Saturday, December 29, 2007

Death of a Feudal Princess

So who was it? Al Qaeda? Taliban-inspired religious fruitcakes of some kind or other? Elements within the security services sympathetic to the Taliban? Who knows? In a rather telling use of the double negative yesterday’s Guardian leader surmised that: “…there is no reason to believe that the suicide attack took place without the involvement of elements within Pakistan’s security forces”. The leader suggests they may have pointed the suicide bombers in her direction, rather than actually carry out the assassination themselves. Benazir Bhutto – as much feudal princess as modern politician - was obviously no saint, although she plainly did not lack personal courage. Her time in Government was notorious for corruption (admittedly par for the course in Pakistan) not least that of her husband: “Mr Ten Percent”. She may have been implicated in the murder of her own brother (Murtaza, a rival for control of the Pakistan Peoples Party) but then that’s dynastic politics for you. She was of course thoroughly westernised (hence her appeal in Britain and the US). As William Dalrymple pointed out in the Guardian not so long ago (Sep 1 2007) English was 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”. She was President of the Oxford Union, and in his Guardian obituary Jason Burke remarks rather tartly that: “Those who spent time with her over the years became used to her lengthy, eloquent and sometimes well-informed monologues”. Ouch. By contrast, in Urdu, according to Dalrymple, she spoke “like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently but ungrammatically”. And her Sindhi “is even worse: apart from a few imperatives, she is completely at sea”. (Not an insurmountable disadvantage, the rulers of England after 1066 by-and-large didn’t speak the native language: feudal lords and princesses don’t have to). At the time Dalrymple was writing Bhutto was touring the TV studios, prior to her return to Pakistan and getting “an astonishingly easy ride from her interviewers” (aided by her good English, good looks, and liberal persona). But Dalrymple argued that she was in fact “the person who has done more than anything to bring Pakistan's strange variety of democracy - really a form of elective feudalism - into disrepute”. Apart from the corruption – which reached “epic” levels - her regime was indicted by Amnesty International for “having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, extrajudicial killings and torture”. That, I think, is likely to be forgotten over the next few days. Her death seems to leave few options. Despite her failings she seems to have been on the liberal end of the spectrum (by Pakistani standards). Nawar Sharif is Islamist-lite; that he is the Saudi candidate says it all. Vis-à-vis Musharraf, if it’s either him or the “bearded ones” I’d prefer the General any day (whether he will survive this is another matter). Of course, democracy would be nice, but in Pakistan? Dalrymple again: “Real democracy has never thrived here, at least in part because landowning remains the principle social base from which politicians can emerge”.
Saturday's Guardian returns to the theme of military involvement in Bhutto's death: "...(Musharraf) may have had no personal hand in the killing of Pakistan's most popular politician, but in the popular mind (and not just a Sindhi one) he has a general in his ranks who has...". Meanwhile the official account of Bhutto's death is simply incredible: no shots were fired (despite eye witness evidence to the contrary). How did she die? It seems she bumped her head. Unbelievable.
The Guardian also carried an obliquely scabrous profile of Bhutto by Ian Jack. We learn that despite her Harvard and Oxford education her preferred reading was that of a Wooolworth shop assistant ("in private she liked...biographies of British royalty") and that she was a petty snob ("Lord Snowdon!", she said in the car, "I am being photographed by Lord Snowdon!"). What struck Jack was "...her need of idolisation, the worship of the crowds". Yes, she was brave, but "what was she brave for?". Democracy? Jack suggests she was "essentially a dynast whose ideas of public duty came out of some ancestral, unexamined self-regard". A great deal of truth in all this; but I don't think she was quite so trivial a person as Jack implies.
David Ignatious recalls her, as a young wman at Harvard, in a Rolling Stones T-Shirt "the one with the sassy tongue sticking out". God knows what the "bearded ones" would make of that. Ignatious makes the point that blaming Musharraf is a mistake, since essentially both he and Bhutto "battled the same Muslim extremists" (Musharraf has himself survived nine assassination attempts). Good point; trouble is that the security apparatus appears to be riddled with elements sympathetic to those same Muslim extremists.
The leadership of the PPP is now up for grabs. One contender is Makhdoom Amin Fahim (aged 68) who - surprise - " a product of a feudal land-owning family from southern Sindh province". He describes himself as a "social moderate": he "has acknowledged drinking alcohol". Wow! Go Makhmood go! Ah, but: "..His sisters, however, have led much more circumscribed lives". One can only imagine what that means.
Bhutto's husband - Asif Ali Zardari - is seen as an unlikely successor; because he is widely seen as corrupt.


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