Bhutto: Rebranding a Legacy

When Benazir Bhutto ’73 returned to deliver a speech to students at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 1997, she said, “I’d just like you all to know how wonderful it is to come back home.” The ovation she received that day drowned the irony in her speech. She had just been dismissed as Prime Minister of Pakistan on corruption charges. Also telling was that this foreign leader considered Harvard, rather than Pakistan, to be her true home.

As the 40-day mourning period of her death comes to a close, we should take a closer look at her past. Recent eulogies following her tragic death have missed these sub-narratives. Newspaper coverage in the West has emphasized Bhutto’s years at Harvard and Oxford, portraying her as a modern liberal woman who brought Western values back to her chaotic, unruly country. This image is Orientalism at its worst—the validation of a third world leader merely because she was ‘brought up the right way.’

The other problem with this rosy image is that it obscures Bhutto’s record. Her political power was almost completely derived from her father, Pakistan’s only genuinely popular democrat. She failed to capitalize on even this platform.

During her first premiership, she failed to pass a single piece of major legislation. At the same time, the anti-corruption organization Transparency International named Bhutto’s Pakistan one of the three most corrupt countries in the world. Her government was accused by Amnesty International of having a long record of torture, extra judicial custody and killings. She appointed herself head of her political party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), for life, and her feuding brother was shot dead under highly suspicious circumstances. Her brother’s wife and daughter all held Bhutto responsible for his death.

Shortly before her own tragic death in December, Bhutto was negotiating an American-backed deal with President Pervez Musharraf to allow her to become prime minister again. The lawyer-led, pro-democracy movement in Pakistan saw this as a Faustian pact with a hated dictator.

The feudal manner of Bhutto’s succession lends further suspicion of the kind of democracy that she espoused. Her son, Bilawal Bhutto, is a 19-year-old Oxford student who has never lived in Pakistan. Yet he has been appointed heir to the Bhutto throne as the new chairman of the PPP. But since he is too young, his controversial father, Asif Zardari, will act as regent, making decisions while the chairman grows up. The actual top candidate for the forthcoming elections is another person, party loyalist Maqdoom Amin Fahim.

Aside from her “democratic” credentials, supporters of Bhutto have sought to portray her as both fiercely secular and against terrorism. This too does not stand up to scrutiny.

That she was personally secular—as well as immensely courageous—is unquestionable. However, these views did not translate into policies as prime minister. Her record as an anti-terrorist crusader is murky, at best. While Bhutto was prime minister, the Pakistani intelligence services helped install the Taliban in Afghanistan. There was also a huge spike in Pakistan’s monetary and strategic support for jehadis in Kashmir during her tenure. While Bhutto’s direct responsibility for both these actions is debatable, they were nonetheless incongruous with the simplistic anti-terrorism crusader image that she later sought to cultivate.

Her recent anti-terrorist image was a calculated one. After 9/11, the topography of Pakistani politics dramatically changed, and Islamist political parties grew powerful by feeding on local anger against the pro-American stance of the Musharraf regime. These Islamists parties began to eat into the electoral base of Bhutto’s party. Benazir Bhutto’s recent opposition to Islamists was thus more to do with immediate electoral interests rather than long held political beliefs.

Bhutto’s international connections helped her rise to power. The U.S. was far more comfortable doing business with Benazir Bhutto than other, more local Pakistani politicians such as Nawaz Sharif. She used her many years in exile to address think-tanks, policy makers and academics in the West, her Harvard credentials underlining her perceived reliability. Newspapers the world over spent more time on her privileged education than the specifics of her rule. Harvard would thus do well to realize the way its brand is used in the rest of the world. Bhutto used it to perpetuate a ‘civilizing’ idea, and a starry-eyed myth of democratic leadership that was demonstrably false.

The real Benazir Bhutto embodied two of Pakistan’s biggest ills: the perpetual protection of feudal interests, and a democratic process plagued by nepotism and corruption. It is this democracy deficit that both the Pakistani army and the Islamists are currently exploiting. But like the audience offering blind adulation at the Kennedy School in 1997, the world press and Harvard have chosen to ignore her past, focusing instead on what Bhutto symbolized to the West, not what she was to her own people.

Benazir Bhutto was as much a part of Pakistan’s problems as Harvard was part of hers.

Vinay Sitapati ’08 is an LL.M. Candidate at Harvard Law School.