Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bhutto The Feudal Elitist?

By Cernig

I know, I've been pretty upbeat and supportive about Benazir Bhutto's ongoing campaign to return to power in Pakistan. It seems to me that any measure of civilian democracy has to be better than a military dictatorship which uses extremist Islamist politicians to help it keep a grip on power.

But William Dalrymple's profile of Bhutto in today's Guardian "Comment" has given me serious pause for thought.
Not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro, lies Benazir Bhutto's feudal estate of Larkhana. In this backward and arid region amid the dry salt flats of the Indus plain, Bhutto's family have long been the most prominent land owners, and the area is witness to many of the Borgia-like feuds that distinguish the lives of Pakistan's feudal elite.

The last time I visited the estate, in 1994, a convoy from the house of Begum Bhutto - Benazir's mother - to her husband's grave had just been shot at by police, leading to the deaths of three of the family's retainers. Begum was in no doubt that the police were acting to support Benazir. Soon afterwards, there was the funeral of Benazir's brother Murtaza, who had just returned to Pakistan to try to oust his sister from control of the family's political wing, the Pakistan People's party. He died, along with six of his supporters, in a hail of police bullets, yards from his front door. Many pointed the finger of suspicion at Benazir, and her husband was later charged with complicity in the murder.

This week Bhutto has been doing the rounds of the television studios announcing her imminent return to Pakistan. Representing herself as the face of Pakistani liberal democracy, she has had an astonishingly smooth ride from interviewers, few of whom seemed to be aware of her deeply flawed record.

Perhaps this should not be surprising: the west has always had a soft spot for Bhutto. Her neighbouring heads of state may be figures as foreign and frightening as, on one hand, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and, on the other, a clutch of Afghan warlords, but Bhutto has always seemed reassuringly familiar - one of us. She speaks English fluently as it is her first language. She had an English governess and her childhood revolved around a succession of English colonial clubs like the Karachi Gymkhana. She went to a convent run by Irish nuns, and rounded off her education with degrees from Harvard and Oxford.

For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto isn't is possibly more attractive than what she is: she isn't a religious fundamentalist, she doesn't have a beard, she doesn't organise mass rallies where everyone shouts "Death to America", and she doesn't issue fatwas against bestselling authors - even though Salman Rushdie went out of his way to ridicule her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.

However, the very reasons that make the west love Benazir Bhutto are the same that leave many Pakistanis with second thoughts. Her English may be fluent, but you can't say the same about her Urdu which she speaks like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi is even worse: apart from a few imperatives, she is completely at sea.

Few would argue with the proposition that democracy is almost always preferable to dictatorship; but it is often forgotten the degree to which Bhutto is the person who has done more than anything to bring Pakistan's strange variety of democracy - really a form of elective feudalism - into disrepute. During her first 20-month long premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation. Her reign was marked by massive human rights abuse: Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, extrajudicial killings and torture. Bhutto's premiership was also distinguished by epic levels of corruption. In 1995 Transparency International named Pakistan one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari - widely known as "Mr 10%" - faced allegations of plundering the country.

...Nor is the distinction between democracy and military rule quite as sharp as Bhutto likes to imply. Behind Pakistan's swings between military government and democracy lies a surprising continuity of interests: to some extent, the industrial, military, landowning, and bureaucratic elites are all interrelated and look after one another. The current negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto - which have excluded Bhutto's democratic rival Nawaz Sharif - are typical of the way that the civil and military elites have shared power with little reference to the electorate.
Dalrymple goes on to compare Pakistan at present to pre-revolutionary Iran. Hmmm. Is Sharif any better, though? Or is there another decent Choice C which doesn't mean either a dictator or an Islamist uprising?

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