Benazir's fighting sham

Kanishk Tharoor
26 April 2007

"Such is the miraculous nature of exiles," Salman Rushdie once wrote, that "what is uttered in the impotence of an overheated argument becomes the fate of nations". So it may be for Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto, its erstwhile leader now in exile. Dogged by the sharp criticisms of an unimpressed audience, Bhutto drew herself up and glared back. "Young man", she said, directing her gaze at a blunt questioner amongst the mostly Pakistani students assembled at the London School of Economics, "I have every intention of being back in Pakistan by the end of this year". The declaration confirmed what had been rumoured for over a week, sending the attending Pakistani press corps into a tizzy. Bhutto had reached a compromise with the beleaguered and isolated government of President Pervez Musharraf, and will soon return to participate in domestic politics, reasserting the influence of her Pakistani People's Party (PPP) and her own iconic persona. The words were delivered with that typical austere control, immortalised by Rushdie himself in his portrayal of her as the "Virgin Ironpants" in Shame. Yet her performance in London on Tuesday was more cringe-worthy than composed. In trying to market herself at once to the west and to unsatisfied Pakistani youth, Bhutto fell hopelessly short of convincing. All politicians must, to some degree, be self-effacing, but not to the ludicrous extent to which Bhutto replaced her own dubious track record with the aspirations of others. She quoted Vaclav Havel's idealistic battle against communism as matching her own campaign against Islamic terrorism. She adopted Winston Churchill's political clarity, claiming to have only "permanent interests" and not "permanent enemies" in defence of her recent alliances with former foes Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf. She even evoked the prophet Mohammed's exile from Mecca to Medina as the paradigm for her flight from charges of corruption and misrule in Pakistan. Other audiences may have been more impressed. Bhutto pushed buttons that would play well to those policy-makers in Washington, European capitals and elsewhere interested in reforming the Muslim world. She continuously described herself as a "modern Muslim woman" committed to a "modern enlightened Muslim society", a leader who has faced more than her fair share of authoritarianism – in the coup that killed her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and in the legal coup that ended her first stint as prime minister in 1990. She has also been the target of purported assassination attempts linked to Ramzi Youssef and Khaled Sheikh, men responsible for separate attacks on New York's World Trade Centre. A tireless democrat, an anti-terrorist a reforming moderate, an economic liberaliser, a Muslim woman – Bhutto cut a striking figure, periodically letting her white scarf fall defiantly from her hair, before replacing it with practiced modesty. An audience of educated Pakistani students, however, is less easy and less willing to be persuaded. None of her lofty invocations could paper over the weakness of her revisionist history. Pakistan's recent politics, she suggested, were quite simple; they amounted to the contest between democratic modernity (represented by herself and the PPP) and the joined forces of "theocracy", militarism and terrorism (represented by the ruling establishment). This is a woefully skewed description of reality. Musharraf's government in recent years has come under increasing political and terrorist attack from Islamists, and has been opposed by (and not allied with) the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the coalition of religious organisations that agitates against Islamabad's close ties to Washington. To forget current affairs and lump Musharraf and his ilk with Pakistan's hodgepodge of Islamist groups is not simply a sin of omission; it is a transparent attempt to paint herself as the consummate saviour, the antidote to the perceived ills of the Muslim world. Bhutto was reminded of her disingenuousness in embarrassing fashion. When she proposed that, were she in power at the time, the 9/11 attacks, the "war on terror" and the "Talibanisation of Pakistan" would never have occurred, LSE's Hong Kong Theatre burst into peals of laughter. Such a brazen claim took her a bridge too far. It was Bhutto's interior minister Nasrullah Babbar, as one student had her recall, who in the mid-1990s presided over the rise of the Taliban. That she could disavow any connection to the region's "soft Islamic revolution" was beyond belief. Bhutto's return to Pakistan will be welcomed by many in the country. A vocal minority in the LSE hall chanted and clapped their support in an atmosphere that more closely resembled a football match than a lecture. Many of her criticisms of the incompetence and poor decisions of the Musharraf government are difficult to dispute. The general's regime has brought Pakistan dangerously close to the precipice of anarchy. It is, however, a measure of the dismal state of Pakistani politics that a cynical, most likely corrupt ex-leader is expected to bring credibility to the floundering government. Bhutto was right to lament Pakistan's brutal history of military coups and dictatorship. The track record of its elected leaders, including herself and her father, gives little further reason for encouragement.
Kanishk Tharoor is Managing Editor of T.oD. © Kanishk Tharoor 2007

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