Shahid Mahmood: The Dream that was Benazir Bhutto
"There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile." - Marcus Aurelius
There was also a dream that was Benazir Bhutto. Picture - a young, seemingly articulate attractive woman defying a military, which had sent her father to the gallows. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she spent years in house arrest and exile before becoming the youngest person, and the first woman, to head the government of a Muslim-majority state. She was initially swarmed by a deprived Pakistani population and was (and still is) adored by the western media and governments. I too was swept-up in that initial euphoria and as a budding political cartoonist remember drawing my first Bhutto-cartoon for Karachi's evening paper, The Star, in 1988. The editorial cartoon depicted a young, attractive woman, headscarf fluttering in the wind, tiptoeing across a political minefield that was Pakistan.
Twenty-years later, Bhutto is now dead – depressing both in its predictability as in its brutality. My views towards this ex-Prime Minister had changed - becoming cynical soon after that first editorial cartoon. That first drawing stands unique in my Bhutto-cartoon-portfolio. Subsequent editorials, bar that first drawing, depict her with the virtues of an asp. That innocent, fluttering white headscarf that I had drawn some twenty years ago had now become a symbol of excess and corruption. A recent headline from October 2007 in the Telegraph struck a cord with me:"Benazir Bhutto - a kleptocrat in a Hermes headscarf." When Bhutto was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1988 she very quickly began to flex her considerable hubris. Pakistan became her personal fiefdom, lorded by a feudal - with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a man known for his unashamed corruption, appointed as the national exchequer.
It was around the same time that I started cartooning for Newsline an investigative-style newsmagazine whose editor, Razia Bhatti, was a recipient of the international award, Courage in Journalism, in 1994. When Newsline published article's about Prime Minister Bhutto's indifference and complicity in the widespread rioting, extra-judicial killings, kidnapping and looting - which had become daily occurrences in the country - Bhutto responded by banning Newsline from all Pakistani International Airline (PIA) flights and had the Newsline office ransacked and its journalists threatened. I had drawn several scathing images of Bhutto that were used on several Newsline covers. On the day one of these issues was released on the newsstands Razia called me to say Bhutto's press secretary had called. Along with threatening the various journalists she had taken serious offence to her spread-eagled cartoon pose on the Newsline cover. Razia told me to keep a low profile and stay away from the Newsline office for a few weeks. I remember, weeks later, Razia relating how Bhutto would send the police to harass her nightly at her residence in Karachi there after.
Bhutto's heavy-handedness towards the press did not stop Newsline journalists from reporting on the flagrancies of her government. The magazine covered it all: Bhutto's muddled foreign policy, rampant corruption, holding the press hostage, and a taxation system which permitted the wealthy to get away with paying little or no tax (the lower-middle class was expected to carry the entire tax burden). Bhutto was even implicated, when the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, in providing them with both financial and military support. She saw the Taliban as a steadying force in Afghanistan and they would facilitate bilateral relations between Pakistan and Central Asia. Bhutto provided a rich vein of drawing material for a cartoonist like myself. There was such a steady stream of political incongruities for me that she became one of the few people I could draw from memory – Gucci glasses, Hermes scarf and all.
Tragically this struggle between Bhutto and the Press did not bring about any change in Pakistan. Bhutto was, afterall, allowed to return on the 18th of October in 2007. She was never truly held accountable in Pakistan, the international community always backed her as she always looked the part (even though she never fit the part), and the Pakistani public truly forgot her excesses. Bhutto's death is the latest script in Pakistan's narrative of political and social dysfunction. Had there been some semblence of accountability in Pakistan Bhutto would not have been killed. Instead, Bhutto would have been serving time for corruption or at the very least still living in exile. But that is not the case. Instead we remember the dream that was Benazir Bhutto only to wake up now to a political minefield which has claimed yet another victim.
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