A born leader who straddled two worlds

ONE of the hardest things to understand about Benazir Bhutto as a young woman was why she ever wanted to live again in Pakistan. It was not just that terrible things had happened to her there.

By Ian Jack

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Published: Sun 30 Dec 2007, 8:22 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:51 PM

So much of her seemed calibrated to the West. In 1986, when she was in her first London exile, a portrait of her had been commissioned to go with a piece I was writing. The photographer was Lord Snowdon. Most politicians, especially those from poor and chaotic countries, would have affected no great interest. Benazir was thrilled. She had a friend, Mrs Herbert Lom if I remember right, accompany us to the studio in Gloucester Road to make sure that her hair, make-up and dress were in good order. An odd assortment: Princess Margaret's former husband behind the lens and, to the side of the camera with the lip gloss at the ready, the wife of the actor who played Peter Sellers' twitching boss in the Pink Panther, both of them helping the 32-year-old woman, who would soon become the first elected woman leader of a Muslim country, to present her best face to the world. "Lord Snowdon!" she said in the car. "I am being photographed by Lord Snowdon!"

Together with her abiding sense of entitlement she had in those days an innocence and effervescence that made her hard to dislike. In private, she liked a gin and tonic, biographies of British royalty and English chocolates. She laughed easily —there was a generosity to her. On a visit to London after she became prime minister in 1988, she gave a little party at the Ritz and told us that Mrs Thatcher, whom she had just met, was an "amazing, marvellous woman, so kind to me". In different circumstances, she would have come down from Oxford and landed a job in a merchant bank. In circumstances as they were, and remembering the cultural and political landscape at home, she knew to be wary.

Once I asked her if she had ever danced. "No." Never? "No." What, a girl who had been president of the Oxford Union and joined anti-Vietnam demos at Harvard? "I used to be petrified of my father finding out and giving me hell." I reminded her that her father had been a bit of a mover and shaker himself. She was resolute: "Good Muslim girls don't dance with foreign men." I pointed out that one such good Muslim girl, her own mother, had been photographed dancing with Gerald Ford at the White House. Benazir had the explanation off pat. Her mother had been taken unawares —Nixon had never asked her to dance —and it would have been insulting to say no to Ford. Her father, she said archly, had not returned the compliment by asking Betty Ford to dance.

The picture of Ford dancing with Nusrat Bhutto was big news on the streets of Pakistan in 1977, which is why I had remembered it. Photocopies taken from an American news magazine had been passed around the anti-Bhutto demonstrations, to prove that the Bhuttos were not "good Muslims". Officially, the crowds were protesting against the rigging of the general election that had returned the Pakistan People's Party to power with an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.

Benazir's father was the one great politician Pakistan had produced, the son of a wealthy and influential landlord, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto (who had married a convert from Hinduism), founder of a party that had "Roti, kapra, makan" (bread, clothing, shelter) as its slogan, whose heroes were nationalist modernisers such as Ataturk, Nasser and Sukarno. Like a previous generation of subcontinental politicians —Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru —he had been called to the bar from a London inn of court. His showmanship and arrogance were well attested and often disliked, but in the spring of 1977 he seemed untouchable.

I first met Benazir during her father's trial for murder. The victim was the father of a renegade People's party member, Ahmed Raza Khan Kasuri, who had died when their car was hit by gunfire in 1974. In Punjab, the Kasuri case was well-known; long before Bhutto had been deposed and the trial announced. In court the evidence was thin and wrought from dubious confessions. The presiding judge was violently prejudiced against the accused but, even so, it seemed unlikely that the charge would stick, or, if it stuck, that Bhutto would be hung. Benazir knew better. She invited me, as she must have done with many foreign journalists, to a cosy supper in a Bhutto villa. Servants appeared only to serve the food. She was 25 then. In Pakistan, for a young woman to sit unchaperoned with a man behind closed doors was a remarkable event, and a mark of her desperation as much as of her time at Harvard and Oxford. She needed my help to save her father. It was immensely flattering, and of course entirely useless. Nothing could save her father.

Benazir was the daddy's girl —"Pinkie" to her family. Her father would return from foreign trips with dresses from Saks Fifth Avenue and tell her stories about great men and history: Alexander, Metternich, Talleyrand.

She would hear no word against him. Sometimes she would refer to him as "Papa" and at other times "Mr Bhutto" or "shaheed", the martyr. Bhutto the autocrat and demagogue, the man who promised Pakistan would have a nuclear bomb "even if the people have to eat grass" —he made no appearance. A man without blemishes: "You see," she said, "my father was brilliant, he was the shining star."

Leave aside the corruption charges against her and her husband: watching her on television in her later days, what struck me was her need of idolisation, the worship of crowds. She was a Bhutto, and with the name came a history of expectation and privilege brought about by generations of worshipful deference from the peasantry of Sindh. Of her bravery, there was never any question. By her early thirties, she had been imprisoned, held under house arrest, seen a younger brother die, made a last prison visit to her father, now ruined by dysentery and gum disease, on the night before his execution. But the eventual question is, what was she being brave for? "Democracy" and "the people of Pakistan" were always her answers.

The encouragement of Washington and the West may have helped rather than hindered this bravery. It maybe a cliche but it is none the less true: she lived in two worlds. In the 1980s you might meet her at her flat in the Barbican, or the mews houses of friends and relations in Swiss Cottage or Knightsbridge. There the company would be mixed, men with women, and the conversation in English and general. Then you might go to a party meeting in Hounslow, the sexes split between rooms, Benazir the only woman in a room filled with men, and the conversation in Urdu or Punjabi or Sindhi, urgent and specific. Men smiled at her, who knew with what sincerity, over their kebabs.

She was insistent that Islam awarded equal rights to men and women. At the end of one of our interviews in 1986, I asked her if the popular supposition was correct: that if and when she supplanted General Zia-ul-Haq she would become the first woman to rule a Muslim country. "Quite true," she said and then remembered that a Queen Raziyya had ruled the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century. I checked the reference. According to a near-contemporary historian, Siraj, the queen had been "wise, just and generous" and endowed with all the qualities befitting a king. "But she was not born of the right sex, and so, in the estimation of men, all these virtues were worthless."

Eventually men had murdered her.

Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist

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