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The Complex Electra


Brave and courageous. These words have not yet been applied to Nawaz Sharif who returned to a turbulent Pakistan, but Benazir Bhutto was honoured with such terms. She died on what people will now see as those terms. As the first Muslim woman to become head of state, she came with a readymade bonafide of martyr-rebel.

“Despite threats of death, I will not acquiesce to tyranny, but rather lead the fight against it,” she had said recently. If she would have got the opportunity, it would have been the third time. Politics is about erring often enough to be human.

Benazir may have identified with India’s Rajiv Gandhi, but those were superficial similarities. Her real mirror, if it may be called so, was Indira Gandhi.

Aside from the fact that both were ambitious women, they shared complete devotion to and obsession with their fathers. While Ms. Gandhi was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s only child, it is rather interesting that despite the politics of the subcontinent, as indeed the world, being heavily patriarchal Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto chose his daughter over his sons as his political heir.

The two male parents became Svengali and nemesis, their ghosts continued to not merely haunt but hypnotise their daughters. When Indira first came into politics, she was called “goongi gudiya” (the dumb doll). Her whole political credo was therefore designed to hit back.

She was Papa’s puppet. Naturally, in that small stage she had to move according to a pre-set rhythm. Katherine Frank’s biography talks about her paranoia regarding those she considered Nehru’s enemies. She felt that they were “out to trap her father and bring him down”. What was happening is that she was fearful for herself. Even as puppet she wanted to be on centre-stage. Perhaps, by getting her father to move away from the clique, she was subconsciously trying to claim complete ownership.

Psychology would describe this as the Electra Complex that combines penis envy with castration fear. Symbolically, the desire for impregnation would manifest itself in being able to internalise the father’s ideology.

Neither Benazir nor Indira managed to strike out on their own in terms of policy or altering the role of the family as ‘monarchy’. Benazir, had she lived longer, would have brought her children into the political arena just as Indira Gandhi did.

Dynastic rule in democracies or quasi democracies has been about perpetuating the name of the father. (The widow as successor is essentially legitimised only as ‘carrier’ of the husband’s progeny.) The spouse is a prop, often a convenient one to act as buffer and even bear the brunt of blame. Indira’s marriage to Feroze Gandhi was a façade that went through moments of turmoil to keep it alive. In all likelihood, she took his name to try and be her own person and not merely the offspring of Nehru.

Feroze was known to be a womaniser. Indira was aware of it. Her humiliation would be avenged only if he felt that while he had proved his manhood, he had lost out as the “nation’s son-in-law”.

Asif Ali Zardari came with similar credentials. Benazir settled into arranged matrimony and baby-producing to give Pakistan the sort of woman who did regular things and had descendants to perpetuate the royal pure blood.

With such delusions, these women till the very last posed a threat only to themselves.

Indira Gandhi saw imaginary demons. The result: The Emergency. Like all frightened people, she camouflaged her baseless theories ­ about others trying to plot against her government and stall its functioning ­ beneath self-righteousness, declaring that democracy was not more important than the nation. She could not even tolerate a peaceful resistance movement. She was found guilty of corrupt electoral practices by the High Court.

Benazir Bhutto was exiled to escape corruption charges. The pretence of being the people’s princess had to wear off once it was realised her father had been the emperor with no clothes. The veneer of statesman was wearing thin.

Is it any surprise that Ms. Bhutto blatantly supported the Taliban regime in its initial years to make certain that the Afghans did not breathe down her neck?

This was similar in manner to Indira Gandhi propping up Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a leader in Punjab, when he was a non-entity. She and her younger son Sanjay used him till it was convenient.

The mistake we make is to confuse populism for popularity. There is no doubt that both these women had their ears to the ground; as opposed to the sons of the soil, they were the mothers of the earth. This again works well in the Electra Complex where the daughters aspire to replace the mother. In villages and remote towns it can have tremendous appeal. The poor and illiterate in our subcontinent like to be seen as loyal subjects being the benefactors of largesse. Political coquetry is a trait that comes with the territory.

To make the situation even better, both these women had the benefit of a western education and an urbane lifestyle. This seems a bit ironical for they insisted on holding steadfastly to the dying socialist principles of their fathers. These principles were for the most part straw pillars meant for the masses; these families remained committed to feudalism in their own lives. They had the luxury of encouraging coteries without seeming to court anyone.

In India, Ms. Gandhi took away the privy purses, but kept the princes. She spoke about rationality, but had a hedonistic ‘godman’ as a close confidante. She was suave and sophisticated, but she encouraged greasy middlemen. She spoke about “social democracy” but blatantly gave a fillip to underhand financial dealings that came to be known as ‘the license permit raj’. And she thrived on strife. This is how she came to support the Mukti Bahini in what was then East Pakistan and became Bangladesh.

A goddess was born. A few years later, she had internalised the spook and revelled in the praise, “Indira is India, and India is Indira.”

Benazir did not have to deal with such a coinage, perhaps because heading an Islamic country meant no idol worship. Instead, she deftly marketed herself as the broadminded, non-jihadi face of Pakistan. Her version of social democracy too was embedded in the old-fashioned ideals of dignity of other people’s labour while she sat back as her husband made the money and got to keep the change.

It takes some sleight of mind to master the act of playing both distressed damsel and the dominatrix-matriarch fiercely protective of everything around them and, as a consequence, their own position.

While most women in ‘tough’ roles are accused of mimicking men, as the ‘Only Man in the Cabinet’ and ‘Ms. Virgin Ironpants’, Indira and Benazir demasculinised themselves. Talking about woman power, what they really did was to build a cottage industry of being wronged. Politics became not just a playground for suppressed emotions but a serious arena for catharsis.

Both women were elected to office twice. Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her most trusted bodyguard. No one has as yet suggested that it could well have been a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) sympathiser who did Benazir in. She was the visible face of the party, but the ideology was dictated by the spectre of Zulfiqar Ali. Some say that her niece Fatima Bhutto, who has made serious allegations against her aunt for the murder of her father Murtaza, could possibly play an important role.

If that were to happen, we would have one more “mind-controlled victim” avenging her father’s death and dreaming his dreams. Individual voices in Pakistan are being muffled by echoes of old thoughts.

Farzana Versey is the author of the forthcoming book A Journey Interrupted: An Indian Woman in Pakistan, Harper Collins. She can be reached at




Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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