By Saleeem Khan, Ph.D.
The violent death of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, is the latest event in a culture of violence that has been steadily spreading in the body politics in Pakistan.
Ms. Bhutto’s assassination took place in Liaqat Park 28 years after the execution in April 1979 of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan, at the hands of a military dictator. The prison where his execution was carried out is hardly a mile away from the Liaqat Park, a site where the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaqat Ali Khan, fell to an assassin’s bullet 28 years earlier in October 1951. A power struggle among the ruling elite was said to be the cause of the Liaqat tragedy, but that killing was never professionally investigated and I doubt very much that her tragic demise will ever be.
These and numerous other tragic events in the 60 year history of Pakistan are of far reaching national and international consequences because Pakistan occupies a strategic position in a very volatile region. These events imperil national, regional and international peace. The magnified exposure of these tragic events in the world media is closely linked to protecting western interests fails to adequately express concern for the safety and welfare of Pakistan and its people.
I have known both Bhuttos personally for over a quarter century. I met Ms. Bhutto for the first time in 1984 in New York when she was invited to meet with a politically active group of young Pakistanis. My meeting with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arranged on August 1974, in the Prime Minister’s house in Rawalpindi. Subsequently I maintained contacts with both of them. I served as an economic advisor in his administration from 1975 to 1977. Memories of a long relationship and my observation of their tenure as public servants are still fresh in my mind. Both leaders were idols of the people and had developed close bonds with the poor and dispossessed.
Ms. Bhutto had inherited her father’s legacy as a political leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) which he had founded in 1967, and the mission of democracy and economic reform which he planned for his nation. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was an astute politician, possessing Clintonian talents and a statesman of international stature. He had made the mission of his life to serve the poor and downtrodden and worked tirelessly in promoting international cooperation and world peace. In both my meeting with him on August 8, 1974, and the subsequent contacts which I maintained with the Bhutto family he spoke of his agenda of political and economic reforms and the difficulties he was encountering in their implementation. He went on to reiterate his commitment to make a difference in the lives of the common man and peace with India at any cost and sacrifice. His economic reforms, as he explained to me, aimed at providing the basic necessities of life–bread, clothing, shelter–to the poor of Pakistan, but were negated by bureaucratic controls and conspiracies by the feudal lobby. The three sins that made him a pariah among international powers were his nuclear program, an Islamic summit, and the drive for third world unity. These programs drew strong opposition from the western world in general and the US in particular. For these sins, as the world events have witnessed, he paid with his life.
Bhutto had trained Benazir from his prison cell to pick up the pieces of his reforms and democracy and prepared her mentally for sacrifices that she might have to make. In my meeting with her in New York she talked about her commitment to the PPP’s political and economic agenda emphasizing the need for building a strong popular support and forging unity among the ranks of party’s leaders and workers.
Ms. Bhutto’s day to govern the country came in 1988. On the strength of her party’s political and economic programs and with the support of the people she was elected prime minister of Pakistan twice, first in 1988 and for a second term in 1993; each time her tenure lasted for two years. Sadly she failed to demonstrate the qualities of a competent governor for which her father had tried to prepare her, and she was unable to achieve any worthwhile program for socio-economic progress. She made herself the chairperson of the PPP for life, dominating the decision making processes exhibiting little taste and patience for democracy. In the government she developed a close alliance with the bureaucratic establishment, surrounded herself with powerful feudal and corrupt party leaders. She only paid lip service to educational programs in general and female literacy in particular. During her tenure as prime minister the economy was largely mismanaged, poverty rose and governance standards deteriorated.
Much is made of her education at Harvard and Oxford preparing her to meet the challenges of leadership in a modern world. Throughout her life she remained beholden to feudal interests and preferred a life of “The Rich and Famous.” While in office, she and her husband, Asif Zardari, according to the Pakistani media and the New York Times stole as much as $1.5 billion from government accounts. Neither the people of Pakistan nor the international media missed her during her eight years of self exile. Only when Washington needed her as a front for democracy in Pakistan did she reemerge as a political force by the international media. She stridently defended the war against militancy and Al Qaeda and seldom referred to the many other urgent problems facing the people of Pakistan.
Pakistan is a country of 170 million people and they have never been allowed to have a say in shaping their destiny. Without their active participation in national affairs, stability and democracy is not possible. Two fundamental conditions for creating stability and democracy in Pakistan are critical. First, the country needs the rule of law, and second, it must become a functioning democratic state. Without reinstating the sacked justices of the Supreme Court and formation of a national government able to conduct free and fair elections the rule of law and democracy can not take hold in Pakistan. To tackle the militancy and violence in Pakistan restoring the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and installing an elected government in Islamabad are critical at this time.
The death of Benazir Bhutto and the current violence in its wake provides an open opportunity for the ruling elite in Pakistan and their international backers, to rethink the real issue of a stable and democratic Pakistan. The need to make these necessary evolutionary changes is ever more urgent.
[Dr. Khan is Chair of the Department of Economics at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and former economic advisor to Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto.]