Benazir Bhutto – An enduring icon
“I put my life in danger and came here because I feel this country is in danger. People are worried. We will bring the country out of this crisis.” Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Laiquat Bagh, 27th December, 2007.
Astute words from what was to be Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s (SMBB) last speech still resonate in my ears this 27th December 2017, as we mark another year since the attacks that took the life of a brave, charismatic, and visionary leader, who lived and died for the people of Pakistan.
A decade on, she remains an icon for both women empowerment and clairvoyant management in a country that has had a turbulent – and often tragic – relationship with its leadership. Her legacy is one of foresight and grace. As we mourn her tremendous loss, let us also take a moment to revisit some of SMBB’s greatest achievements.
Beginning her political career at a young age, SMBB assumed control of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) following the politically-motivated execution of her father and former Prime Minister Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq. Shaheed Benazir was the first and only female Prime Minister of Pakistan, serving two non-consecutive terms in 1988-1990 and 1993-1996.
Shaheed Benazir rose to the daunting challenges and obstacles in her path, and openly challenged the brutish government of Zia-ul-Haq, nationally and internationally. She spent a lifetime striving for a democratic, prosperous, tolerant, peaceful and egalitarian Pakistan. Shaheed Benazir firmly believed in the power of people, as the slogan of PPP – (All Power to the People) highlights.
Benazir Bhutto changed the landscape of Pakistani politics and broke the glass ceiling. Her achievements were tremendous, and are often downplayed. From the office of the Prime Minister, Shaheed Bibi took a number of revolutionary steps to further the cause of democracy, including releasing all political prisoners. It was during her tenure that women, for the first time in history of Pakistan, were inducted into the higher echelons of the nation’s judiciary and bureaucracy. Her focus and priority was on PPP’s core slogan, “food, clothes and shelter”.
It was during Benazir Bhutto’s time when the first Women’s Bank of Pakistan as well as a separate Ministry for Women Affairs was established. Student and labour unions were legalised. Today’s healthcare system for women in the rural areas of Pakistan exists because of Shaheed Bibi’s visionary policies. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, press and media were uncensored, and political opponents received due coverage. The education budget was increased by billions, and thousands of new schools were built all across the country. Thousands of villages were provided with electricity. Innumerable new employment opportunities were created. SMBB also envisioned a futuristic, visionary policy for Pakistan’s progress based on the 5E’s, i.e. Employment, Education, Energy, Environment and Equality. Such an initiative could only have come from someone with her capabilities and foresight.
During her second tenure, the then first lady of United States, Hilary Clinton, visited Pakistan with her daughter. Her interactions and impressions of SMBB greatly helped to improve the global perception of Pakistan, and creating new space and appreciation for the country. The world acknowledged her vision, and recognised her contributions to the cause of Pakistan and its people, making Shaheed Benazir the recipient of the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Award in 2008 – a doubly special year as it was also the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her international standing remains intact today, with leaders across the world remembering her life and accomplishments, such as the recent homage to Benazir Bhutto by the Prime Minister of the UK, Ms Theresa May, at the UN.
Benazir Bhutto was ousted from legitimate power – twice – by elements and fractions that could not stand to see the tolerant and forward-looking nation Pakistan was becoming under her guidance. Yet she did not surrender her vision, and sought to return once more to her homeland in 2007.
From nine years of exile, Shaheed Benazir returned to Pakistan on 18th October, 2007. She was given a historic welcome with throngs of supporters chanting,
The memory of that fateful day is etched indelibly on my mind. I remember as if yesterday, reaching Dubai early morning on October 12th – a few days before the jubilant homecoming. I had the privilege of meeting her in her finest hour – emanating confidence, determination and all those leadership qualities we had so sorely missed. She addressed a press conference at the Rotana Murooj Hotel – Dubai, rejecting calls suggesting the postponement of her journey for her personal safety. Come hell or high water, Shaheed Benazir would return to her motherland on October 18th.
I had the honour of accompanying Mohtarma Benazir on the flight to Karachi, with the other PPP supporters. The scenes we witnessed on arrival emotional and historic. The passion of the multitudes welcoming their beloved leader was unforgettable, and has left a permanent imprint on my heart. PPP’s youth wing and the ‘Jaan-Nisaar-e-Benazir’ provided security faces lit with enthusiasm and loyalty in every step, as they moved alongside our leader. The throngs made it seem as if all of Pakistan was on the streets of Karachi, and yet the disciplined maintained in the rally was phenomenal. As far as the eye could see were people, the caravan of Democracy was on its way. Despite all the time in exile, SMBB proved she still led in the hearts of people. Even her detractors could not argue that she had returned with a renewed sense of purpose and service for her people.
Alas! It was not to last – and we were to lose our beloved leader – the heartbeat to millions – to the second cowardly terrorist attack on December 27th 2007. Even in that chaos, workers sought her safety with no concern for their own. Today, we have been left with imaginary ‘what-if scenarios’ of how things might have been had SMBB been alive today. Shaheed Bibi laid down her life for the cause she spent her entire life defending – a prosperous, peaceful, and tolerant Pakistan.
The journey she began did not end with her martyrdom. Today that baton, with all its heavy responsibilities, has been passed on to her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The dynamic, enterprising and diligent young leader has taken on Shaheed Benazir’s unfinished tasks, and continues down the path envisioned and forged by his mother with her sweat and blood. Bilawal represents the continuity of her legacy – and the continuity of the journey by the nation that began with Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The love and passion for Mohtarma Shaheed Benazir was also only strengthened on that fateful day, and lives on today in the heart of every jiyala that continues to beat with the same resolve. I also carry with pride the scars from my own injuries during that first attempt on her life; they are a daily reminder of the innumerable sacrifices that were laid at the altar of democracy, and have become the source of my unwavering resolve to carry the struggle forward.
On this day, we must not only mourn the loss of a beloved leader, but also, and perhaps more importantly, we must renew our commitment to fulfilling and materializing that vision for Pakistan – the vision of a country that is peaceful, prosperous and progressing. Therein lies her patrimony and our success in keeping it alive.
As Shaheed Benazir puts, in her own immortal words: “As History’s pendulum swung, The desert wind calls, Marvi calls, A call, The desert wind carries, Children:hear the desert wind, Hear it whisper, Have faith, We will win.
n The writer is the President of Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) and Member Senate Standing Committees on Defence, Defence Production, Human Rights & Federal Education and Professional Trainings.
Her legacy is one of foresight and grace. As we mourn her tremendous loss, let us also take a moment to revisit some of SMBB’s greatest achievements.