Benazir Bhutto, born on June 21, 1953, was the first woman leader of a Muslim nation in modern history. She served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, from 1988-90 and 1993-96. Also known as the ‘Iron Lady’, Bhutto’s personality was more than just a feminist leader. She was a mixed blessing – an amalgamation of a hero and a villain.
Being the daughter of politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir was well versed with politics since childhood. She went to Harvard University and subsequently studied philosophy, political science, and economics at the University of Oxford (B.A., 1977).
It was only after her father’s execution in 1979 during the rule of the military dictator Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq that Benazir officially set foot in the political world. She became the titular head of her father’s PPP (Pakistan People’s Party). She endured various house arrests from 1979 to 1984. She returned to Pakistan only when the martial law was lifted and then became the most significant opposition to Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. In 1988, President Zia died in a mysterious plane crash creating a vacuum in Pakistani Politics. This gave Bhutto her second big break. In the upcoming elections, PPP won the most significant number of seats in the National Assembly, and Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of any Muslim nation.
Sowing seeds in the political world was a triumph for women in the muslim territory and the global fight against Islamic terrorism. The ideas were centred on democratic and social capitalist policies. But PPP’s governance under Benazir wasn’t all rainbows. It aimed to shift Pakistan’s semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system but turned out to be a failure. It was majorly because conservative President Ghulam Ishaq Khan vetoed most of the proposed laws. Her government wasn’t able to ferociously combat national issues like poverty, unemployment and downfall in the economic graph. In August 1990, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed her government using the Eighth Amendment with charges of corruption, despotism and nepotism. It called for re-elections, and Bhutto’s PPP got defeated.
After that, she led the parliamentary opposition against her successor Nawaz Sharif. This period of impuissance wasn’t much longer for Bhutto. Following the resignation of Nawaz Sharif and President Khan in 1993, elections were held, and PPP won the same. She was elected for a second term as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. During her election campaign, she promised price supports for agriculture, pledged partnership between government and business, and campaigned for female votes. Well, talking about the efficiency of her government, once in power, it couldn’t deliver what it promised. The living standards of people declined due to inflation and unemployment increased. It had no control over racial tension. Women issues weren’t dealt with as no reforms were made.
Bad governance resulted in not much development and welfare activities in the state. Under renewed allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement, and a decline in law and order, her government was dismissed yet again in November 1996 by President Farooq Leghari. The leadership of Benazir Bhutto structured upon many essential issues. She aimed for a secular and liberal government in Pakistan. Denationalization programs and liberalization of the economy was also on focus. She intended empowerment of women in Muslim societies. In order to show gratitude and respect to her, the government of Pakistan renamed Islamabad International Airport as Benazir Bhutto International Airport, Rawalpindi General Hospital as Benazir Bhutto Hospital and Muree Road of Rawalpindi as Benazir Bhutto Road.
But along with honouring her for the contributions that she made in the political scenario, she’s also exposed to harsh criticism. Our hero on the white horse, ready to fight for women’s rights and uplift the political grounds of the country, left the battleground and escaped to Dubai soon after charges of corruption were made against her in 1997. The land that she aspired to make better was left worse. Peaks in unemployment, poverty and stifling recession were observed. Not just this, Bhutto’s stand on Kashmir policy is also seen as a major cause of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. By the early ’90s, Pakistan was sending over the border thousands of well-trained, heavily armed and ideologically hardened jihadis. The legacy of her tenure can not be forgotten (at least by Kashmiri Pandits): the turning of Kashmir into a Jihadist playground.
Just before the 2007 elections, speculations began for Bhutto’s return to Pakistan. Shortly before Musharraf’s re-election to the presidency, amid unresolved discussions of a power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf’s military regime, he finally granted Bhutto a long-sought amnesty for the corruption charges brought against her by the Sharif administration. In October 2007, she returned to Karachi after eight years of self-imposed exile. Celebrations of her return were accompanied by a suicide attack on her motorcade, and killing numerous supporters. She got assassinated in a similar attack in December. It was a black day. Indeed, a calamity for liberal Pakistanis.
“The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” President George W. Bush said. He added, “Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.” Without a doubt, Bhutto was indeed a strong, liberal and exemplary woman in the history of Pakistani politics. Even though her governance couldn’t be much efficient, people’s regards for her were evident when thousands of mourners joined her chaotic funeral procession. Supporters of Bhutto went on rampages in several cities, torching cars and stores and ransacking banks in street violence that claimed at least ten lives, News Wires reported. The government ordered paramilitary forces in Ms. Bhutto’s southern home province of Sindh to shoot rioters on sight. In Peshawar, 4,000 supporters took to streets and chanted “Bhutto was alive yesterday, and Bhutto is alive today” while mourning her death.
Benazir Bhutto was undoubtedly a brave and secular-minded woman. But the obituaries painting her as dying to save democracy distort history. Instead, she was an autocrat who did little for public welfare, a calculating politician who was conniving in Pakistan’s becoming the region’s principal jihadi paymaster. And at the same time, she also ramped up an insurgency in Kashmir which has nearly brought two nuclear powers to the brink of war. This mixed blessing certainly stands as an example for women worldwide and has influenced a number of activists like Malala Yousafzai. If you could sum up Bhutto’s politics in a few words (though it would be unjust to do that), it will totally justify Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business”.