Immediately following Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination on Dec 27, speculation began on who would head the party. There was barely time to grieve. Pressures on the party leadership included insistent questioning by journalists, particularly the insatiable 24/7 broadcast media, the forthcoming elections then barely two weeks away, and crucially, the disinformation campaign started by the dirty tricks brigade that is always quick to swing into action.
Some journalists pushed the Fatima Bhutto versus Bilawal Zardari angle. Others pounced on the even younger Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (“Junior”) as the probable head of the party. Some rushed for quotable quotes to Benazir’s disgruntled uncle, Mumtaz Bhutto, known for his running feud with her. Hard-headed reporters, noses to the ground, understood the popular sentiment of the party–whoever next headed the PPP had to be a Bhutto. At the funeral, party workers raised slogans for Sanam Bhutto, Benazir’s last remaining sibling, to lead the party despite Sanam’s clear disinterest in these matters.
Cyberspace and drawing room chatter, meanwhile, buzzed with the hopeful comments of the intellectual elite in Pakistan and abroad. ‘Civil society’ was excited at the prospect of the PPP finally ‘democratising’–perhaps now, a non-Bhutto would head the party. Perhaps now they would hold intra-party elections. Perhaps now some respected leader like Makhdoom Amin Fahim, or even better, Aitzaz Ahsan would be asked to don the mantle.
Not surprisingly, this well-meaning debate primarily took place among elitist groups who are not party members, and who reviled the PPP for its insistence on electoral politics. The polls boycott lobby held that participating in elections would ‘legitimise’ the Musharraf regime. The boycott move is believed to have originated with the dirty tricks brigade, known for its tactic of initiating “a cute slogan that raises an emotive response” as one political activist put it. Besides the fact that the President in any case claims legitimacy, they were unable to answer the question Benazir Bhutto had raised when pressurized to boycott: “Boycott, and then what?”
These people had also rejected, even vilified Ms Bhutto for her ‘deal’ with President General (as he was then) Musharraf. She saw no way to proceed except through politics, and defended herself in an email of Dec 3, 2007, made public after her death: “I still remain committed to the freedom and vitality of democracy, as the great Quaid-e-Awam had dreamt of. Yes, it is true that you have to deal sometimes with the Devil if you can’t face it, but everything is a means to an end.”
The dirty tricks brigade was quick to capitalize on the elite indignation when the PPP ended speculation with the announcement that Benazir Bhutto had left a will nominating as the party head her husband Asif Ali Zardari, the much maligned ‘Mr 10 per cent’ (a term known to have been coined by the dirty tricks brigade, although there is no shortage of contenders for such labels). There was further indignation at dynastic politics when Zardari was smart enough to pass the PPP’s leadership mantle on to 19-year old Bilawal.
Why could the party not rise above negative traditions and do the ‘right’ thing? Perhaps its leaders felt constrained by their constituency–which is not the intellectual elite. This constituency of PPP workers was on the whole relieved at the quick decisions announced at the soyem (all of which, incidentally, counter the patriarchal model): Bilawal made the party’s symbolic head; Benazir and Zardari’s children taking on the Bhutto name; Benazir buried by her father’s grave as she had wished; her husband’s stated desire to also be buried there rather than at his own ancestral graveyard. Whatever the motivations behind these steps, their symbolism in perpetuating the ‘Bhutto factor’ and satiating the desire to atone for the martyrdom cannot be underrated.
The dirty tricks brigade, whose efforts to rig the elections Ms Bhutto had been about to reveal, continued undeterred. By Jan 1, in tactics reminiscent of the whispering campaign started against Benazir herself after Murtaza’s murder, a message was being circulated via text-message and on the internet implying that Asif Zardari was behind his wife’s death as the chief beneficiary — “all wealths (sic) of hers and her political power is now in Zardari’s hands”. The unsigned message demanded that he be interrogated along with Rehman Malik “who used to manage Benazir (sic) foreign investment portfolio”. Those close to Benazir Bhutto scoff at these allegations, noting that she was too intelligent a woman to leave her “wealths” accessible to anyone other than her children.
On Jan 2, an Urdu newspaper in Karachi distributed free supplements with the (false) report that Fatima Bhutto had announced herself as the ‘real Bhutto’, suggesting that she should be leading the party. Such attempts to fan discord are of course not limited to Pakistan. PTI leader Imran Khan’s ex-wife Jemima Khan who has developed into a political analyst since returning to the UK wrote in the Telegraph, ‘If a Bhutto must run Pakistan, why not Fatima?’
Is Bilawal about to run the country? Aren’t there other more important issues at hand than who heads the PPP? Fatima Bhutto doesn’t even belong to the party. Neither does Ms Khan, although this hasn’t stopped her or others from nominating its leadership. Such presumption when it comes to the PPP is in sharp contrast to the restraint regarding other political parties.
Such efforts to deepen existing rifts are not just dishonest but downright dangerous at this point. The establishment delayed the elections that were to have been held on Jan 8 without taking the major opposition parties into confidence. The interim provides an opportunity for them to further target and weaken the opposition. Already stunned at the loss of their leader, the PPP is now reeling from the registration of tens of thousands of FIRs against its workers. Its electoral candidates face charges that include attempted murder. All this only contributes towards the existing uncertainty and may generate more violence that could provide the establishment a pretext to further postpone elections. This must not be allowed to happen.
Although some go as far as to say that character assassination is the first step towards physical assassination, it is clear that political engagement and organisation are necessary for change. Those who vilified Ms Bhutto for pursuing these politics are now making her into an icon while continuing to vilify her party. It is time to make some choices: continue perpetuating the vilification campaign or focus on the more fundamental issue of taking politics in Pakistan beyond military interference.
BEENA SARWAR is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Karachi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org