I remember exactly where I was the night it happened. I was at the W's house (she was the WTB back then), visiting her parents. I was making my goodbye visit, because I was leaving the country the next day to go back to the U.S. I was sitting and talking to them in their bedroom, where the TV was on, and suddenly, around 6 p.m. or so, news alerts started popping up from everywhere about a terrorist attack aimed at Benazir Bhutto's rally in Rawalpindi's Liaqat Bagh. We started watching more intently, and soon enough, the news came through: she was dead.
I remember doubting the veracity of the story; Pakistani news organizations are sensationalistic at the best of times, and I remember thinking that while the attack obviously cannot be denied, someone has made a mistake in pronouncing her dead. There will be much embarrassment, and as usual, our television news stations will be made to look foolish.
Well, that didn't happen.
I was supposed to go see a friend called Zeyd -- regular readers will be familiar with him -- after the W's parents, but there was no chance. If my instincts didn't urge me to return home, my father certainly did. He called my cell, and in a grave and monotone voice, simply said: "You should come home now." You don't understand; my dad always exchanges pleasantries before saying anything of substance. This time, he did not bother. It was a one sentence phone call, and frankly, even that sentence was superfluous. I called Zeyd to tell him I wasn't showing up, and before the words even came out of my mouth, he cut me off, and said "Yeah, I know bro. Safe flight -- if you can get on it."
It was actually a pretty legitimate worry. Even as I drove home, no more than 30 minutes after she was officially dead, the police presence was being thickened in the city. I could hear helicopters flying overhead, and there simply weren't that many people on the streets.
And the next day? Yikes. For people who were not in Pakistan or specifically Karachi at the time, my powers of description are not good enough to paint a picture of the city the next day. The only people out were rioters, or so it seemed. The city was completely and utterly dead. The only signs of life, ironically, were burned tires and overturned buses with their windows smashed in. I have lived in Karachi through terrorist attacks and Operation Clean Up and MQM strikes and Shia-Sunni violence and god knows what else...but I have never, ever, ever seen Karachi like that. The most hustling and bustling city in Pakistan was brought to its knees.
Now, two years later, what can we really say about her death? We cannot know how it impacted her family, so I will refrain from commenting on personal matters. In this I am one of few Pakistanis, I think it is safe to say. Consider this: the google search for "zardari killed benazir" is the fifth most popular search term that has led to our blog in its history. The four that beat it are "five rupees", "fiverupees", "five rupees blog" and "5 rupees". Pakistanis are a cynical bunch, that is for sure.
But on a political level, I think we can say a couple of things. One, it is hard to see how things would really be different if she were alive and, presumably, in control of the country. Yes, she was a more skillful politician than her husband. But the structural hand that he was dealt, in my opinion, would have consumed her too. I think Musharraf's departure would have been more bitter and of the "crying and screaming" variety (as opposed to the "gently nudged aside, into the sunset" variety that it ended up being). I think she might have had more credibility with some of the other stakeholders in Pakistani politics (except for the military, which probably hated her more than it hated her father, and that's really saying something). But ultimately, she was as polarizing a figure as her husband, and I think we would be in a very similar place that we are today. The only major difference, I think, would be that the Presidency would have been completely neutered by now. BB would have become Prime Minister, forced out Musharraf as President, installed a loyalist of some sort -- who knows, it might have been Gilani himself -- and then sought to make the President nothing but a figurehead. Of that I have no doubt.
The second thing to note, more obviously, is that the Bhutto name is still strong. Dynastic politics are very much with us. Just as Zulfiqar Bhutto groomed her daughter to take over the country one day, Asif Zardari is training Bilawal Bhutto to take over the mantle. For this family, the party is their property, no more, no less. Whether they succeed is another matter entirely; the Pakistan of 2009 is very different from the Pakistan of 1979, which is when BB started getting her feet wet in politics. The central point, however, remains that for many, the PPP is synonymous with the Bhutto name, and the latter still constitutes a vote-bank.
The third and final point I want to make is that it's been quite strange to see her death as basically a prop by all sorts of political actors. From the inane "democracy is the best revenge" line to the "Benazir Income Support Programme", her death has not been accorded the respect it deserved as such an important public figure. But maybe that's just the way politics works in Pakistan.
UPDATE: Mohammad Hanif is, as usual, brilliant and funny and smart and fair. Read his piece on remembering BB. An excerpt:
Any sudden death can tinge one’s memory and judgment, but there are certain facts about her that are conveniently ignored. Even if all the allegations about her corruption and arrogance are true, one should keep in mind that she was active in politics for 30 years, out of which she was in power only for four and a half years. The rest of the time she struggled against two of the most well entrenched military dictators in the region. Still she managed to raise three kids, took care of an ailing mother and stayed in the most notorious arranged marriage in South Asia.
The reason we don’t see very many dossiers on the financial corruption during General Zia and General Musharraf’s regimes is that when Bhutto was in power the intelligence agencies went into over drive documenting or sometimes inventing her misdemeanours. When the generals or their cronies are in power all the intelligence leaks just dry up.