The Ghost at the Electoral Feast

SCOTLAND Yard’s reputation across the Commonwealth as the last word in crime detection is starkly at odds with the manner in which it has long been lampooned in British fiction and film as a repository of well-intentioned but less than sparkling brains whose record in unravelling conspiracies and solving murders would be much poorer but for the intervention of private sleuths. The Yard’s conclusions following a two-week investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which was restricted to determining the cause of death, have occasioned a minor outpouring of contempt in Pakistan that’s quite in keeping with the implications of incompetence.


The detectives from London decided on the basis of X-rays, video footage and conversations with doctors and eyewitnesses, that the Pakistan People’s Party chairperson died on account of a head wound caused by the bomb blast on December 27: the impact evidently caused her to crash into a lever on the vehicle’s escape hatch. They ruled out the possibility that the fatal blow was inadvertent, as the government at one point implied. They offered no clear explanation for the video evidence that Benazir began to duck moments before the explosion. They believe the gunman seen firing in her direction was also the suicide bomber, but the bullets weren’t the cause of death.


That’s a load of nonsense, according to the PPP. Given Asif Ali Zardari’s refusal to permit an autopsy, we will never really know. Perhaps the precise cause of death doesn’t really matter: whichever way you look at the murder, it was a dastardly crime. The identity of the perpetrators, on the other hand, does matter. If elements within the establishment were involved, it obviously makes a huge difference. The government’s choice of Baitullah Mehsud as the likely mastermind enjoys the approval of the CIA, although the latter has offered no intelligence of its own in support of the claim.


In the matter of bomb vs bullets, the PPP hierarchy is under the impression that the latter would somehow constitute evidence of a government hand in the assassination. That’s doubtful. Elements within the establishment are quite capable of arranging a suicide bombing, just as the Taliban could easily have engaged a crackshot. 


The temptation to milk Benazir’s martyrdom for political gain is understandable to an extent. The PPP was eager to take part in elections within a fortnight of her demise, because it feared that the likelihood of a sympathy vote would ebb with the passage of time. Its ostensible confidence about winning next Monday’s elections is at least partly based on the calculation that in the event of a less respectable showing, it will be able to cry foul. Inevitably, the level of confidence in a democratic exercise being fairly conducted by an undemocratic regime is fairly low. As a result, chances are we’ll never know for sure whether Zardari’s new ambiguity about his prime ministerial ambitions helped to put off any potential PPP voters.


As his wife’s designated heir, the PPP’s inconsistent co-chairperson is vowing to build on Benazir’s principles. But what exactly were these principles, beyond generalities about reaching out to the downtrodden and combating extremism? The party’s vaguely progressive rhetoric in opposition over the past couple of decades has been starkly at variance with its dismal record in power. The radical edge that the party had acquired during the evil Zia-ul-Haq era was blunted almost immediately afterwards. In an interview about a year into her first stint as prime minister, I recall asking her why her government’s economic priorities were strikingly different from those of her father’s government. The times, she said, had changed. As indeed they had. But the condition of Pakistan’s urban and rural working classes hadn’t. The PPP had no intention of diverging radically from the neoliberal orthodoxies of the day, at least partly in an effort to appease Washinton – as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had very consciously refused to do. 


In Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy & the West, the memoir-cum-polemic published this week, Benazir writes: “When I entered Harvard in … 1969, Pakistan was under a military dictatorship. In America I saw the power of the people to change and influence policies … I could …  contrast it with the lack of political power in my own country.”  Pakistan was indeed in turmoil at the time, but the US too was it war with itself over matters ranging from the conflict in Vietnam to racial discrimination. “I saw that people in America took their rights for granted, “ she says, “the rights of freedom of association, freedom of movement.” It is unlikely that the Students for a Democratic Society or the Black Panthers would have shared her rosy-hued impressions.


Unfortunately, this blinkered vision never deserted her. Her diatribes against Zia generally glossed over one of the worst aspects of his misrule: the decision to embroil Pakistan in Afghanistan as a tool of the US and the CIA. At a stretch it could be argued that Benazir’s assassination, too, is in all likelihood a part of the blowback from that noxious choice, whose catastrophic consequences were enhanced by the second Benazir administration’s collusion in the Talibanization of Afghanistan.


Much like Pervez Musharraf’s In The Line Of Fire, Benazir’s final literary endeavour was aimed at an American audience. Hence  it is peppered with passages such as the following: “One billion Muslims … seem united in their outrage at the war, damning the deaths of Muslims caused by US military intervention … But there has been little if any similar outrage against the sectarian Iraqi civil war, which has led to far more casualties.” There is a valid argument in there somewhere about the reluctance of Muslims to recognize their own flaws and acknowledge the crimes committed in the name of Islam, but the obvious question in the Iraqi context is: who created the conditions that enabled the sectarian free-for-all? And the casual allegation of “far more casualties” appears to have been lifted directly from some rabidly neoconservative website. Besides, “outrage at the war” is by no means restricted to Muslims.


Who knows whether Benazir’s bizarre delusions about Iraq and various other aspects of international affairs evolved from corrupted convictions or were based chiefly on a perceived need to adhere religiously to the official American line. In her memoir, she contemptuously cites the advice she received from Musharraf. Ironically, she may well still be with is if only she had heeded his warnings – which implied that the situation was out of his control. It is also ironic that whereas Z.A. Bhutto’s judicial murder was related to his defiance of the US, Benazir may have been targeted because of her determination to cast herself as Uncle Sam’s favourite niece.


She was undoubtedly a brave soul. Sadly, this quality was not complemented by an equivalent dose of wisdom. Chances are there will be a sympathy vote on Monday, dedicated to a woman who was able to reconcile her pseudo-religious superstitions with a myopic commitment to the west. If it’s restricted to rural Sindhi, it won’t catapult her widower into power. Which won’t necessarily be a bad outcome. If the PPP is able, in due course, to reinvent itself on the basis of the progressive ideals it once represented, it could once more turn into a party worth voting for.


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