Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto; drawing by David Levine

Political autobiography, as a genre, tends to produce tiresome, self-serving, ghost-written works. But once in a while a book stands out; not necessarily because it is better written than the usual stuff, but because it is the closest thing we have to classic mythology. The message is moral; the characters stand for Good and Evil; the story is a variation of the quest for a holy grail, involving not just hardship—“tests”—but exile of one kind or another. The authorship is often anonymous—ghostwriters seldom reveal their names.

When the heroes and villains come from countries where pure myths still cast their spells, where, as a Pakistani politician recently put it to me, “words have magic,” these political fairy tales follow the traditional patterns more closely than in the modern West, where the drama tends to get lost in media buzzwords, earnest political analysis, academic jargon, or a ghastly combination of all three. Besides, the complexity of modern life leaves little room for mythical feats of heroism. Good and evil are not so clear-cut. Our politics, as puritans of all persuasions keep telling us, has lost its moral dimension.

We can be just as much enchanted by myths of course, and sometimes something approaching classic myth will occur: Winston Churchill emerging from “his years in the wilderness” (exile) to save the world from evil dragons in the name of freedom and democracy (the grail). But this could only happen in a war, and Churchill was rather exceptional in that he was the greatest narrator of his own myth—no ghostwriters for him. Today’s great leaders, the Iron Lady, the Gipper, even Gorby, might aspire to mythical status, but cannot really pull it off convincingly.

No, for the truly inspiring tales we must turn to that mythical land called The Third World. That is where we can escape from not so much the decadence as the banality of Western life, and be enchanted once again, like children, our disbelief suspended. More than that, in the third world we can retrieve the pure moral order that we feel is lost to us in the West. The story of Cory Aquino—already made into a TV miniseries, by Australians I believe—was perfect: she, a religious paragon of modesty and virtue, her opponents, symbols of villainy and greed. How enchanting it must have been in 1986 for American senators and congressmen to take a break from their daily affairs and don yellow ribbons for St. Cory of Manila.

Kim Dae Jung tried his hardest to be a mythical hero, and many Western reporters did their best to help him, but he never quite made the grade. His story had all the makings of the real thing: evil generals, exile, heroic hardship, the quest for freedom…. But then something went wrong: Kim suddenly appeared less heroic, more like his opponents, aggressive, intransigent, hungry for power. Perhaps South Korea is too prosperous now, not third world enough, in a word, too modern for fairy tales.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is about as third world as you can get, and the story of Benazir Bhutto’s quest to avenge her father’s death at the hand of the wicked General Zia ul-Haq fits all the requirements of the classic myth. Her book, clearly written to enchant Western readers, does not disappoint. The heroes are saintly, the villains drip with poison. There is excruciating hardship; there are years of exile; there is the wonderful combination of Western high life and ancient Oriental culture (at one point in the story, our heroine is “enthused with a sense of Asian identity”); and, finally, there is victory, made all the sweeter for the difficulties of the quest.

Miss Bhutto’s prose, though satisfyingly breathless and emotional in parts, shows the dead hand of the ghost in others. Those interested in the true language of myths should turn to a collection of Benazir’s speeches, interviews, and assorted public utterances, aimed at her domestic supporters, entitled The Way Out.1 There we find the “clarion calls,” the “night of the tyrant,” the “streets painted in blood.” To quote one typical clarion call:

We must face the oppressor, the Tyrant, the Usurper, the unjust in whatever fashion or manner he manifests himself. The martyr is the life of history and history is woven of the threads of revolution….

But how fragile it is. How easily it is crushed. How easily the crystal that dazzled the rainbow color in the morning light vanishes.

The martyr is of course Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged for murder in 1979, on orders of General Zia, who had ousted Bhutto two years before in a military coup. But that is getting ahead of the story. Let us begin at the beginning.

Benazir Bhutto was born in 1953 in Karachi, “my skin evidently so rosy that I was immediately nicknamed ‘Pinkie.”‘ Very soon Pinkie began to lead what can only be called a bicultural life. There was Miss Bhutto, educated in English, first at Lady Jennings’s nursery school and later by Irish nuns at the Convent of Jesus and Mary. The older students were divided into houses with such inspirational names as “Discipline,” “Courtesy,” “Endeavour,” and “Service.” This was the same Miss Bhutto who later went to Radcliffe, where she savored the delights of peppermint ice cream, apple cider, Joan Baez, and peace marches. It was also the Miss Bhutto who moved on to Oxford, her father’s alma mater, where she drove a sports car, sharpened her wit at the Oxford Union, and was squired around town by dashing young men in velvet jackets. Let us, for the sake of simplicity, call this stylish young woman the Radcliffe Benazir.


There is another Miss Bhutto, however, one who expresses herself better in the mythical language of The Way Out. This is the Benazir, sitting adoringly at her father’s feet at the family estate in Larkana, listening to his tales of heroic ancestors, “directly traceable to the Muslim invasion of India in 712 AD.” One of these heroes, her great-grandfather, defied the British by taking an English lover. Rather than hand her back to the outraged officers of the raj, his retinue killed the woman. This, said the hero, was a matter of honor.

We might call this romantic lady the Larkana Benazir. She was the one who, as she writes in her autobiography, “loved hearing these family stories, as did my brothers Mir Murtaza and Shah Nawaz, who naturally identified with their namesakes. The adversities faced by our ancestors formed our own moral code, just as my father had intended. Loyalty. Honour. Principle.”

Here, clearly, is a family born to rule. The Bhuttos are landowning grandees, in the desertland of Sindh, a backward part of the subcontinent, a kind of sandy Sicily, where politics consist of murky family feuds. Benazir’s grandfather, Sir Shah Nawaz, founded the first political party in Sindh in the days of the British raj. He was, as his title suggests, a very grand personage indeed. Benazir tells us nothing much about her paternal grandmother, Sir Shah Nawaz’s second wife, for she, a humble Hindu from Bombay who converted to Islam just before her marriage, does not fit in so neatly into the illustrious family annals—something, by the way, which Z.A. Bhutto’s political opponents exploited in their campaigns against him: he was, they said, not a “real” Pakistani, but the son of an Indian, and a Hindu Indian to boot.

Just as there are two Benazirs (who sometimes get mixed up: only the Radcliffe Benazir could be “enthused” by her Asian identity), there are two Bhutto families: one is compared to the Kennedys; the blessed clan destined to deliver the people from poverty and oppression, but punished by political martyrdom. Like Kathleen Kennedy, “who had worn her father’s parka at Radcliffe long after the Senator had been killed,” Benazir “tried to keep my father near me by sleeping with his shirt under my pillow.” And then there is the family inspired by Muslim martyrdom. Benazir calls her father shaheed, a martyr for Islam. In The Way Out she finds the appropriate words:

The same dedicated workers whose courage is higher than the mountains and whose dedication is deeper than the oceans are even now ready to come forward and to sacrifice inspired by Shaheed Bhutto and in the manner of sacrifice known only to the political descendents of Muslim Martyrs.

It is sometimes tempting to sneer at the Radcliffe Benazir, shocked at army thugs “lolling on one of Mummy’s delicate blue and white brocade Louix XV chairs,” trying to act as the daughter of a Muslim martyr. So much about the Larkana Benazir smacks of kitsch; so much of the Radcliffe Benazir strikes one as half-backed. But to reconcile the two roles, or, indeed, to forgo the sports cars and May Balls and risks torture or death, took extraordinary courage. After her father’s execution in 1979, Ms. Bhutto spent much of the next five years under appalling conditions in Zia’s jails. And having braved the worst at the hands of a military dictator, her political success has given hope to millions. It all makes one feel a little churlish to challenge some of her more cherished myths. But, as Benazir herself remarks, when describing some fraud perpetrated by General Zia’s government, “what matters is the truth.” And the truth, however enchanting and moving Benazir’s own tale may be, is an elusive thing.

But let us return to the story. When Benazir was still with the Irish nuns, her father was foreign minister in the government of General Ayub Khan. In 1966 the general and Z.A. Bhutto parted ways, one year after India and Pakistan had fought over Kashmir. Bhutto thought Ayub Khan had been soft on the Indians. Benazir appears to agree: “During the peace negotiations held in the southern Russian city of Tashkent, President Ayub Khan lost everything we had gained on the battlefield.” But, according to Benazir, her father’s resignation was a matter of democratic principles: “After my father broke with Ayub Khan in 1966, the words ‘civil liberties’ and ‘democracy’ were the ones that came up most, words that were mythical to most Pakistanis.”


The general’s rule, in Benazir’s account, was marked by lawlessness, violence, corruption, and economic failure. Only Ayub’s “family and a handful of others had become rich.” But now, with Z.A. Bhutto on the loose, the first crusade for democracy, that mythical word, was about to begin. The first clarion call, so to speak, had sounded.

This is not entirely the way less partisan observers saw things. Shahid Javed Burki,2 for example, has some interesting things to say about the Ayub years. First of all, he argues, Ayub’s rule made far more people rich than his family and friends. Tax incentives and land reforms created a new middle class of small businessmen, entrepreneurs, and middle-sized farmers. The ones who suffered were big industrialists, unskilled urban workers, and the landed aristocracy. The aristocracy was Bhutto’s traditional constituency. The new middle class would turn against him, as did the industrialists when Bhutto nationalized their assets. This left him with the support of landowners and the urban poor, whose interests were by no means always identical.

Burki also mentions the fact that in 1962 Bhutto wrote a long memorandum to Ayub outlining his idea for a one-party state in which the roles of the judiciary and the legislative branches of government were to be completely subservient to the all-powerful central authority. China and the Soviet Union were to be the models. When Ayub demurred, Bhutto called him timid and soft.

Z.A. Bhutto talked a lot about democracy, to be sure, but his instincts were those of the man of iron. The only hint of this in Benazir’s account is a reading list he thoughtfully prepared for his daughter, when he was detained by Ayub in 1968 for inciting riots. His recommended reading included anything about Napoleon Bonaparte, “the most complete man in history.” This is not surprising, since Napoleon has long been a subcontinental hero. But the rest of the list included Bismarck, Lenin, Ataturk, Mao Zedong, and, looking a little lost in this group of iron men, Abraham Lincoln. What they all had in common was their fatherhood of nations. That was how Bhutto saw himself.

Benazir was at Radcliffe, reading Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, protesting against the Vietnam War, and imbibing Western concepts of law and politics from Professor John Womack, when her father ran his highly successful campaign in 1970 as a populist man of the left. The urban workers, many of them dislocated, bewildered, and left behind by Ayub’s high-speed economic development, loved Bhutto’s message of deliverance from bourgeois greed. Bhutto won the elections in West Pakistan, while Sheik Mujib ur-Rahman, banking on the Bengali middle class disaffected with Punjabi domination, won in East Pakistan, not yet Bangladesh. Differences between the two were never resolved, something Benazir blames entirely on Mujib, who “showed an obstinacy the logic of which to this day defies me.” The Pakistani army quelled Bengali unrest with extraordinary cruelty. India intervened. Pakistan split in half. Bhutto, Benazir informs us, did his utmost to stop the tragedy and avert the generals from their slaughter. (Benazir compares the massacre of tens of thousands of Bengalis to My Lai—this is the Radcliffe Benazir speaking; and to General Zia’s suppression of his opponents in the province of Sindh—thus the Larkana Benazir; both comparisons are absurd.)

Again, this is not the way other people saw the same events. Tariq Ali, a leftwing writer in London, who helped Benazir with her speeches for the Oxford Union, clearly no friend of the generals, blames Bhutto 3 for unleashing “a hysterical campaign” of denouncing Mujib’s position, for whipping up “an atmosphere of frenzied chauvinsim in the Punjab,” and for “colluding with the generals” in crushing the Bengalis. “Thank God! Pakistan has been saved,” he quotes Bhutto as saying after the butchery was done.

And so the stage was set for the Bhutto years, that mythical Golden Age which our heroine set out to revive through trials and tribulations. Yahya Khan, the general in power during the crisis in East Pakistan, lost so much face that he had to appoint Bhutto as chief martial law administrator and president. A new constitution was promulgated in 1973: “The people of Pakistan enjoyed the first constitution in Pakistan’s history to introduce fundamental human rights and ensure their protection…. The first representative government of Pakistan finally had the legal framework within which to govern: the sanctioned authority that Professor Womack had brought home to me so clearly in his seminar.”

So speaks the Radcliffe Benazir. The Larkana Benazir finds more inspirational words to describe the heady excitement of hearing masses of people shout, “Jeay Bhutto!, Long live Bhutto!” Here is a sample from The Way Out:

Jeay Bhutto. It’s a lovely word. It’s warm and wonderful. It lifts the heart. It elevates the spirit…. It means so much to us it drives us on. It makes us reach for the stars and the moon.

Or this:

In 1972, we climbed the highest mountains and built the biggest bridges because of our leadership. We had a brilliant leader, a popular leader, a strong leader, a man who for his principles and his motherland would fight and fight and fight.

Bhutto did not read Napoleon for nothing. Like Sukarno in Indonesia, a man he resembled in many ways, he had a personalized view of nation building: the strong leader, the great man, who would fight and fight and fight, the erector of stadiums and phallic monuments, the chief cock of the country—only this kind of steely superhero could father a great nation. Those who opposed him were obstacles to progress: greedy merchants, selfish tribal chieftains, evil generals, reactionary politicos, uppity bureaucrats, obstinate judges, and so forth. And so, to build the great nation and foster progress, the power of such selfish reactionaries had to be curbed. Burki quotes from one of Bhutto’s speeches made a year before his downfall:

In 1970, I promised you democracy. In 1973, I gave you democracy…. You and I have trusted each other, worked together. We understand each other. But there are people in this country that don’t approve of our association. These people have attempted to put obstacles in our way; to stop us from building a new Pakistan. They can do this because we have allowed them to do so. Should we continue to permit them this freedom? Mustn’t we change the rules of the game so that our progress towards a new and dynamic Pakistan is not continuously thwarted?

In fact, according to Burki, as well as many others, the rules had already been changed long before Bhutto made that speech in 1976. The tragedy of Bhutto is that he set in motion the very forces that brought him down. He curbed the bureaucracy by withdrawing constitutional guarantees from civil servants and concentrating more power in his own hands. Civil servants he considered hostile were jailed or dismissed. More serious, as far as his own ultimate fate was concerned, was his tampering with the constitution to limit the power of the law courts. They were denied jurisdiction over government decisions taken under the Defense of Pakistan Rule, an emergency measure enforced during the crisis over Bangladesh, and retained by Bhutto for political purposes. The government appropriated the power to dissolve political parties by adopting the so-called Suppression of Terrorist Activities (Special Courts) Ordinance. The main opposition party in Baluchistan, the National Awami Party, was banned under this rule and many of its members were jailed. (Soon after her own election as prime minister, Benazir ran into trouble in Baluchistan herself; her followers allowed the Baluchistan provincial assembly to be dissolved.)

Four months after Bhutto promised freedom of the press, three periodicals were banned and their editors and publishers arrested. According to Tariq Ali, “The bulk of the media at all events was kept firmly under government control, serving the Bhutto régime as loyally as it had done its predecessors.”

Most damaging of all were his maladroit dealings with the army. The first thing he did upon attaining power was to put the commanders in chief of the army and air force under house arrest. Protective custody, he called it. (General Zia used the same term when he had Bhutto arrested in 1977.) Then he appointed General Tikka Khan, known as the “Butcher of Dacca” for his zeal in crushing the Bengalis, as his chief of staff. Bhutto chose him for his loyalty, which turned out to be correct. (Tikka Khan is still close to Benazir.) In the case of General Zia, whom he appointed as chief of staff some years later, he was wrong.

Benazir describes Zia variously as a stage villain and an ignorant, unscrupulous, unintelligent, tin-pot dictator. This is as it should be in a myth. In fact, however, he was a rather intelligent and effective dictator and, though he looked like a villain, he had a softspoken charm. Like General Suharto, who has ruled Indonesia since the demise of Sukarno, Zia was a “smiling general,” with all the steel but none of the flamboyance of the Napoleonic populist he replaced. He was certainly not a democrat. He set himself up to be a Muslim leader who would turn Pakistan into a real Muslim state, based on Muslim law—adultery, consumption of alcohol, gambling would result in cut limbs, whippings, or death by stoning. Some of these punishments took place but, in fact, he never went as far as the mullahs wanted. Aside from Pakistan’s crippling national debt, perhaps Zia’s worst legacy sprang from the source of his greatest political strength: the guns, drugs, and general corruption of Pakistan society wrought by the Afghan war.

In hindsight one must conclude that Bhutto asked for trouble. He should never have called out the army to control the turbulent opposition after he was accused of rigging the 1977 elections. Once out of the barracks, and faced with a country running out of control, the generals did what came naturally to them: they took over.

Bhutto was arrested and in confinement read one of his books about Napoleon. Certainly he and his family were cruelly treated by Zia. He was sentenced to hang for murder in a farcical trial and spent his last years in filthy jails, his only comforts his favorite cologne and the odd Havana cigar. At that point Benazir strode to the center stage. Bhutto, in his fetid cell, grabbed his daughter’s hand and said: “My daughter, should anything happen to me, promise me, you will continue my mission.”

I have dwelled at some length on the rule of the father, because the daughter took his mission seriously; it is as Bhutto’s daughter that she challenged her political opponents; in every campaign poster showing her face it was the image of the father that loomed behind her, like a guardian god. What she felt as she walked away from the prison is summed up in The Way Out:

If the people of Pakistan ever saw their leader kept in such a disgusting and disrespectful manner their blood would boil and from Khyber to Karachi a fierce fire would rage which no guns could wipe out.

Benazir slipped into her new role with great aplomb. The way it is described suggests the mystical transfusion of a spirit, or sacred flame. Such is often the nature of dynastic politics in Asia. The same process was described by Cory Aquino, who, kneeling in prayer, felt the flutter of her husband’s spirit entering her soul, enabling her to carry on the struggle. It is impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when the visitation took place in Benazir’s case. Was it the jail scene evoked above? Or did it happen earlier perhaps, the first time Zia’s thugs entered the family house in Karachi (the famous 70 Clifton) and lolled about on the Begum’s Louis XV chairs? This is how she tells it in Daughter of the East:

Once again I watch my father being driven away, not knowing where he is being taken, not knowing if I will ever see him again. I waver for a moment, half of my heart breaking, the other half turning to ice. “Pinkie,” I hear a voice call. I turn to see my brother Shah Nawaz lined up with the staff in the courtyard. “Usko choro! Leave him!” I shout at the soldiers holding him. I am frightened myself at the new tone of my voice. But the soldiers step away.

The new tone of voice; perhaps that was it. It seems, from her own telling of the story, as though her entire life was a kind of dress rehearsal for the main act, the crusade to avenge her father, to return the Bhutto family to power. This is as true for the Larkana Benazir as for the Radcliffe one. The day she left for America, her father spoke of her debt to the people of Pakistan, “a debt you can repay with God’s blessing by using your education to better their lives.”

There is nothing wrong with this sentiment; in fact, it is a noble one. But it is important to know just how Benazir sees the nature of her political power, or, indeed, not just her own power, but political power in general. The Radcliffe Benazir realizes that politics must be divested of mythology to be lawful and subject to reason. Does the Larkana Benazir know this? Or, to make things even more complicated, are the Radcliffe Benazir’s political ideals perhaps part of the Larkana Benazir’s myth? This particular confusion is encouraged by the Western taste for exotic morality tales, casting her as the fairy queen. Are her politics, and by extension the politics of Pakistan, to be a matter of compromise, regular elections, and the same rules applying to all? Or will it remain a contest between Good and Evil, between great leaders and reactionary, obscurantist, wicked, uneducated thugs? Will the same rules apply to those who are born to lead as to those deemed beyond the pale? Her political opponents have given her little cause to feel conciliatory. Even as she toned down her fiery rhetoric during the elections, her rivals, a combination of big businessmen, Muslim fundamentalists, and former protégés of General Zia, mostly from Punjab, often used highly provocative language about her, hinting at Western decadence and Communist connections. Although her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) did well all over Pakistan in the national elections, it did less well in the provincial elections. One of her rivals for the prime ministership, Mian Nawaz Sharif, a former Zia man, still controls Punjab, the richest and largest province in Pakistan. Another strong opponent, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, once a close associate of Miss Bhutto’s father, was elected to the National Assembly. An opposition party, the MQM, controls Karachi and Hyderabad, the two biggest cities in Sindh.

It will be interesting to see how she deals with her opposition. Will she be accountable as a leader, or will she carry out her mission with the arrogance of a dynastic ruler or the messianic zeal of those who think they represent that mythical concept: the will of the people? So far, she has done well; she has compromised, played by the rules, kept her cool. But these are still important questions because it was precisely that zeal, that Napoleonic hubris which destroyed her father.

Her book, admittedly written with a campaign in mind against the man she rightly holds responsible for her family’s grief, is not entirely reassuring, because it is so full of myth, and because the heroes are above the rules which are applied to the villains. The treatment of her two brothers, for example. While Benazir and her mother were taken from jail to jail to stop them from agitating against the Zia regime, her brothers, Mir Murtaza and Shah Nawaz, were in Kabul organizing a group called AI-Zulfikar to carry on the struggle by violent means. There was the hijacking of a passenger plane, there were bomb attacks, and Mir promised to “turn Pakistan up and down.” Zia tried to link mother and daughter Bhutto to these violent acts, but never produced any evidence. Indeed, both women suffered greatly on account of the two brothers. Benazir was locked up in solitary cells where she received criminally inadequate treatment for an ear disease that could have killed her.

Nonetheless, Benazir writes about them with reverence. Shah, a spoiled and handsome playboy—Swiss school, frequent attendance at Regine’s in Paris, flat in Monte Carlo—“was so generous you never knew what he would do…. He had empathized with the poor since childhood. He had built a straw hut in the garden at 70 Clifton and slept in it for weeks, wanting to feel the deprivations of the poor.”

Shah was interested in intelligence work: “Just remember you have a little brother who can help you if you give him a high post in intelligence.” It was not to be. During a family holiday in Cannes he died of poisoning. His Afghan wife, who sounds an even worse brat than her late husband, was recently found by a French court to have been criminally negligent in letting Shah die. The marriage, by all accounts, including Benazir’s, was not a happy one. The exact cause of his death is still mysterious, except to the Bhuttos, who are all convinced that he was murdered by Zia’s agents. Or, as Benazir suggests, “had the CIA killed him as a friendly gesture towards their favorite dictator?” But whatever the cause of his death, it is clear that Shah was playing dangerous and nasty games.

Which makes Benazir’s sentimental description of his funeral sound nauseating: “I wanted to take him past the lands where he had hunted with Papa and Mir, past our fields and ponds, past the people he had tried to defend in his own way. The people, too, deserved the chance to honor this brave son of Pakistan. The Martyr’s son has been martyred.” Note the “in his own way.” Zia ruled Pakistan in his own way too. But he was evil; he was not a Bhutto. The Larkana Benazir has taken control. But there is more to come:

In every generation, Shiite Muslims believe, there is a Karbala, a reenactment of the tragedy that befell the family of the Prophet Mohammed PBUH [Peace Be Upon Him], after his death in 640 AD. Many in Pakistan have come to believe that the victimisation of the Bhutto family and our supporters was the Karbala of our generation.

Many in Pakistan probably do believe it, but, more significantly, so does Benazir, or at least everything points to that conclusion. Power still has magic in Pakistan; people want to be near it, touch it, feel it. When Benazir was paraded through Pakistan, from morning until late at night, perched on top of a truck, lit by a spotlight, proud, aloof, every inch the aristocratic leader, people fought each other to touch the vehicle. Many treat her like a divine ruler. It is to be hoped that she knows better. Honor has been served; she has restored power to her family. But her cause is to restore democracy. That cause would be ill-served by perpetuating the dynastic myths of Larkana.

This Issue

March 2, 1989