by Neeta Lal
- India -
While Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination has rudely jolted Pakistan – a country already torn asunder by political instability and terrorism – it has also had a strong resonance across all of Asia especially in India. As its immediate neighbor, India has always shared a volatile relationship with the Muslim nation.
What does Bhutto’s death really signify for India? For one, it will have far-reaching political ramifications. The death of Pakistan Peoples’ Party’s (PPP) charismatic leader, a frontrunner for the 2008 elections, will deal a severe blow to Indo-Pak peace talks. It will also mean a go-slow on bilateral talks on many key issues: like the Kashmir imbroglio, terrorism, the Siachen glacier - called the ultimate symbol in the dispute over Kashmir, and the much-needed strengthening of cultural ties between its people. None of these developments augur well for the sub-continent in these times of heightened political tension and unrest.
Even though Bhutto wasn’t directly engaged in peace talks with India, political pundits in New Delhi suggest that she nevertheless endorsed them, and might even have accelerated their pace, had she returned to power. So obviously, her death is a huge blow for those in India for whom establishing peace with Pakistan is a critical issue. In fact the general fear now is that with Pakistan besieged by jihadi fundamentalists, terrorism may escalate further along the sensitive Indo-Pakistani border, jeopardizing India’s safety and security.
According to Dr. Pratap Reddy, former joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), New Delhi, “Benazir’s was a liberal, democratic voice in a country torn between radical Islamism and military dictatorship. She was the first woman to lead an Islamic country, was progressive in her beliefs and would have brought in a whiff of democracy for her freedom-starved nation.”
However, a different section of Indians feel that Benazir – though never overtly hostile – wasn’t really “an ally India could bank upon.” For instance, during her two earlier stints as Pakistani PM (1988 and 1993) she never did anything spectacular either to improve Indo-Pak relations or push for peace. “Benazir is being lionized after her death,” says Professor Anil Gupte of Jawaharlal Nehru University. “But we need to see her without rose-tinted glasses – as a highly ambitious politician who had been charged with everything from corruption, money laundering, and her brother’s murder to lending support for jihadis.”
While some Indians may not have subscribed to Benazir’s brand of politics, there’s no denying that her life story – particularly her metamorphosis from a shy, gawky teenager to an Oxford- and Harvard-educated political swan under daddy Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s guidance -- contained all the heft of a fairytale. And this made her a poster girl for Indian women activists.
Says Madhu Venkat, a Delhi-based social activist, “Benazir was a role model for marginalized people, an icon for disadvantaged women vying to become socially and politically active.” Indeed for such people, Benazir was a rock star – a courageous leader and a spunky orator. That she was easy on the eye and belonged to a wealthy political family helped. She was also the antithesis of Pakistan’s current ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who is perceived by Indians as undemocratic and regressive.
Naturally Benazir’s death encourages observers to draw an analogy between the dynastic rule of the Bhuttos and that of the Gandhis here in India – Indira Gandhi, her son, Rajiv, his widow Sonia (now the ruling party United Progressive Alliance or UPA’s leader) and their son Rahul. Just as a wet-behind-the-ears Rajiv was pitchforked into the hurly burly of politics soon after his mother Indira’s assassination in 1984, similarly, Bilawal, Benazir’s 19-year-old son, an Oxford undergrad too, is suddenly finding himself in the maelstrom of Pakistani politics. Anointed as co-chairman of PPP, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will be leading the party, “guided” by his father Asif Ali Zardari. Similarly, Rajiv’s son Rahul, 37, has also stepped into his father’s shoes as a matter of course.
It is no surprise that the Bhuttos are charged with propagating “dynastic rule” like the Gandhis. Benazir had anointed herself as PPP’s 'Chairperson for Life' and her will (formalized a few days before her untimely death) expressed her desire to pass on her political mantle to her son and her spouse. Small wonder then that soon after his anointment, young Bilawal's brief public remarks echoed his mother’s words. "My mother always said, 'Democracy is the best revenge.'" Like Rahul Gandhi -- and Rajiv before him -- Bilawal is seen as the heir apparent in this durable tradition of dynastic rule.
However, critics point out that a major difference between Pakistan and India’s “dynastic rule” is that while India has always adhered to constitutional and democratic norms during such familial transfers of power, Pakistan has invariably dispensed with such formalities. In fact Pakistan has been far more feudal on this count: not only the Bhuttos, but many political families have sat in the Pakistani Parliament for decades purely due to the lottery of birth.
But whatever Benazir’s shortcomings may have been – as a politician or otherwise – there’s no denying that she was truly a people’s leader. The magical sway she held over the Pakistani masses showed she was the only contemporary Pakistani politician with natural charisma. This was evident in the way she tried to connect with her people – waving out to them, touching them, holding their hands, hugging them. Unfortunately, this proximity cost her her life. It is a bitter irony that she was killed while trying to cement this very connection with her supporters!
Shortly before her return to Pakistan in October, Bhutto had written -- almost prophetically -- in a column in The Washington Post, “I do not know what awaits me personally or politically… I pray for the best and prepare for the worst… I’m going home to fight for the restoration of Pakistan’s place in the community of democratic nations.”
Indeed, along with the rest of the world, India feels even more sharply than others that Pakistan is a poorer place without Benazir.
About the Author
Freelance journalist Neeta Lal is a transnationally published writer who currently contributes to over two dozen international publications, including The Guardian, Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia and a host of British and American magazines. Having traveled to over 30 countries, she is also in the process of writing two travel books.
Neeta enjoys cooking, gardening, traveling and photography. She lives in New Delhi with her husband and two children.