Daily Yomiuri (Japan)
Sunday, October 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's 1990 autobiography was titled "Daughter of Destiny." The sense of destiny manifested itself on Oct. 18, when she returned to Pakistan to reclaim the family legacy of ruling over the volatile, nuclear-armed country that has been buffeted by increasingly strong Islamist crosswinds.

The same sense of destiny that explains her sense of entitlement to rule is likely the wellspring of her remarkable courage in proceeding with the journey against the explicit advice of Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the chilling threat from Islamist enemies of the "welcome" she could expect. They delivered immediately on their threat and killed more than 130, but not her.

Pakistan's destiny has been tied up with the story of the Bhutto family and its relationship with the army, the real arbiter of the country's government, politics and economy; with the relationship with India, largely one of enmity with periodic peace feelers; and with the relationship with the United States.

India may be the mother of dynastic democracies. Motilal Nehru joined the Congress Party in the early years of the struggle for independence. His son Jawaharlal led the country to independence and delivered one of history's great political speeches, on a par with Lincoln's Gettysburg address, on Aug. 15, 1947. India had made a tryst with destiny, he proclaimed, and the time had come to redeem the pledge. The mantle passed from him to daughter Indira and then to her son Rajiv.

The story of dynastic succession is often punctuated with tragedies. Both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated. Rajiv's younger brother Sanjay, who had been the heir apparent, died when the light plane he was piloting crashed in Delhi. Destiny then embraced an Italian-born Roman Catholic daughter-in-law of the Nehru family as a daughter of India as supreme leader of the party of independence.

The Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan has not been quite as dominant as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India. Benazir did not have the prime ministership fall into her lap, but had to fight adversity in order to reclaim the prime ministership after a military rule by a man who had been promoted by her father but ended up killing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through judicial murder. Her brother was also killed subsequently by the police in circumstances that remain murky.

Bangladesh has two political dynasties, one headed by Hasina Wajed, the daughter of the country's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the second by Khaleda Zia, widow of Gen. Ziaur Rahman who took charge of the country after Rahman and many members of his family were assassinated just four years after independence. Every election in Bangladesh becomes a battle of the begums.

Sri Lanka, too, has two political dynasties: the Senanayake family (Don Stephen and son Dudley) and the Bandaranaike family (Solomon Dias, widow Sirimavo--who in 1959 became the world's first woman prime minister--and daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga, the last president, who from 1994 to 2000 had her mother, Sirimavo, as her prime minister).

Thus the dominance of political dynasties, the habit of assassinations and palace intrigues, and the striking success of women inheritors of the dynasty are common across South Asia.

The reality of political dynasties is not limited to the subcontinent. The mantle passed seamlessly from father to son in Syria and could do so in Egypt. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri moved back into the palace in which she grew up. In North Korea, we have the world's only example of a Stalinist dynasty.

In the United States, the dynastic credentials of the Kennedy clan (which, too, is no stranger to family tragedy) seem to be waning. Instead, we bear witness to the rise of the alternating Bush and Clinton dynasties.

All of which would suggest that whatever else may explain the phenomenon in South Asia, it is not just a matter of these societies being still essentially in a state of 19th-century suspended feudalism.

Washington may believe it was merely the midwife to the new power-sharing arrangement where Musharraf wins the presidency but sheds his uniform while Bhutto becomes prime minister. There is the very real risk, however, that Washington will be viewed by millions of Muslims as the puppet master pulling the strings once again in yet another Islamic country. This will be hardened by the fact that while Bhutto enters into a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif--the legally elected prime minister whom Musharraf deposed--was not even allowed to return to Pakistan.

Therein lies a clue as to why "they" continue to hate "us." Bhutto was rather more complicit in encouraging and tolerating Pakistan's many pathologies (Faustian bargains with the Islamists that included tolerating antiwoman laws, state sponsorship of crossborder terrorism in Indian Kashmir, and self-enrichment--her husband was widely known within Pakistan as Mr. 10 Percent, based on what people say was his share of any government contract), while Sharif tried to curb some of them and made some effort at reconciliation with India.

The fascination with Bhutto among the people and governments of the West remains a mystery. Perhaps it is due to her beauty and Western education. She certainly knows how to press the right buttons when speaking to Western audiences through the mass media. Cliches of female empowerment, democracy, poverty eradication, human rights and war against the terrorists trip readily enough off her tongue. But they are all at odds with the actual record of her rule as prime minister, not once but twice.

As Jemima Khan commented in Britain's Sunday Telegraph: "It's all totally bogus. Benazir may speak the language of liberalism and look good on Larry King's sofa, but both her terms in office were marked by incompetence, extrajudicial killings and brazen looting of the treasury." She ended by warning, "Make no mistake, Benazir may look the part, but she's as ruthless and conniving as they come--a kleptocrat in a Hermes headscarf."

Lest the comments seem harsh--they certainly jibe with my impressions and memories of her rule--consider the circumstances surrounding her return. She makes a British-U.S. sponsored deal with Musharraf under which the intensely unpopular and besieged general can become president while corruption charges against her are dropped (Musharraf's National Accountability Bureau reckoned she had 1.5 billion dollars stashed away in Swiss accounts) so she can return from eight years of self-exile. The commitment to democracy is proven in cutting the last elected prime minister out of any power sharing and deporting him so he cannot contest elections, free or rigged. The egotism is evident in dismissing advice to delay her return owing to several threats of suicide terrorists, rejecting the offer of a helicopter ride from the airport to her house in Karachi, encouraging a public rally from the airport to the city to welcome her as a show of mass support, and in organizing an armor-plated bus for herself but leaving her crowded supporters vulnerable to terrorist carnage.

Pakistan's legendary cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, who was at Oxford with her, wrote (also in the Sunday Telegraph), "Given the way that she has undermined democracy by siding with Musharraf, I don't know how Benazir has the nerve to say that 130 people killed in those bomb blasts sacrificed their lives for the sake of democracy in Pakistan." But they did--for dynastic democracy.

About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.