Her assassination sent waves of sadness all the way from the heart down to the soul among her followers and well-wishers. She was a woman of true grit and determination who for a brief moment made a difference to Pakistan. That she had the chance twice to do that and failed to leave a legacy behind is part of history. That her enemies were always baying for her blood and would not rest until she was thrown out of power, twice, is part of history as well. And yet there was always the future that beckoned Benazir Bhutto. Somehow there was always the feeling among people, including her detractors, that she had a way with the masses of Pakistan, that for all the sins she may have committed in office she was always the politician they could rely on to give them intimations of a new rainbow on the horizon.
It was just such a rainbow that lit up Pakistanis' lives when in 1986 she returned from exile, to marry Asif Ali Zardari but more specifically to tell Ziaul Haq that his days were numbered. Millions of Pakistanis saw in her the dreams that her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had once crafted for Pakistan, through the pretty incongruous and yet idealistic slogan of Islamic Socialism in the far headier days of the 1970s. It was now the daughter come home to translate those dreams into reality, to take her place as heir to the Bhutto legacy so roughly hurled into the mud through the hanging of the father. When Benazir Bhutto ascended to power in 1988, the first woman in a Muslim country to do so, possibilities of all the wonderful things that could happen in her country expanded in quantum leaps of expectation.
But then, those possibilities came to a quick end. It was the Bhutto family that suffered on, through the deaths in quick succession of the two sons of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Nusrat Bhutto, the long suffering wife of the man many Pakistanis call Shaheed Bhutto, lapsed into cancer. For Benazir Bhutto, what could have been an opportunity to redeem the old pledge made to Pakistan by her father turned into a nightmare of new exile. For eight years she battled charges of corruption even as she kept the flame of hope burning among her supporters back home in Pakistan. And then she returned home, in October 2007. The assassins lay in wait, all the way from the airport to her home in Karachi. They killed scores. She survived. That survival was short-lived. Two months later, the assassins caught up with her. She was silenced for all time.
My recollections of Benazir Bhutto remain as verdant as the day I met her, on a hot June day in 1970. As one among a group of schoolboys gathered in Quetta to collect autographs from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, we noticed a terribly chirpy girl, of our age, sprint rather than walk into the room. We guessed it was Benazir. And then she skipped away, into the next room. Benazir Bhutto became an individual of interest for my generation when she accompanied her father to the Simla conference in 1972. I still recall her telling Indian journalists, in all her late teenage shyness, that her ambition was to be part of Pakistan's diplomatic service someday.
I never came across her after that brief introduction in June 1970, but when in 2000 I got in touch with her by e-mail, thanks to her party followers in London, she did the very decent thing of responding quickly to my message. I wished to interview her for The Independent, the newspaper I worked for at the time here in Dhaka. Would she agree? To my happy surprise, she did not say no and asked me to e-mail my questions to her in Dubai. Within a few days she came back with the answers. We carried the interview.
And then for close to three years Benazir Bhutto and I kept in touch by e-mail. At one point I thought it necessary to let her in on the information that we had met in 1970. She was pleased. In her messages to me, she always addressed me as 'Syed Saab', which I found rather amusing. As I got increasingly involved in my work in Dhaka, my wife Zakia, living in London, developed links with Benazir Bhutto, who had begun spending a great length of time in that city. They met often, and stayed in contact by telephone. The last time they met, Zakia and Benazir went out for lunch in London, a few paces away from where Benazir's sister Sanam lived. Pakistan's former prime minister gave my wife a copy of a rather gushing biography of her penned by a loyalist. It is still there, autographed by Benazir, on the shelf at Zakia's flat in London.
I write today on Benazir Bhutto today not because I was fascinated by her intellect or her politics (I could never agree with her assessment of the Bangladesh war of 1971 and was disappointed when she refused to acknowledge the stranded Biharis as citizens of Pakistan on her brief visit to Bangladesh in the Ershad years). I write because of the power woman she was in all the years she stayed busy with the calling of politics. It is her resilience that I pay tribute to, as I remember the heart-breaking meeting she had with her father only hours before he was led to the gallows by a barbaric military regime in 1979.
Benazir Bhutto was a cosmopolitan in every sense of the term and certainly lit up any room she stepped into. In the late 1980s, as her motorcade rode by in London, a future President of the United States named Bill Clinton, part of the crowd waiting to see her go by, wished loudly that he could meet her. He did, when she came calling at the White House when he was President; and like so many others who met her, he was left deeply impressed. Her modernity was often disturbing for some of her countrymen. And then, in very traditional manner, she gave birth to babies even as she practised the profession of politics.
She was a beautiful woman and as she moved from her forties into her fifties, the beauty seemed to blaze even more in her. She was one of those rare Third World politicians who most charmingly enhanced the appeal of politics through an infusion of the glamorous into it. She was at ease in the company of individuals more powerful than she in politics. Media men everywhere were only too willing to fall for her charisma, for she was smart and she spoke well.
Benazir Bhutto was the modern, liberal face of her otherwise poor, feudal and perennially ill-governed country. She was Pakistan's light at the end of the tunnel. And yet there were the impediments she did not or would not overcome. In her years in office as Prime Minister, she was never able to allay suspicions of the corruption indulged in by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, whom she appointed to her cabinet and would not remove despite the entreaties of President Farooq Leghari. When her brother Murtaza was murdered in Karchi, she was head of government but proved powerless to inquire into the crime. In 1971, as Bangladesh's people were subjected to genocide by the Pakistan army, with reports of the atrocities filling newspaper spaces all over the globe, she refused to believe that her country could do anything wrong. She believed everything her father told her in his letters to her (she was pursuing higher studies abroad at the time).
In office twice, she was unable to shake off the influence of the army, which did everything it could to undermine her government. Remember too that in her first administration, she was forced to keep Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, a holdover from the hated Ziaul Haq regime, as foreign minister. Her relations with her long suffering mother Nusrat turned bitter towards the end. It was in her second term as Prime Minister that the Taliban took over Afghanistan, with aid from the Pakistani military. Benazir Bhutto was happy.
There was hauteur in Benazir Bhutto. The old feudalism which underpinned her family was a constant presence in her life. She enjoyed the adulation of the crowds in the way her father did. She had little time for the ageing men who had once waged political battles for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and carefully ignored them. She created her own coterie of hangers-on and courtiers.
Warts and all, though, Benazir Bhutto gave hope to her sad country. She was the light at the end of the long tunnel for large numbers of Pakistanis. With her death, the tunnel only got longer and darker. Her passing was a blow to dreams of Pakistan eventually, perhaps, turning toward liberal democracy.
And I will remember all the old words from her, brimming with confidence, in all those old e-mails. The world is a poorer place today without Benazir Bhutto to give it a heave-ho. Politics was left badly wounded in Pakistan when that bullet went rushing into her brains.
(Benazir Bhutto, leading politician and crusader for democracy in Pakistan, was born on 21 June 1953 and assassinated on 27 December 2007)