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The other Benazir we should remember
Shreekant Sambrani
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January 03, 2008

The tragic circumstances of Benazir Bhutto's death and the possible involvement of Al Qaeda [Images] in it have led to a vast outpouring of encomiums in the Indian media. The politesse of not speaking ill of the dead, however, should not blind us to her many shortcomings. Her death has an altogether different implication for India, not connected with her persona or achievements -- or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

The obituaries in The New York Times and personal tributes by senior Indian journalists who knew her make it clear that her two stints as the Pakistani prime minister were lacklustre and singularly devoid of any significant accomplishment. She was vain, venal and entirely innocent of the requirements of statecraft.

As The New York Times article by John F Burns (December 28) makes clear, she was imperious even as she claimed she bled for the poor and the miserable of Pakistan, a trait she shared with the ruling dynasty of modern India.

Shekhar Gupta has noted (The Indian Express, December 29) that she spent $6 million of the state exchequer to import Evian water for herself during her first term as prime minister. That's a lot of water. Even at $1 a litre, that amounts to 6,000 litres per day of her time in office, enough not only for her entire family to drink, but also to perform all their ablutions with some left over for house plants and gold fish bowls! Gupta also talks of her touch-me-not (literally) attitude.

She displayed neither any understanding of the complex issues facing her country nor any ability to govern; she was not unique in this, as other dynastic successors in the sub-continent were also similarly handicapped.

Rajiv Gandhi had the good fortune of being surrounded by experienced and wise ministers and advisors and at least in the first half of his tenure, he appeared to listen to them. Bhutto only had sycophants and time-servers around her and her avaricious husband soon usurped governance and all the perquisites that went with it, not that she was an unwilling partner in this mom-and-pop enterprise.

Her falling out with one of her brothers was simply on the issue of sharing the spoils stashed away in Swiss banks reportedly comprising inherited wealth, but quite possibly substantially enhanced by the senior Bhutto during his stewardship of Pakistan.

Although the Pakistani media appears to have discovered many virtues in the slain leader after her death, Nawaz Sharif could arguably be the more effective leader of the two. He started the process of economic liberalisation in Pakistan and his speech in the National Assembly in 1997 was more far-sighted than any delivered by either the late P V Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh [Images].

Sharif was also responsible for the visionary opening up of the borders between India and Pakistan, and for Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan, something which ironically led to his own ouster a year later. These are, however, issues internal to Pakistan.

Despite what the legion of her admirers and friends in the Indian media now say, she never was a friend of India. Her very first organised activity was to get an honorary degree conferred on her father at Oxford, as recounted by Shyam Bhatia (The Indian Express, December 29).

She never deviated from her steadfast devotion to the memory of her father and the causes he espoused, foremost among which was his hatred of India. Who can forget her shrill cries and gestures during her visit to Azad Kashmir in her second tour of duty?

The most shocking act of her prime ministership was that she not only negotiated the transfer of Pakistan's nuclear technology to North Korea in return for the latter's missile delivery systems, but as she recounted later to Bhatia, personally accomplished it by carrying the documents and data in the pockets of an extra-commodious overcoat during her state visit to that country.

No expertise in rocket science is needed to guess the objective of this deed. Would the Americans have brokered the compromise between her and the General, had they known it is an enigma that will never be solved now?

She is supposed to have said that she would reopen investigations into A Q Khan's role in the transfer of nuclear technology. Even by the none-too-exacting standards of political expediency, this must rank high on the scale of hypocrisy, if Bhatia's account is true.

But then Benazir was never troubled by such trivialities, as is evident from her alliance first with Nawaz Sharif in exile and then with Musharraf for her return from exile. She is supposed to have been a secular leader of a country turning increasingly fundamentalist, but she never displayed the courage under fire that her contemporary and a woman head of government of an Islamic country, Tansu �illar of Turkey, did in her three turns as prime minister in the early 1990s.

History will show that she possessed neither the intuitive grasp of grassroots politics and issues that her father and Indira Gandhi [Images] did, nor the vision of Rajiv Gandhi (however flawed it may have been), nor Sheikh Mujib's passion for the country, even though she shared the tragic fate of these sub-continental leaders. She remained the favourite, if spoiled daughter whom the country adulated and whose courage often bordered on the foolhardy.

The real cause of worry to us in India lies in an old Marathi saying: one doesn't grieve an old woman's passing, but rather the insolence of Death. How long before Al Qaeda and its cohorts feel emboldened to perpetrate such acts here? We may have an overwhelming abhorrence of bin Laden's activities in India unlike in Pakistan, but it takes only one fanatic bent on suicide to ring a wake-up call.

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