. I think people who vote for PPP feel the same way. It is like we believe in monarchy and being loyal to the Bhuttos is some sort of duty. I have voted only once for PPP, it was during last elections. I guess I can vote smartly and may not support PPP on many things. But my mother has built a very high place in our hearts for the Bhuttos. Benazir will live there forever and may be I will teach the same thing to my children to love Bilawal and Asifa and Bakhtawar.