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Death in Rawalpindi


The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi yesterday is yet another statement of politics as tragedy. The killers left nothing to chance, using gunshots and the now commonplace suicide bombing. She is dead, along with a score of others, figures killed in the tragic unfolding of politics in Pakistan. Mortality is high among aspirants for the leading office in Pakistan.

This is a country at war with itself. The military gazes over the country’s frail atrophied institutions, a menacing presence that always threatens intervention. Bhutto’s father, no less, was ordered to hang by the coup instigator General Mohamed Zia Ul-Haq after being jailed in 1977. Fundamentalism, as ever, gnaws at the heels of the state. If the military don’t get you, the mullah must. Democracy is the perpetual casualty, a poor, undernourished creature. Bhutto’s death simply deprives it further, but it won’t by too much. To see her as a martyr of promise within a brutal political process would be to misunderstand her legacy.

Political memories are, after all, short. It enables flawed, even failed characters to re-run their platforms and repackage their rhetoric, especially when they lead a life of exile. Exile cools the memories, douses the flames. Bhutto Mark III (after two stints in office) was meant to make mileage out of this. The new brand label was meant to be the figure of unity, the saviour. This product, sold at the helm of the Pakistan People’s Party was starting to gain some steam, though it had a few other products in the political marketplace: another ‘democrat’ in the form of Pervez Musharraf (crudely named ‘Busharraf’ by opponents), and Nawaz Sharif. With such candidates as these, democracy was being eased into a period of long house-arrest.

While it was never entirely proven in court, Bhutto’s personal wealth amassed while she was leader on two occasions did little for confidence in civic institutions. In fact, it systematically ruined them. Pakistan may have elected the first woman leader of an Islamic state, but it also elected an avaricious figure versed in the dark arts of feudalist plunder.

Bhutto’s husband Asif Zardari, a polo-obsessed individual with a voracious appetite for kickbacks and commissions, tended to have his hand out most of the time. When it wasn’t filled with a polo stick, it was usually counting cash. The French corporation Dassault Aviation paid him a handsome fee of $US 200 million for a four billion dollar jetfighter deal that never took place ­ his wife was duly ousted in 1995 before the plans could be implemented. What is also abysmal was that the entire development program of Pakistan, if you could call it that, never took off. It was once said that not a single road was built during Bhutto’s administrations. Pakistan was not so much capitalist but capital-less.

And no wonder: the schemes of plunder hatched within the Bhutto plan were nothing short of grand. One, facilitated by Dubai-based bullion trader Abdul Razzak Yaqub, was intended to corner the gold market for the Bhutto family. The New York Times (Jan 9, 1998) aptly called this family estate the House of Graft, where the trade would essentially be controlled by a network of corporations owned by Bhutto family members. Again, her husband played a starring role. With such exploits, the very fanaticism Bhutto claimed to be fighting was fanned.

While the gesture could never be taken sincerely, Nawaz Sharif’s corruption charges against the Bhuttos (‘meaningless games’ scoffed Zardari) had more than a ring of truth to them. While the pop magazines saw Bhutto as regal, a high-society woman with stints at Oxford and Harvard, Interpol also found her appealing, warming an arrest notice for her.

We are not left with any evidence that Bhutto Mark III might have been better from the first or second prototypes. She was never given the chance, and death might have come sooner, had the first assassination attempt succeeded in October.

Had she survived, there would probably have been, as there was in Argentina in the 1970s or France in 1814, a ‘restoration’. All such restorations, like the Bourbon one that replaced Napoleon, suggest the failure of ideas, the need for poor reactionary re-runs in the name of stability. A people so disgusted and fearful would have seen her, Evita (or Louis XVIII)-like, ride into office, the familiar evil, with its crippling certainties. Some might have felt that a corrupt democrat is better than a trigger happy despot in charge of a nuclear state. That may well be the case. Geopolitical strategists are left pondering.

The terror has not abated, and with her death, there is a bigger chance that stability (forget democracy) will cease altogether. We are left mourning the circumstances of her demise as we have mourned the periodic cruelty in that country. If not execution, then assassination; if neither, than it is war on the frontiers with fraternal India. The immediate future promises to be catastrophic, though Musharaf or Nawaz Sharif may yet produce a miracle. And a miracle it will have to be.

BINOY KAMPMARK is a Commonwealth Scholar from Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at bkampmark@gmail.com

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