Benazir Bhutto: Leadership and legacy

June 21 is the longest day of the year. It is also the birthday of Pakistan’s slain Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto—the first woman to head the government of a Muslim majority country after her long and arduous struggle against a brutal military dictatorship. She was elected to this office twice. A fierce and fearless champion of democracy, human rights, international peace and progressive values, Benazir was truly ahead of her time.

Her courage was as extraordinary as her accomplishments and while she may have been physically eliminated by Islamist terrorists fifteen years ago, she remains a beacon of light on the horizon of global politics. A world in the throes of war, authoritarianism and inter-civilisational strife can draw important lessons from the life and legacy of Benazir Bhutto.

An unwavering commitment to the ideals we cherish is a first. Indeed, there will always be obstacles to surmount and quite often, it entails personal sacrifices that one must be prepared to make. Fate took a cruel course when Benazir returned home after graduating from Oxford.

Her father—Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed and sent to the gallows for a murder he did not commit. For years, her life alternated between house arrest and solitary confinement in sordid conditions but nothing dampened her resolve to restore civilian rule in her country and she did. However, both of her governments were dismissed before time at the behest of obscurantist forces that could not see Pakistan forge ahead under the dynamic leadership of a modern young woman.

Benazir Bhutto’s detractors levelled all sorts of baseless allegations to undermine her popularity, attack her family and banish her from the political scene but she was not deterred. Despite threats of death, she returned to her homeland after eight years of exile to save it from falling into the hands of militants who had captured major city centres in the country’s north-west.

In the process, she lost the battle for her life but the ensuing government of her party, the PPP, won the war against terrorism, preventing Pakistan from becoming the epicentre of global jihad. Her son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari—only nineteen when his mother was assassinated—continues this fight.

Freedom is fragile and needs friends. For the same reason, Benazir Bhutto proposed an association of democratic states that would back one another and promote this universal good. Democracy leads to economic prosperity and helps create and conserve constituencies of peace.

Like any other form of government, it has its flaws that must be identified and fixed from within for it to persevere and build more equitable societies. With liberal values in retreat everywhere, the exigency of such a union cannot be overstated. Furthermore, advocacy of human rights must be a matter of principle, not convenience.

Democratic nations that are also great powers must censure violation of these rights without any distinction and lend practical support for their protection. Double standards not only erode their own credibility but also the sanctity of those values. In a similar vein, women must stand up for other women.

Benazir Bhutto did not repair the iron ceiling after breaking it. Instead, she made way for other women to rise to important positions by setting an example and providing them opportunities. The governments she led took important initiatives to increase their access to education, healthcare, justice, employment and legislation. Economic emancipation was integral to her agenda; therefore, the Women Bank was established to provide loans to thousands of women to start their own business.

Similarly, Pakistan’s largest social safety net envisioned by her and instituted by her successors—the Benazir Income Support Programme—seeks to assist and empower poor women by making direct cash transfers to them. The situation just next door where the Taliban have placed restrictions on girls’ education, work and movement is starkly different.

Following the withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan, Benazir Bhutto warned against the United States’ abandonment of the region. Thirty-four years later, the humanitarian crisis in the country has worsened in the wake of Washington’s hasty exit.

With 9 billion dollars in assets frozen overseas, tens of millions are facing acute hunger, poverty and deprivation of essential public services. Impoverishment enables oppression and creates a breeding ground for violent extremism. If the Afghan state collapses, the consequences for international peace and security will be very dire.

The world must therefore do whatever it can to alleviate the plight of its citizens and end the recurring cycle of conflict and war that has plagued Afghanistan for far too long. This goes for other flashpoints too, especially in the Middle East and South Asia where a protracted rivalry between two nuclear powers over Kashmir imperils the future of almost one quarter of the world’s population.

Benazir Bhutto believed that a European Union sort of mechanism to foster trade, cooperation and people-to-people relations would help put a stop to hostility between India and Pakistan. In her book published posthumously, ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West’, she stressed the need for a constructive dialogue within and among disparate societies, faiths and civilisations to introspect, find common ground and generate goodwill.

The tumultuous times we are passing through have made such an exchange indispensable.

Speaking at Harvard on May 26, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reminded the audience that the path Benazir carved as a woman decades ago is as relevant today as it was then; so too is her message.

By giving birth while she was the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1990, Bhutto demonstrated that women could ‘have it all’. The Daughter of the East undoubtedly occupies an unparalleled place in the pantheon of world’s great leaders. The woman who inspired Malala Yousafzai and enthralled Hillary Clinton could be no ordinary extraordinary woman.

She was in a league of her own but may her league multiply in size and strength. The global community must recognise her in a manner that befits her glorious achievements and supreme sacrifice. Observance of an international day in her remembrance by the United Nations would be the right thing to do.

The writer is a graduate of law and international politics.
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The global community must recognise her in a manner that befits her glorious achievements and supreme sacrifice.

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