Wasted opportunities

2008-01-03 00:00

Benazir Bhutto did five years of hard time in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, after her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown and hanged by the worst of Pakistan’s military dictators, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. But she was a woman who liked her privileges and her luxuries, and she was never a very effective politician.

I got to know Bhutto a bit in the mid-seventies, when she had finished her degree at Harvard and was doing graduate work at Oxford University. She actually spent much of her time in London, in a grand flat she kept just off Hyde Park.

If you knew a lot of people in town who took an interest in Middle Eastern and subcontinental affairs (I had been studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies), and you weren’t too old or too boring, you were likely to end up at her flat once in a while, at what some would call a salon but I would call a party.

A fairly decorous party as those things went in seventies’ London, to be sure, with everybody showing off their sophisticated knowledge of the region’s politics and nobody getting out of hand, but definitely a party.

The hostess was well informed and quite clever, and she obviously had money coming out of her ears. We knew her dad had been prime minister of Pakistan before Zia overthrew him, of course, but she was neither a serious scholar nor a budding politician.

She seemed more American than Pakistani in her style and attitudes, but beneath the Radcliffe and Harvard veneer she also seemed like thousands of other young upper-class women from Pakistan and India who were floating around London at the time. They called one another by girlish nicknames like “Bubbles”, they didn’t take anything very seriously, including their studies, and they seemed destined for a life of idle privilege.

Then Bhutto went back to Pakistan in 1977, just about the time that Zia had her father sentenced to death in a rigged trial. He was hanged in 1979 and Bhutto was thrown into jail for five years. But when she came out after Zia died, she was already the head of the party her father had founded, the Pakistan People’s Party, and by 1988 she was prime minister. She was only 35.

The problem was that she never seemed to have any goal in politics, apart from vindicating her father by leading his party back to power. At the start she was hugely popular, but she wasted her opportunity to make real changes in Pakistan because she had no notion (beyond the usual rhetoric) of what a better Pakistan would look like. Pakistan is already pretty good for her sort of people, so it should not surprise us that there was almost nothing to show for her years in office.

If she had become prime minister again, which was a quite likely outcome of the current crisis, there is no reason to believe that she would have done any better this time. Her assassination just makes it harder to solve the crisis at all.

Bhutto’s party, the PPP, has no alternative leader with national visibility. The other major opposition party leader, Nawaz Sharif, is equally compromised by his past failures and is currently planning to boycott the elections scheduled for January 8. Ex-general Pervez Musharraf, who had himself “re-elected” president in October and imposed emergency rule in order to dismiss the supreme court judges who would have ruled his “election” illegal, is totally discredited and unlikely to last much longer.

The most probable outcome is a new period of military rule under a different ruler, simply for lack of a good alternative. It is pathetic that a country the size of Pakistan should have so few inspiring or even promising candidates for high political office.

The vast majority of Pakistan’s politicians, and of the people who run pretty well everything else in the country apart from the armed forces, are drawn from the three or four percent of the population who constitute the country’s traditional elite. It is a very shallow pool of talent, made up of people who have a big stake in the status quo and a huge sense of entitlement.

Look east to India, west to Iran or north to China and by comparison Pakistan’s political demography is absolutely feudal. So long as that remains the case, it is absurd to imagine that democracy will solve Pakistan’s problems.

I admired Bhutto’s courage and I am very sorry that she was killed, but she could never have been Pakistan’s saviour.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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