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Benazir Bhutto: a friend of feudalism

category western asia | culture | non-anarchist press author sabato settembre 08, 2007 04:07author by William Dalrymple - The Guardian Segnalare questo messaggio alla redazione

Pakistan has long been ruled by an elite. Benazir Bhutto's return would perpetuate the old order

Few would argue with the proposition that democracy is almost always preferable to dictatorship; but it is often forgotten the degree to which Bhutto is the person who has done more than anything to bring Pakistan's strange variety of democracy - really a form of elective feudalism - into disrepute.

A friend of feudalism

Pakistan has long been ruled by an elite. Benazir Bhutto's return would perpetuate the old order

William Dalrymple
Saturday September 1, 2007
The Guardian

Not far from the ruins of the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro, lies Benazir Bhutto's feudal estate of Larkhana. In this backward and arid region amid the dry salt flats of the Indus plain, Bhutto's family have long been the most prominent land owners, and the area is witness to many of the Borgia-like feuds that distinguish the lives of Pakistan's feudal elite.
The last time I visited the estate, in 1994, a convoy from the house of Begum Bhutto - Benazir's mother - to her husband's grave had just been shot at by police, leading to the deaths of three of the family's retainers. Begum was in no doubt that the police were acting to support Benazir. Soon afterwards, there was the funeral of Benazir's brother Murtaza, who had just returned to Pakistan to try to oust his sister from control of the family's political wing, the Pakistan People's party. He died, along with six of his supporters, in a hail of police bullets, yards from his front door. Many pointed the finger of suspicion at Benazir, and her husband was later charged with complicity in the murder.

This week Bhutto has been doing the rounds of the television studios announcing her imminent return to Pakistan. Representing herself as the face of Pakistani liberal democracy, she has had an astonishingly smooth ride from interviewers, few of whom seemed to be aware of her deeply flawed record.

Perhaps this should not be surprising: the west has always had a soft spot for Bhutto. Her neighbouring heads of state may be figures as foreign and frightening as, on one hand, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and, on the other, a clutch of Afghan warlords, but Bhutto has always seemed reassuringly familiar - one of us. She speaks English fluently as it is 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.

For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto isn't is possibly more attractive than what she is: she isn't a religious fundamentalist, she doesn't have a beard, she doesn't organise mass rallies where everyone shouts "Death to America", and she doesn't issue fatwas against bestselling authors - even though Salman Rushdie went out of his way to ridicule her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.

However, the very reasons that make the west love Benazir Bhutto are the same that leave many Pakistanis with second thoughts. Her English may be fluent, but you can't say the same about her Urdu which she speaks like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi is even worse: apart from a few imperatives, she is completely at sea.

Few would argue with the proposition that democracy is almost always preferable to dictatorship; but it is often forgotten the degree to which Bhutto is the person who has done more than anything to bring Pakistan's strange variety of democracy - really a form of elective feudalism - into disrepute. During her first 20-month long premiership, astonishingly, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation. Her reign was marked by massive human rights abuse: Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world's worst records of custodial deaths, extrajudicial killings and torture. Bhutto's premiership was also distinguished by epic levels of corruption. In 1995 Transparency International named Pakistan one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Zardari - widely known as "Mr 10%" - faced allegations of plundering the country.

In contrast, the first few years of Pervez Musharraf saw Pakistan run with remarkable competence: Pakistan enjoyed a construction and consumer boom, with economic growth of around 8%, and one of Asia's best-performing stock markets. Hundreds of new TV channels opened up. For the middle classes, it has been boom time. It is true that Musharraf behaved with astonishing stupidity in sacking the chief justice, there have been growing human rights violations and abductions by state intelligence agencies - an estimated 600 activists have "disappeared" since 2002 - and dangerous deals have been forged with Pakistan's Islamists, allowing their power to rise significantly. Yet in the latter two cases, Benazir's critics point out that her record is little better.

Nor is the distinction between democracy and military rule quite as sharp as Bhutto likes to imply. Behind Pakistan's swings between military government and democracy lies a surprising continuity of interests: to some extent, the industrial, military, landowning, and bureaucratic elites are all interrelated and look after one another. The current negotiations between Musharraf and Bhutto - which have excluded Bhutto's democratic rival Nawaz Sharif - are typical of the way that the civil and military elites have shared power with little reference to the electorate.

Real democracy has never thrived here, at least in part because landowning remains the principle social base from which politicians can emerge. The educated middle class - which in India gained control in 1947 - is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. It is this as much as anything else that has fuelled the growth of the Islamists. According to the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, "The military and the political parties have all failed to create an environment where the poor can get what they need from the state. So the poor have begun to look to alternatives for justice. In the long term, flaws in the system will create more room for the fundamentalists."

Pakistan today in many ways resembles pre-revolutionary Iran. A cosmopolitan middle class is prospering, yet for the great majority of poorer Pakistanis life remains intolerably hard and access to justice or education is a distant hope. Healthcare and other social services for the poor have been neglected, in contrast to the public services that benefit the wealthy, such as airports.

Secular democracy will only ever flourish in Pakistan if space is created for secular politicians from non-feudal backgrounds who represent the grassroots: the Pakistani equivalents of India's dalit (untouchable) leader Mayawati, or Laloo Prasad Yadav. Until then, if Pakistanis only have a choice between the inter-related feudal and military elites, the growth of the Islamist parties will continue, and the country's violent upheavals can only escalate.

· William Dalrymple is the author of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857

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