It was unparalleled. At age 35, when she took oath of office as elected prime minister of Pakistan, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto scored several ‘firsts’. She became not only the first female head of Pakistan but also in the 57 member countries of the OIC. And although, then the youngest elected head of government, she had already suffered over a decade of hardships including the most personal tragic losses.
And yet, when she chaired the first cabinet meeting in the Old Presidency building in Rawalpindi, which had been Gen Zia’s office for years, she told a large gathering of stunned cabinet members and senior civil servants that despite long sufferings, she brings no rancour or vendetta to her responsibilities as prime minister of Pakistan and that she would need and welcome their support and cooperation with her government.
Indeed, she was one leader completely free from all parochial prejudices or cronyism that has often polluted the politics and governance of Pakistan even at the highest echelons of office.
She was also a blank cheque for Pakistan. She brought charisma and goodwill not only to her office but also to Pakistan. The country could – and did – encash this cheque to receive material and diplomatic support from almost any country of the world and open doors that were otherwise closed to Pakistan. This would be clear from the fact that at one time, more than three dozen invitations from heads of foreign governments to visit their countries were pending with her office – an unparalleled feat for any leader of a third world country
As the nation mourns this day in memory of her tragic assassination, I would share, in this space, some out of several instances of the services she rendered not only to democratic politics but also the governance and promotion of national interest of Pakistan. Sadly, these have not been highlighted, either because some centre-stage people were not there in her days or were not close enough to know.
That Saddam Hussein was a very difficult head of government to deal with; everyone in the world came to know in the backdrop of his wars with Iran, Kuwait and the Gulf. But Saddam Hussein had also stubbornly opposed the Pakistani stand on Kashmir and given “unwavering support” to India.
Bunkered in his presidential palace, with security paraphernalia rivalling Hollywood spy thrillers, Benazir encountered and won him over on a visit to Baghdad in July 1990. As a result of her neutralising Saddam Hussein’s opposition, the Kashmir issue was, for the first time, brought on the permanent agenda of the OIC in its Cairo meeting a month later in August 1990.
When the Concorde landed for the first and only time at Islamabad airport in February 1990, French President Francois Mitterrand led a large delegation to Pakistan. Heading our agenda for meetings between the two countries was acquisition of a nuclear power plant from France. In two rounds of negotiations, while we pushed, the French who agreed on other matters, refused to accede to our request for a nuclear power plant. On their day of departure, President Mitterrand had a one-on-one breakfast meeting with Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto and in that meeting she got him to agree to giving a 900 MW nuclear power plant to Pakistan. Later in their joint press conference, when the French president announced the nuclear power plant, even members of French delegation were completely taken aback – with the French minister telling me that they were specifically briefed by Mitterrand during the journey, not to agree to the Pakistani request for a nuclear power plant!
That power plant fell victim to the usual destructive politics of Pakistan. Even today – 20 years later – Pakistan’s total nuclear power production of 750 MWs from three plants is less than from that one single plant she had won for the country with her personal diplomacy.
Left to herself, Benazir Bhutto would do the right thing and take the right decisions, as she did on several occasions, resisting pressures from the high and mighty around her. There were also many instances where she tried to keep issues of governance segregated from unrelated influences. One example may be relevant in these times. On receiving repeated complaints about a cabinet minister, she ticked off the gentleman in a meeting telling him to remember how much sifarish he brought to bear upon her for getting a ministerial job. As complaints against him have persisted, she told him, from now on you should enjoy perks and privileges of the ministerial position, take your flag car and tour the country but not make a bigger mess by further interference with the working of the ministry.
The worst experience, however, which changed her perspectives on Pakistani politics was the no-confidence resolution tabled within less than one year of her coming to power – after a decade of hardships and tragedies. Although the move was defeated, those of us who sat through her meetings with MNAs when she was trying to seek confirmation of their support, we witnessed eye-popping experiences of politics in Pakistan. While there were many demonstrations of high points of honour and dignity in difficult situation, there were also shocking displays of low level conduct and cut-throat greed by others who thought that to be a golden opportunity to extract another pound of flesh from a beleaguered lady prime minister! With almost teary eyes, she would sometimes narrate the many favours she had already done for some of those in the latter category.
Few days back – 16th December came as a reminder of another tragedy – the fall of Dhaka. Let me end this piece by sharing the most touching moment of her visit to Bangladesh in 1989 to cement relations between the two brotherly countries. That moment came when she attended a garden party in her honour by Dhaka Municipal Corporation. As she led Pakistan’s delegation to enter the beautiful lawns of the national assembly building (old second capital) what brought tears to scores of eyes on both sides, were the words of the song the hosts had carefully chosen to play on a loudspeaker, exactly at the entry time of the Pakistani delegation: ley aaiee phir kahan par kismet hamain kahan se, yeh to wohee jagah hai guzre the hum jahan se (where has destiny brought us again, this is the same place where we used to live earlier).
Gone are those days, and the grace she displayed, but – the rat race apart – the honour code requires to stand by the right things. This tribute to her memory would not be complete without a word about her patriotism. Through thick and thin, in good times and bad, there was only one card that Benazir Bhutto played – every time and all the time – the Pakistan card.
In a no-holds-barred Pakistani politics, she held her head high with honour, dignity and courage few men have displayed. May she rest in peace.
The writer worked closely with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto during both her terms in office.