Thursday, February 04, 2010, Safar 19, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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The News International Pakistan

 Benazir to Bilawal
It is only fitting to begin this page by paying tribute to Benazir Bhutto. In her tragic and untimely death, Benazir has transcended her father's legacy. She has carved out a place in history which is all her own. She will not be remembered only as ZA Bhutto's daughter but as the first Muslim woman to lead a nation.

Whether one agreed with her politics or not, one cannot deny her position as an inspirational role model for young girls. To some extent, she also served as a vehicle for pulling other women into politics, although more so in her later years, when she was undoubtedly more secure in and aware of her own unique position. At least there was greater visibility for females in the PPP as compared to any other party, largely because Benazir led it.

Naheed Khan, who guarded her closely and would not have hesitated to box down a man if he tried to get too close to Benazir, remained at her side throughout her career. I remember meeting her in 1995, the year that the University of California at Los Angeles had awarded Ms. Bhutto a medal. I was pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at the UCLA School of Law then and was entrusted with the mundane task of ensuring that every member of her seventy-strong entourage wore a name-tag. Naheed Khan was the toughest to convince.

Ms Bhutto, friends reported, had been spotted that week at Century City Mall, strolling hand-in-hand with Mr Zardari. Those were probably the happy days of her life. Her speech at UCLA was brief. Stanley Wolpert's introduction was longer. There was nevertheless a larger-than-life quality about her, and my Turkish hall-mate was her biggest fan. She insisted on a photograph with her so I approached her photographer, who refused at first, but Ms. Bhutto had spotted us and walked straight up to where we stood. The photographs were taken and she asked me what I was studying. When I told her, she responded with, "My father was a lawyer. That is a great profession."

Nine years later, our paths crossed again. At a wedding in London, she stood tall, almost regal, in a turquoise outfit and matching dupatta. "She looks very good," my husband pointed out.

"For her age," I shrugged him off. He grinned and continued to admire her from afar. On the ride home, we both agreed that she was very personable, smiling broadly at everyone, and much to my husband's approval, wore hardly any jewellery.

Her death, a shock and national loss, has thrust her party into a leadership crisis. With elections around the corner, the decision could not be postponed till after an appropriate grieving period. PPP took the least internally controversial but short-term approach. By designating Bilawal as party chairman, the idea is to cash in on the Bhutto name and send a message that leadership shall remain within the family. The decision is not likely to serve the PPP well in the long run.

Shielding the young Bilawal from reporters' questions at his debut press conference, Mr. Zardari took the floor in his place and made a number of politically astute remarks. His conciliatory statements towards Punjab and desire to uphold the federation are laudable. But the decision to make Bilawal chairman at this juncture when he is under education and based at Oxford was a mistake. The analogies drawn with his mother taking on the mantle after her father's death are baseless. The two situations are drastically different.

Benazir was nearly 26 when her father passed away. Bilawal is only 19. Benazir had not only completed her bachelors at Harvard, but also had a masters from Oxford. Bilawal has yet to earn a university degree. Benazir had lived in Pakistan for the first sixteen years of her life and also the last three or four before her father's death. During this time, she had accompanied her father on campaign trails and on international visits, meeting foreign dignitaries like Indira Gandhi. Bilawal was only in primary school when her mother went into exile. He not only has no first-hand knowledge of Pakistani politics but has little understanding of Pakistan's culture and language. Even if Bilawal attempts to catch up on these essentials on the job, accompanying Mr. Zardari or Mr. Fahim on his holidays from school, having already been designated party chairman; he will be doing so under intense media scrutiny.

"Democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal said, but it was ironic to hear it from his mouth, having just inherited party chairmanship, with referendum-like endorsement from party members but no election-style legitimacy. Besides, is the politics of revenge what we really need? Been there, seen that, I thought. Wasn't that what Ms. Bhutto's first term as prime minister was all about? The one that only lasted twenty-odd months and left many disappointed. Times have changed. People want a free media, transparency, an independent judiciary, access to justice. An independent, impartial investigation of who killed Mohtarma followed by accountability in the courts. Redemption, not revenge, is what we need.

The "Qatil League" slogan is certainly a catchy one, but it can only win the PPP one election. Given the uncertain terms of previous civilian governments, the party must chalk out a long-term strategy grounded in present realities if it is to wield genuine political influence in times to come. ZA Bhutto formed the party on the motto of "roti, kapra, makkan" at a time when no one else had spoken up for the poor, and although he may not have delivered on his economic promises, the PPP's impression as a party of the poor and oppressed had been solidified.

Benazir clearly moved away from the PPP's socialist agenda but in the wake of growing extremism in the Muslim world, provided the soft image that Pakistan badly needed. While other politicians remained either ambiguous or in denial about the terrorism problem, she was not afraid to speak out against it in an attempt to alter perceptions and priorities. Her critics called her a sell-out, a pawn in the hands of the west. Perhaps she went too far and even made some indiscreet remarks, but no other politician is as vocal about the need to combat this multiplying menace. No other politician has the political courage to say that we need desperately to bring an end to this senseless violence, not for America's sake, but for our own sake and for the sake of Islam.

Watching the post-assassination PPP press conference, I was left wondering what exactly the PPP stands for now. How would it distinguish itself from any of the other parties on Pakistan's political spectrum? Bilawal is unaware. Mr. Zardari and Mr. Fahim are hardly the soft face of a liberal Pakistan. The void created by Benazir is difficult to fill. But, if the PPP is serious about carving out a sustainable future image, it would have to rely on existing resources rather than attempt to replicate those that are lost.

Civil liberties have been the focus of Pakistani society all through 2007. Empowerment of the masses by strengthening democratic institutions, including political parties, is the need of the hour. The PPP could be a formidable force not just in this election but also future elections if it used Ms. Bhutto's death as a catalyst for change, if it embraced a modern and professional approach to democracy, if it embarrassed other political parties by holding internal elections, instead of giving them ammunition by appointing a child as their chairman.

This is not to say that Bilawal or Bakhtawar, or even Fatima Bhutto, should be precluded from serving the party and the people of Pakistan in the future, but only after they have worked their way up and brushed up on their Urdu. In a recent article by Javed Jabbar in Dawn, he lamented the fact that Benazir at 35 lacked the requisite experience to be effective as Prime Minister. Had she been more experienced, had political parties in general been fortified with democracy, not just externally but also internally, perhaps the military would find it impossible to topple them mid-term.

A sympathy vote banks on the immortalization of a martyr, but history treats reformers far more kindly.

The writer is a London-based lawyer. She can be contacted via her website

For technical reasons, Ayaz Amir's column could not be published today. It will now appear on next Friday. --Ed

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