A Tragedy Foretold

by DILIP HIRO

With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, her family will go down in history as one where everyone, except the mother, Nusrat, died a violent death.

Her father, Zulfikar Ali, former prime minister of Pakistan, was hanged in 1979 during the rule of his successor, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who had overthrown his civilian government two years earlier. Then Benazir’s younger brother, Shah Nawaz, died of poisoning in mysterious circumstances in 1985 in the south of France. And in 1996, her elder brother, Murtaza, was gunned down in a street by unknown assailants.

Given the atrocious suicide bombings of Benazir Bhutto’s tumultuous homecoming procession in the port city of Karachi in October, with her open-top bus as the main target, which claimed 140 lives, further attempts on her life were not unexpected.

Since she was determined to campaign widely and openly for the upcoming parliamentary poll on January 8, she exposed herself to a violent attack. Only a tight ring of professionally trained bodyguards that protect the likes of US presidents could have safeguarded her while allowing her the luxury of mixing with ordinary folks gathered in unruly crowds.

Bhutto’s security adviser, Rahman Malik, was quick to blame the government of President Pervez Musharraf. "We repeatedly informed the government to provide her proper security and appropriate equipment including [electronic] jammers, but they paid no heed to our requests," he said.

But more than electronic jammers are needed to protect VIPs in this age of suicide bombers and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

On returning to Pakistan after an eight-year exile, Bhutto bravely announced that the workers and officials of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would protect her. In any case, having official bodyguards would have cramped her style, inhibited her movements and personal conversations – a political price she was probably not prepared to pay.

Although no group has claimed responsibility for killing her, it does not require much political savvy to guess. It is the Islamist extremists operating from the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As ultra-orthodox Muslims, they loathe governance by a woman. For them, Benazir Bhutto was not only a woman politician but was also "a slave of America".

The way she was shoe-horned into Pakistani politics by the Bush administration left little doubt about her pro-American proclivities in a country, where anti-Americanism is running deep.

While Bhutto’s assassination is a shock to the ongoing general election campaign, it is unlikely that the poll will be postponed. That would not be beneficial to her Pakistan People’s Party.

History shows that a sensational political murder usually brings out a sympathy vote for the party that lost its leader. Such was the case with Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party in India. After her assassination in October 1984, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, an erstwhile junior MP, led the Congress party to a victory at the polls. (Seven years later he too was assassinated by a woman suicide bomber during an election campaign.)

History is likely to repeat itself, with the PPP doing better than it would have done with Benazir Bhutto at the helm.

DILIP HIRO writes for the The Guardian.

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