Benazir Bhutto’s Voice from Beyond

With the current election campaign coming to an end in Pakistan, the leading light of the opposition to President Pervez Musharraf has joined the discourse from beyond the grave and raised it to a higher level. Benazir Bhutto’s posthumously-released extended essay-cum-memoir Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West was released this week and likely will get a good reception in the West at which it is aimed. It bemoans the intellectual stasis in the Islamic world and calls for self-criticism among Muslims at large as the basis for a better understanding with the West. However, if past trends hold, it will be less read and understood in her native Pakistan and even less so in the Muslim World. Unfortunately, the oral tradition still prevails in Pakistan and in the heart of the Muslim world. And open discussion of profound issues in religion and politics has been displaced by drawing-room banter about conspiracy theories, the latest overseas trips, and acquisitions of the ostentatious trappings of wealth.

I visited Pakistan right after President Musharraf’s autobiography In the Line of Fire was released in 2006 and found over a period of two weeks that the book was being discussed at every lunch and dinner party I attended. But when asked, only four persons in those two weeks had actually read the entire book. The rest relied simply on excerpts or newspaper reports or what they had heard from others about it!

Bhutto’s book, like Musharraf’s, is an important addition to the paltry literature from Third World leaders on the issues facing their countries. Musharraf’s book, self-centered and slight, was in his own voice, probably because he dictated large segments of it after getting input from others. The Bhutto volume has relatively more heft but reeks of many hands.  It truly comes to life with her own words, dealing with the memories of Pakistan and of her arrival in Pakistan after her recent exile. And then there are the surprisingly candid pen portraits of many of the countries and leaders of the Muslim world, who do not come up to her exacting standards of democracy. Other parts remind us of plodding research assistance that yields a potted history of Pakistan and the emergence of the modern Islamic World, with copious quotations from other authors that drown out her own powerful views and voice. What could have become a major call for change in the Muslim World thus is reduced to an undergraduate essay in those parts. Those who follow Pakistan’s history will note the skipping over or rationalization of thorny issues such as the rise of the Taliban during her tenure as Prime Minister or charges of corruption or maladministration, with the practiced ease of a politician.

What makes the book important and interesting is the conflict that Bhutto’s own background and actions created for her as leader of a progressive and populist political party, while remaining at once a western-educated member of the feudal class, assigned to power by birthright. Yet, a strong nationalism and sense of destiny pervaded her thinking and led her to devote all her energies to returning to Pakistan and its benighted politics. I could see that steely determination when we last met in Washington just before she took off for Dubai en route to Pakistan. She lived and breathed Pakistan. And in the end she died for Pakistan. She understood full well that her return was fraught with danger. But she persisted and even after the first attack on her arrival procession on October 27, 2008 in Karachi, she was not fearful and continued with her public campaigning. That was the only way of ensuring that her people, her so-called vote bank, would be galvanized into action. Unlike Musharraf, who has sought safety behind multiple layers of security, she connected with the masses. And she paid the price for it.

Of all the current Pakistani leaders she recognized clearly, as she states in her book, that “extremism thrives under dictatorship and is fueled by poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness”. She was prepared to speak publicly about these issues. Whether she would have been able to change the situation in Pakistan or not, we will never know. The confluence of the forces of extremism and dictatorship, which she heavily criticizes in this book, may well have led to her horrific death.

The question now is whether the Pakistani electorate will listen to her voice from beyond this world and take back its country from the cancerous inroads of predatory politics that have debilitated Pakistan’s quest for democracy. This is at once her legacy and her dream for Pakistan. Who will fulfill it?