6:16 P.M. — December 27, 2007 — A restaurant in a hotel in Delhi. The conversations around are mainly about wine and who’s having the biggest New Year’s parties. Most people are on mobiles, many of the conversations are just chit-chat, but a few of them are talking about Benazir Bhutto. Their tone mirrors the solipsism of economically grandiose India. They were not asking, “What now for Pakistan?” but “Will this effect us at all, should we be worried?” It will mean nothing for them because they exist in the hot-house financial bubble that barely touches daily India. They are two separate countries. It will mean a lot for the Congress leadership of India as it tries to keep the door open to their stroppy teenage-type sibling of a neighbour.
I’m having dinner with some people who are filing copy on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. One of them is panicking. She is from Switzerland and she is regarded there as a specialist on South Asia. But she has been here just three times. She is unsure what to write about this woman of the East who was polished by the West, this leader who had returned from exile to be murdered. It’s a rock-and-roll moment. They cannot sit at the table any longer. They go to the business center to file their piece between the starter and the main course. They ask that I have the main course held until they get back.
Even though I have been living here for long periods of the past 20 years, and writing about North India and Pakistan for all of that time, I became invisible in the media testosterone of the moment.
“Did you meet her?” one of the journalists asked at one point.
I had been to her talks and discussion panels while she was in exile in London and Dubai, following her life for most of her life, since her father was publicly executed by hanging in front of her in 1979, in Rawalpindi, the same place where she was declared dead just over two hours ago.
Pakistan is just a few hours into the death of a dynastic hope. There will be rioting, more blood, more scattered body parts, as so graphically described in the media here. Musharraf will be screwed in the short term.
Maybe he instigated the state of emergency in November after Benazir’s return in October in part to protect her, and maybe he was using her as a wild card to shore up his lame-duck license. If so he failed. Or is it that he really wanted her to return so that he could impose the state of emergency to get things done, and use the chaos that her return engendered to call the shot? Maybe he realized that the state of emergency would be analyzed later on and be seen as being a form of protection for the lady — returned so that she could shore him up? Except that she used the moment to declare him a rogue dictator. She crossed the line, his line. Hindus call it the Lakshman-Rekha, others Crossing the Rubicon. And so she had to go?
These are some of the things that will be chewed over amidst the raft of conspiracy stories that are the nature of South Asia.
Perhaps closer to the truth is that Pervez Musharraf probably was not fully aware of how cavalier Benazir had become about her security cordon, only two months after an initial suicide bomb attempt on her life when she first returned. The cordons where there for the taking but she was politically and vote-winningly choosing to eschew them because the eight years in exile meant that she needed to do some fast-track trust building. But while she was ignoring them in the heat of the hustings, privately she was complaining loudly to her foreign friends that Musharraf was not supplying her with the level of security that she had requested. She was playing it both ways, and from whichever way she was still the most highly protected politician without seat or portfolio in South Asia.
The courage of Benazir Bhutto was to ignore the frailty of flesh, and perhaps her weakness was in failing to understand how much she was despised by the mullah class and those who are still passionate about General Zia-ul-Haq, the man who hung her father, and whose people have long wanted to kill her too.
Benazir may have been the remodelled face of democracy in Pakistan that we wanted to buy into, brushing aside her very messy political history. Let this death not be a waste, let it remind us that Pakistan is not a pro-Western democracy. It is, across large swathes of the country, a Western-hating place that has shaped so many of the Islamic terrorists we are trying to contend with today. Until we understand this we fail in our understanding of what Musharraf has been trying to do in Pakistan in building a lasting relationship with the west amongst a people who wanted exactly the opposite, barring the tight enclave of the political elite, those who live as separately from Pakistan as the rich Indians in the restaurant here live from street India beyond the sound-insulated glass. Benazir Bhutto was from that elite class. She was not of Pakistan.
– Justine Hardy is a journalist and author who has been based in South Asia across two decades. Her most recent novel, The Wonder House, is set in Kashmir. She writes mainly for the Financial Times.