Remembering Benazir Bhutto
If Benazir Bhutto was to be summed up in one word, that word would be kind. Indomitable though her will was, and extraordinary the courage she was gifted with, behind her sometimes steely exterior lay a deeply humane woman who felt for the poor and the deprived, a quality she had inherited from her father. In many respects, she resembled him, but in several ways she was quite different from him. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto found it hard to forgive those who had once crossed him, or who he thought had crossed him. Even minor incidents, sometimes quite innocent, he found hard to overlook or let go. That was his great failing. When I mentioned this once to Maulana Kausar Niazi, he took a deep breath and replied philosophically that the failings of great men were also often great.
Benazir was forgiving. She had an amazing capacity to take personal abuse – and that was one count on which she was never to want. She would shrug her shoulders and move on. She preferred to concentrate on the essentials of her relationships with people, not the trivia that often gets to define them. She was by nature a generous person. She did not harbour a grudge; but being a Bhutto, she was born with a photographic memory. She remembered but she did not settle scores. During her two stints in office, both cut in the middle, one by the renegade Farooq Leghari, she who had a lot of scores to settle had the grace not to settle any. I went back with her a long way. A week after ZAB took office in the dying days of that catastrophic year of 1971, he sent for me and asked me to work for him. Until then, the press officer to the president – which ZAB then was – was called a public relations officer, which I thought was more appropriate to someone selling soap. I said that much to ZAB and suggested that I should be his press secretary. “Fine,” he said, “but not the kind they have in America.” Benazir was in school in the US by then. She came home for a visit around then and that is when I first spoke to her. From amongst ZAB’s children, my rapport was with the precocious Shahnawaz who had a sharp mind and on whose face I always saw a smile full of mischief. But I’ll leave that story for another day.
As I sit here in faraway Washington trying to write this, my mind goes to and fro over the vast stretch of years that divide then from now. Let me cite one example of Benazir’s ability, her gift I would say, to refuse to take offence where most others would. Some years ago, in a long memoir I wrote of her father, I described an incident involving the teenager Benazir in New York in 1971 when ZAB had come to the United Nations to try to retrieve what he could of his disintegrating country’s honour. This was what I wrote, “My friend Hayat Mehdi, who was deputy permanent representative at Pakistan’s UN Mission, Agha Shahi being the permanent representative, told me that as he went to Bhutto’s room to pick up some papers that he wanted, he nearly fell to the floor with shock when he heard the teenage Benazir, who had come from her school in the East to be with her father, chattering away on the phone to a friend telling her what her father was going to do the next day at the UN and that she should not miss it on television. I am not sure if Mehdi snatched the phone from her hand or put his hand on her mouth as she was giving away the best-kept secret of the day. Next day, Bhutto entered the Security Council looking grim and made the most emotional, though well-prepared, speech of his career. It was in that speech that he said, ‘I have not come here to accept abject surrender. If the Security Council wants me to be a party of the legalisation of abject surrender, then I say that under no circumstances, shall it be so. The United Nations resembles those fashion houses which hide ugly realities by draping ungainly figures in alluring apparel’.”
I never sent Benazir the book that included my Bhutto memoir for fear that some of what I had written might offend her. A few years ago, on one of her visits to Washington, she told me that she had read the book and liked it. “But there is one thing that you got wrong,” she added. When I asked her what it was, she replied that the 1971 incident I had described had never taken place. “I am sorry,” I said, “but I wrote what Hayat Mehdi had told me, word for word.” “Then that is not your fault, but of the person who told you,” she said. Having worked with her father and been in situations where he took umbrage at something written about him, I could never imagine him just dropping the matter and moving on. She was like that. She was not bitter and she had this tremendous capacity to go on, no matter what the odds and how difficult the situation in which she found herself. When she came to America on one of her lecture tours, she always found time to meet her party workers, her friends, whose number always remained large, and even those who merely wanted to meet her because she was Benazir Bhutto. Some of them had no interest in politics or in her as such. I suppose they met her in order to be able to let drop casually at a later social evening that they had spent time with her the other day. Her brow never furrowed when in company that could not possibly have been the source of any pleasure or benefit to her. Like her father, she remembered names, especially of her party workers.
Benazir did not attend the all parties conference organised by Nawaz Sharif in London last summer. While she sent three members of the party, including what I described in a piece as “the fragrant Sherry Rehman,” she herself went off to Paris, though she remained connected to what was going on – laptop to laptop. I wrote about it tongue in cheek but she was not offended. When she came to the US this year after the living arrangement with Musharraf had been successfully brokered by the Americans and the British, she stayed in New York for more than two weeks. Once again, she was not offended by what I had written, which was, “The Musharraf-Bhutto arrangement is viewed as one best equipped to deal with the ‘spectre of terrorism and extremism’ – as the mantra has it. To that end, high-gloss exposure of Ms. Bhutto, the acceptable face of the Musharraf regime, has been facilitated. There is the long arm of the government and then there is the well-financed and well-connected, high-powered public relations and lobbying network to which the United States is home. Selling, be it soap or politicians, local or foreign, has been perfected to an art form in this country. Ms. Bhutto stands sold.” She phoned to say before she left New York that she was finally returning home. When I asked her if journalists would be going with her, she asked me to come along. The next day, I received a mail from Farhatullah Babar asking for passport number and the rest. As it was, I did not go, having had things to do here requiring my presence.
She had a puckish sense of humour and there was a glint in her eye and a childlike expression of mischief on her face when she wanted to tease someone. Her loyal follower, former Senator Akbar Khawaja, who would not leave her side whenever she came to the US – and she let him do that because she obviously must have liked him – was and remains a good friend of mine. Writing about her last visit to Washington, I took a gentle dig at Akbar Khawaja when I wrote, “Benazir Bhutto was in town for three days, but had it been left to former Senator Akbar Khawaja, who followed her like a shadow and never let her out of his sight till such time as he would be told to go home and grab some shut-eye, we would never have known she was here. That being so, if there is a prize for keeping secrets, Akbar Khawaja should get it.” Akbar told me later that in Karachi, where he had gone with her from London, she turned around and found him standing behind her. That was at Bilawal House. She said, “Oh! it is you. I am going to tell Khalid.”
She also told him once, “Khalid is family.” I think one reason she always treated me with great affection and much respect was because I had never asked her for anything when by any measure, I should have been at least accorded what I had voluntarily turned my back on after the July 1977 coup. I was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service and posted at London – by ZAB personally – and I resigned rather than serve the military government or, in Lillian Hellmann’s words, “cut my conscience to suit today’s fashion.” The only time I broached the subject with her was when I asked her several years later what I should say to those who ask me why I alone of all the Bhutto people had been left out of the camp of victory. She did not answer that but I could see from her expression that she was sensitive to what I had said. Once someone who knew about such things and how they work, told me that she had tried both times she was in office to find me a position to suit my wishes and my experience but both times it was the ISI that had shot it down. One day, I am going to ask the ISI – to quote Gen. Yahya Khan – at what point did I inadvertently “untie its tethered goat.”
In 2001, while I was rifling through some old papers, I came across a photograph of Benazir, sent to her father and mother from school in the United States with a long, loving note scribbled to them on the back. She must have been around seventeen then. I mailed it to her in London, saying it belonged to her. She wrote back to say how time had passed and how wistful one felt thinking of those young and early years. In Simla, Benazir who had accompanied her father because Begum Bhutto was ill at the time in Karachi, was put under my charge, so to speak. She had barely turned 19 and was a big hit with the Indian media. I remember one headline that ran, “Benazir is benazir.” Everybody wanted to interview her but I was under instructions from ZAB himself to say no to all such requests. The only exception made – after due permission from the President – was a meeting with the late Indian journalist Dilip Mukerjee who had published a hurriedly written biography of Bhutto. He told me that more than him, it was his daughter, also Benazir’s age, who had her heart set on meeting her. When I asked ZAB if an exception could be made in this case, he told me to go ahead as long as I remained present at the meeting. Mukerjee was thrilled when I told him that he could come along with his daughter to the Vice Regal Lodge where we were staying. The two came but Benazir paid little attention to the starry-eyed girl, instead going hammer and tongs after Mukerjee, whom she faulted for having got several facts about her father wrong. Mukerjee, one of India’s most respected journalists, and a great Bengali gentleman of the old school, spent the meeting fending off Benazir’s blows. At one point I asked her if we had not had enough of that and if we could perhaps move on to other things. She reluctantly let go and Mukerjee heaved a sigh of relief. She then turned to the girl and spoke to her for quite some time to put her at ease. The Indians wanted ZAB to see Pakeezah, a “Muslim social” as the Bombay film industry classifies such productions. ZAB was not interested but felt that it would be rude to say no and asked me to escort Benazir to the cinema on Simla’s fabled Mall, which I did. We later took a walk and also visited a bookshop where I bought many books for ZAB that he had asked me to do.
Except for the last year and a half or so, I kept a steady to and fro email correspondence with Benazir. She was a great email sender, though the last time we spoke I said to her that for long we had not exchanged emails, whereas I often ran into people who bragged about getting emails from her all the time. “Not emails, but SMS,” she replied. I was not into SMS – one gadget less to fiddle with – but I had decided to SMS her from now on. But that was not to be. I have more pictures of Benazir than anyone I know – all my own work. Several of them are appearing in this special TFT issue. Off and on, while rifling through my piles of photographs, I would pick up some of hers and email them to her. I have a message from her dated December 3 2003 which says, “Dear Khalid bhai, Thank you for sending me the pictures taken at Dr. Javed’s House (Dr Javed Manzur, Washington PPP president at whose house she always met journalists and party workers). Your picture collection is phenomenal, covering many a decade and many an era. Bibi.” Another mail dated January 3 2004 says, “Such beautiful pictures you have. Thank you for sending it to me. It brought back many memories of a happier time.” A birthday greeting I sent her in 2002 brought back this response: “I am writing to thank you for the greetings on the occasion of my birthday on June 21, 2002. It was kind of you to remember the occasion. I appreciate the prayers and the good wishes. It is such gestures which give me strength to work for the restoration of a democratic process in our country Pakistan.”
A set of pictures I took of her in 1992, when she was living in a rented house in Islamabad’s F-8 sector, I sent to her in early August 2003. She wrote on August 22, “Thank you for the photos which I received. I was thin and wish I could be so again. It is too much effort. Nice to know about Nadira becoming Lady Naipaul.” (When I took the pictures, Nadira was interviewing her along with Roshan Dhunjibhoy for a German TV channel.) When a scandal involving Pakistan’s UN ambassador striking his woman friend broke in New York four years ago, the PPP issued a formal condemnation. I wrote to Bibi about it, reminding her that Munir Akram was Pakistan’s most brilliant ambassador and one of the few Sindhis in the foreign service. She replied on January 14 2003, “Dear Khalid bhai, Munir is a woman beater and PPP feels strongly about the rights of women. A man who beats a woman is unfit, to my mind, to represent Pakistan.” She wrote to me on May 31 2003, in response to my early birthday message, “It is kind of you to remember my birthday so early on. Thank you for the good wishes for the occasion. I am going to be half a century old and that makes for reflection. I have written a poem called Banazir’s Story inspired by Marvi of Malir, written by Shah Latif. Marvi was in exile from her land and pined for it as I do too. I was moved when I read it and adapted it to the present circumstances.” Daily Times published the entire poem.
When Ijaz Batalvi died, I wrote a column on his passing in these TFT pages. I stated that he was never the same after ZAB’s execution and in later years and in private regretted his role in the case. Rao Rashid wrote a letter to TFT castigating Batalvi’s role. Benazir who saw the column wrote to me, “Dear KH, I saw this article. It made me think the better of Rao for taking exception to the obituary on Batalvi. It also cooled the heart to know that Batalvi was never the same again and in private regretted it. Wish it could have been at a public level. Batalvi would have had so much knowledge about what went on behind the scenes. I firmly believe that someone has to come forward to tell the truth, someone who was part of the fray and knew exactly what went on with the assurance that what is wanted is an end to perversion of justice and not retribution. This is why I keep calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission knowing how many were tortured and how justice was shredded in the name of justice itself. Bibi.”
When I passed on to her a suggestion someone had made asking her to become Pakistan’s Sonia Gandhi, she wrote, “Luckily, I come from a village in Larkana rather than Italy.” In 2002, certain stories were planted in the press by the regime or its friends that Benazir was not a graduate of Radcliffe. I got in touch with Radcliffe, which confirmed that she was not only a graduate but had passed with honours in 1973. Daily Times printed my story on July 13 2002. When Benazir saw it on July 16, she wrote, “Khalid bhai, Got the message upon my return. The regime began the wrong propaganda and I was to nail them on the day of filing the nomination. They seized my papers previously and now thought they could do ‘dada-giri’. However, I was alerted when FL (Farooq Leghari) dismissed the government and argued that I was never a graduate. Thank you for working to defending my reputation in the face of the manifold lies of the regime. Insha Allah, all their lies will be caught. Bibi.”
Yusuf Buch, who worked for several years as ZAB’s special assistant for information, told me that ZAB wanted Benazir to be spared the rough and tumble of politics. Instead, he wanted her to go into foreign service, get married to a nice young man and raise a family. I mentioned this in a column, which Benazir saw. She wrote to me, “I am surprised Yusuf Buch told you that all my father wanted me to do was to join the Foreign Service and get married and have children. Those close to my father all know that he wanted me to go into politics. It was I who wanted to join the Foreign Service. In fact, mother contested in 1977 to pave the way for me to enter parliament when I turned twenty-five. When my father was imprisoned, destiny took hold of my life and I followed the path that he had chosen for me. He was proud of my having done that. The greatest consolation I have is that I lived up to his expectations and faced each crisis with fortitude as (he) would have wanted me to do. Bibi.”
Benazir was a beautiful person. But she was not free of faults. Once she said to me – it was her first term as prime minister – that she was always judged harshly. I replied that she was judged harshly because much was expected of her. The never-to-go-away charges of corruption that hovered over her head bothered me deeply, as they did all those who admired her and wished her well. Although she kept denying them, the fact is that she was not pure as driven snow. Was it Asif Zardari who led her to that path? Or was it something innate to her? She told me in Casablanca in 1995 – if I have the year right – where she had gone for the Islamic Summit, that when she was ejected out of 70 Clifton, all she had on her were the clothes she was wearing, She told me that had her husband not had “some money,” they would have been on their own.
I recall walking on a Casablanca road, having just filed my report to my Lahore newspaper from the telegraph office, when Benazir’s prime ministerial cavalcade with sirens blaring passed me by. She saw me and had her car and the rest of the motorcade come to a stop. Khalid Shafi, then chief of protocol and ZAB’s ADC when I was his press secretary, jumped out of the car and said, “The prime minister says get Khalid in the car and bring him over.” I spent that entire afternoon with her, talking about old times and about ZAB whom we both adored. Not always was she the best judge of people, however. In her first term, it was people like Happy Minwala who roosted around and pretended as if the sun rose every morning not from the east but from some orifice on their person. When she fell, they abandoned her without wasting a minute. I also could not understand how she could come close to people like Gulzar Chaudhry (a dismissed patwari) who because of her munificence became a millionaire. It always bothered me that she would stay at his residence when in Lahore. That someone like Rehman Malik, a policeman of dubious reputation, became such a close companion of hers, I never quite understood. He christened himself as her chief security adviser and yet he failed to protect her, first in Karachi, where she was lucky to have survived, and then in Rawalpindi, where she wasn’t. He has not even had the decency to offer an apology to the nation and confess that he failed in the task he had assigned to himself or that had been assigned to him. But let all that is now laid to rest with her in the eternal earth of her beloved Sindh. She is one with Marvi with whom she had once compared herself. She is gone and as the Quran says, speak only well of the dead.
I asked three people – Husain Haqqani, fellow correspondent and friend Iftikhar Ali in New York, and VOA broadcaster Murtaza Solangi – to share with me briefly their memories of Benazir. Let me end this long, rambling piece with their words. Husain Haqqani, who came very close to her in her last years and did a lot of work on her behalf in Washington and with the US media, wrote, “Benazir Bhutto was the most amazing, loving and lovable person I have ever known. For those who only saw her as a distant political figure, her human dimension clearly did not matter. For everyone whose life she touched, her humanity transcended the politics. Most powerful figures in Pakistan know how to turn friends into enemies, but Benazir Bhutto had the capacity to turn critics into admirers. When I first met her, I worked for her opponent but she won me over by her charm and persuasion, leading to fifteen years of close relations and my absolute personal loyalty to her. She was told many things about me but she never believed any and on more than one occasion put her appreciation or praise in writing. ‘I know something about vilification, Haqqani Saab’ she would say.
“The day after Farooq Leghari dismissed her second government I showed up to meet Bibi who was under house arrest at the Prime Minister’s House. She turned to someone present there and said, ‘See, I told you Haqqani Saab will remain with us. He is not like (and then she named someone who had joined Leghari’s cabinet even though he was a PPP senator after working as her spokesman earlier). We disagreed vehemently once when I was Information Secretary and she asked me to suggest a way of “keeping our friendship while relocating you from here.” She asked why I did not consider electoral politics in Karachi, which led me to move back to Karachi and engage in direct politics for a while. Our relationship became much closer after my marriage to Farahnaz Ispahani. Bibi sent a gift from Dubai she said she had chosen herself and invited the two of us to visit her. She said she knew this was the beginning of personal happiness for me. When Farah and I moved to Washington in 2002, Bibi called us and arranged a meeting every time she visited the US. I told her I did not have a home big enough to entertain, unlike some of her rich doctor and Pakistani businessmen supporters. She said she would be happy to meet me in my office. Everyone at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was surprised when Benazir Bhutto arrived unannounced at the reception one morning and spent the entire day in my small cubicle. She spoke on the phone to Asif Zardari, who was still in prison and being advised by the then head of ISI’s Internal Wing to break with her and find happiness. I heard her side of the conversation and she filled me in on what was said from the other side. Then she told me, ‘You will now understand why Asif remains so precious to me.’
“For the next five years, I assisted Bibi as she tried to convince a sceptical Washington of the merits of democracy in Pakistan. Hundreds of emails and text messages were exchanged between us. She went over every word that was written on her behalf and wrote significant portions of her own statements and articles. I was always elated by emails that said ‘Excellent’ or ‘I will share these points with the party’ in response to some article of mine. After I became a professor at Boston University she introduced me to her American friends as ‘my favourite professor.’ I probably wasn’t but she said it anyway and it made me feel good. She had the capacity to make people feel good, which is the most important attribute of a politician – something cold-blooded analysts and technocrats cannot understand. Yesterday, I printed out one of her recent emails and framed it alongside her portrait in my office. It read, ‘Ur judgement is invariably correct haqqani sahib. So nice to work with someone with such a good mind. Bibi.’ Even if she wrote it just to make me feel good, I would rather believe that than the news that she is not there any longer to lead the fight against the butchery of nihilists and the arrogance of Pakistan’s authoritarian state machinery.”
Iftikhar Ali, who was APP correspondent at the United Nations in 1971, wrote, “I first saw Benazir in November of 1971 when she came from Boston to join her father in New York who had come to fight Pakistan’s case at the United Nations – a losing battle with Pakistani troops failing to defend the country’s frontiers in what was East Pakistan. Mr. Bhutto stayed at Pierre Hotel on Central Park. She appeared to be Mr. Bhutto’s secretary as she picked up the phone virtually every time I called. Mr. Bhutto had asked me to keep him informed about the developments on the war front at any time of the day or night. He was not the type who would rely on the information providedby the Pakistan Mission. Whenever I called Mr. Bhutto’s hotel room, she would invariably ask me, ‘Anything big?’ And I would tell her. Reuters had given me access to their UN office and I would pick up the news from the ticker and read out to him. When Mr. Bhutto was not in his room, she would ask me to tell her the news and she would listen with great attention.
“But she stayed in New York just over a week before returning to her college. During that time, she came to the UN with her father a couple of times, dressed in pantsuits. As far as I know, she never sat on the official meetings which her father was having with diplomats at the UN. She always waited outside talking to Mission officials. Whenever she spotted me, she would ask me, ‘What’s the news on your net?’ She was remarkably thin, in fact, skinny in those days. She could get along with everyone, and never behaved like the daughter of a Deputy Prime Minister. Subsequently, I met her a couple of times at Ambassador Iqbal Akhund’s residence where she stayed during her holiday breaks at the college. She was into American politics, especially as the race for 1972 presidential election was picking up. My impression was that she was inclined towards Democrats – her preferred candidate seemed to be Edmund Muskie, a liberal, who subsequently couldn’t get the Democratic nomination. The party nominated George McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon badly. She was up-to-date on American politics and generally dominated dinner conversations. And like most young people in those days, she was against US involvement in the Vietnam War.
“I never saw her until she was released from jail and was allowed to travel out of Pakistan. In New York, she addressed a number of highly emotional meetings of Pakistani supporters of Mr. Bhutto and organised her party – Shabbir and Zulfiqar were her lieutenants. Because of the news clampdown during Zia days, not many people knew about the Bhutto case and she worked hard to apprise not only the Pakistanis but also opinion leaders here. She lived very simply here mostly with family friends, especially Shama Haider, Mrs. Bhutto’s secretary. There were no parties or eating out in fancy restaurants. Shama always drove her around; sometimes she also used PPP workers’ cars. She developed close relations with her party workers, visited their homes and even knew the name of their wives and children. During her Oct. visit, she was in the big league. While she was invited to top class events in think-tanks and other forums, she held two press conferences in the homes of her workers who lived in such obscure places in New York that even taxi drivers have difficulty getting there. There was hardly any place to sit in those homes with dozens of reporters chasing her. I never had her direct phone number but whenever I called Shama and told her that I wished to speak to herabout some matter, she would call back within hours. She was a very decent and charming person. May she rest in peace!”
Murtaza Solangi, who is from Sindh, became close to her in the last three years of her life, exchanging emails with her and speaking to her on the phone with great frequency. He wrote, “She was the leader of the next century who had completely changed her lifestyle to meet the political demands of this age. No Pakistani politician has harnessed the Internet to political advantage as she did. If she thought anybody would help advance her cause, she was in instantaneous contact with that person. She traveled a lot in the last eight years, but no matter what part of the world she was in, she was accessible to those she wanted to stay in touch with. I have seen her “sent by blackberry device” emails replied within two minutes of being received. No matter how critical a question asked of her, she would find a way to handle it with a cool answer. No matter what she thought of you, she was always respectful. Like her father, she had an amazing memory. She would always call you by your name. I think she had realised that this could be her last trip to the US. She came here many times in 2007. And every time she came, she was on every network, every radio station, in every newspaper, at every think tank and forum in order to advance her cause. The difference between 2006 and 2007 was that Musharraf was here all over the place in 2006. In 2007, Benazir had conquered every American institution and every American media outlet. She knew that she was running out of time. She had to speak her mind before life quit on her.”
I would like to close this tribute to that gentle lady whose like we will not see again with something my friend Ziauddin wrote for Dawn from London where he now lives: “She listened, defended and argued but never for a moment did I find her losing her patience or her cool. I had gone to (one) meeting after hearing many stories about her arrogance, hot temper and short fuse. But the Benazir I met was a person one could communicate, enter into heated debate and argue with. After this meeting I had several longish debates with her mostly in the company of the late H.K. Burki. On these occasions, I would listen mostly to the monologue of Mr Burki who would dissect her policies and actions like a surgeon without mincing words. She would listen attentively and would never make even the slightest unpleasant response to the most unpleasant and uncharitable criticism of Mr Burki. He was perhaps the first person to tell her on her face that her choice of Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari as the president was wrong and he even went on to predict that Mr Leghari would betray her. In my discussions with her, I found her to have a deep understanding of economic issues. She was very well versed in the subject and could stand her ground in a debate on economic issues even with the experts.”
– This is a regular column by TFT’s Washington correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com