January Issue 2008
My Friend, the Visionary
Sitting traumatised by the tragedy that struck on the evening of December 27, I desperately looked for relief, for a palliative or at least distraction from the all-engulfing grief for the Bhutto family, for the Pakistani nation and for me as an individual who had known and admired Mohtarama Benazir Bhutto. I found it in surfing the net and reading the coverage that the assassination had received in the international visual and print media.
I had expected that the sense of enormous loss, the sense that a towering figure had been untimely ripped from the body politic of Pakistan, would bring millions out on the streets of Pakistan’s cities. What I had not expected and what my benumbed mind slowly absorbed over the next three days was the extent to which this was shared by the world at large.
On December 27 and 28 there were by my count at least four articles each in leading newspapers of the world such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Times of London, The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Arab News of Saudi Arabia, and other newspapers around the world.
I tried to do a comparison of the coverage that Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination had received. Like her, he was a young and charismatic leader on the election campaign trail. Like her, he was an ex-prime minister and the anointed heir of the most distinguished political dynasty of India. Like her, he was struggling to bring modernity to his nation and to fight obscurantism in a region that qualified as one of the poorest in the world. Like her, he was dogged by corruption scandals that later all proved to be untrue. Moreover, he had the advantage of being from a much larger and more populous country that had always commanded greater attention from the international media. And yet while the coverage he received was extensive, it was not a patch on what BB’s assassination evoked.
Implicit if not explicit in much of this coverage was the assessment that she had represented the best hope for bringing Pakistan, a country of much concern to the world, back to the vision of the moderate and tolerant polity that the Quaid-e-Azam had outlined for our country.
Some will say that the coverage was prompted by this concern for Pakistan, but that is true only in part. Largely it was an acknowledgement of the qualities of this leader who, while deeply rooted in Pakistan, had an international vision and an international stature that no other Pakistani has enjoyed in recent years. It was a tribute to the first woman to become head of government in a major Muslim country, and to the role model that she became for Muslim and other women around the world. It was a tribute, despite her perceived imperiousness, to her commitment to the ideals of democracy and to her determined effort to give the masses a voice in Pakistan and other countries of the Muslim and Third World.
I had the honour and privilege of being her foreign secretary for much of her second term. In my 38 years of experience in the foreign service, I did not come across another head of government, apart from her own father, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who could come close to rivalling her grasp of the realities of international affairs. There was never an occasion when she did not, in small and big ways, improve the talking points we in the foreign office provided to her for her meetings with foreign dignitaries or foreign journalists. It was intuitive in part, but largely it was based on what she absorbed from the enormous amount of reading for which she somehow found time and from the vast network of friends that she had built in the international intellectual community.
It was unfortunate that despite her understanding of the interplay of forces in the international arena, domestic limitations made it impossible for her to proceed with foreign policy initiatives that were proposed to her or which she had herself thought up. She was particularly concerned that, hamstrung by these limitations in her second term in office and by inflexibility on the part of her potential interlocutors, no progress could be made in the chequered Indo-Pak relationship. One could only make informal suggestions at informal meetings. What she had authorised as points to put across eventually became, as some Indian diplomats have said, the basis for the current Indo-Pak “composite dialogue.”
Her diplomatic skills were more clearly evident when she met with Bill Clinton in Washington in 1995. Both she and Clinton broke the ice with a reference to the visit Hillary Clinton had paid to Pakistan a few months earlier and from which Hillary had gone back very impressed with the social sector reforms that Mohtarama was seeking to implement and even more so by the galaxy of professional working women that she met at the PM House. A rapport seemed to come into being. The meeting was a success. We secured a breakthrough on the F-16 issue that went beyond our expectations. It certainly went beyond what Clinton, according to his National Security Adviser, had been advised to offer. Was this driven by Clinton’s own sense of right and wrong or was he influenced by BB’s eloquent presentation? I believe the latter, and I believe it because she chose with special care to adhere to a conciliatory tone both in tenor and substance rather than the combativeness that the justice of her cause would have entitled her to adopt.
Now, however, what will be most sorely missed is not her diplomatic skills but the national leadership she could offer to repair the fractured internal polity and to combat the forces of darkness that threaten to engulf us. Today we may lament our inability to formulate clear policies to protect our regional and global interests. But far more important is the need to put our internal house in order and to develop an internal cohesiveness, which alone will give us the strength to protect our external interests.
Can an orphaned political leadership rise to the challenge? We must hope that they will. That will be the best way to prove that her lifelong effort had not been in vain. It will be the best epitaph to a leader who, all naysayers notwithstanding, “put Pakistan first.”