Wednesday Dec 27, 2017
I had known Benazir Bhutto for over 30 years of my life. Writing about her should not be a problem. But it is. It’s a long journey to cover. From Bilawal House, 70 Clifton, to my last meeting with her at the Zardari House in Islamabad, a week before her assassination.
Her family called her ‘Pinky,’ lovingly. After her death, her supporters refer to her as Bibi and Shaheed Rani, while for authors she is the ‘Daughter of the East.’ For me, she is, and will always be, Benazir, a leader who carried her father's mission with complete conviction, commitment and courage.
We will have to wait to see if Bilawal, her son, can carry the same burden on his shoulders. He stated recently that “time is on my side.” But he must also realize that politics in Pakistan has changed. And the Pakistan People’s Party approach to doing politics must also change.
Let me rewind to my first encounter with Benazir. The year was 1986. There was a press conference at 70 Clifton. From behind a press gaggle I stuck my head out and asked her if she thought the United States was responsible for her father’s execution.
She gave me a very diplomatic reply. But from there on I had a number of one-on-one interactions with her - before and after the 1988 and 1990 elections and during high court appearances for her husband’s hearings.
On one occasion, I found out that she had told a colleague in an interview that she had asked the ministry of information to invite me to brief the federal cabinet on the Wage Board, set up to resolve labour disputes. I had wanted the board’s decisions to be implemented. After a formal invite, I gave a presentation. She was sitting in the front row smiling, when I said that there are some people in this hall who do not want the board’s decisions to be implemented.
It is underestimation to call her brave. Before her and Begum Nusrat Bhutto's detention they tried to raise their voices for Z.A. Bhutto's release and were beaten by the police at Gaddafi Stadium.
Twice she, herself, led her workers despite the fear of imprisonment. Once in 1986, when she dodged all security cordons and reached Lyari from 70 Clifton in a friend's car. The second time in the 90s when she arrived at Liaquat Bagh from the Zardari House despite the blockades.
Courage was her strength. And later, courage was her weakness. Between Oct. 18 to Dec. 27, three separate attempts were made on her life. Yet, after the Karsaz attack she went straight to the Jinnah hospital to inquire about the injured workers’ health and that too without security. The second attempt to kill her was made in Peshawar. The suspects were caught but no one knows till this day what happened to them. The third attempt killed Benazir.
There was something else that she said in her last interaction. “They are after me. I am not sure whether I will be alive to celebrate the PPP's victory or not but I hope to see Musharraf ousted from power.” He was ousted. But she wasn’t there to see it.
During her political journey I saw many ups and down in her politics. Her most memorable quote in the military court was when she was asked about her cast, “I don't believe in casts,” she shot back, “I am Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.” Those words still ring in my ears today.
There were also many things she would tell me in private or off-the-record. I cannot share those here but I can tell you that she was very sensitive about women’s issues. It is not easy for women to enter into a male dominated political arena. Her opponents attacked her in the vilest of ways. Regardless, she stood tall. She once said that when the people elect her, they reject such gender-based attacks. But, she also added, some forces of darkness are not ready to accept her, a woman, as a ruler of an Islamic country.
What really weighed in on her was the murder of her brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, during her tenure. She even once admitted that she was misled about his murder investigation. “Murtaza's murder was a conspiracy against me, against Bhuttos to dislodge my government,” she told me at the Bilawal House in Karachi.
Before returning to Pakistan in 1986, she visited her brother and tried to convince him to disband the Al-Zulfiqar, as she was against armed struggle. But Mir warned that her return was a trap. He was certain that the establishment will never accept a Bhutto in power again. “He advised me not to form government in 1988 on the terms of the establishment. The events which unfolded from 1988 to 1990 proved he was right.”
Once I asked her why Bhutto wanted his sons away from politics. She gave me two reasons: one, that he was certain that the establishment will not spare Bhutto’s sons and two, he wanted them to concentrate on their education.
In my last sit down with her, at the Zardari House in Islamabad, a few days before her assassination, she spoke about the National Reconciliation Ordinance, admitting that everyone can have their different opinions about the decision but she returned to Pakistan after breaking the NRO. “The Charter of Democracy,” she added, “must steer the way for democracy to move forward.” It was perhaps the beauty of that Charter that minutes before her death her last call was to Nawaz Sharif to inquire about an attack on his rally. A few hours later, he was the first political leader, from a rival party, to reach the hospital where she lay breathing her last.
After the interview concluded I hurried out to catch a flight to Karachi. “I wish you would stay for the rally at Liaquat Bagh,” she said as I was walking out, “You would have been able to see the people’s victory in the elections. Whether, I am around or not. We will win.” Those were foreboding words. Did she know that her days were numbered? She could have stayed back in Dubai. But, one thing is for sure, the Bhuttos never run away.
Politics has not been the same without Benazir.
Mazhar Abbas is the senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang. He tweets @MazharAbbasGEO
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.