Here’s to you Benazir Bhutto

Published: June 20, 2016
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The writer is a senator, Vice-President of the PPP and Chair of the Jinnah Institute. She has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, and as Federal Minister of Information. She tweets @sherryrehman

The writer is a senator, Vice-President of the PPP and Chair of the Jinnah Institute. She has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, and as Federal Minister of Information. She tweets @sherryrehman

It doesn’t take Benazir Bhutto’s birthday to make one think of her in so many ways. The question I get asked most, though, is what it was like working with her. The short answer is, no one day ever felt like another with her. The longer answer is, she had the intellectual and emotional energy to build ties while she worked, to re-shape another’s cognitive and work-life universe while still giving of her self. This was a sort of altruism unusual in politicians. While being a hard-nosed political player, what was most important to her was policy in all sizes and shapes. That meant working within a framework of values and ideas that one had to be consistent with. Everything was tested against a standard, right or wrong, and little went by without a full-on policy dialogue that would trickle up to her in layers until stakeholders on the ground had agreed on a formula. Working with her as the PPP’s public policy president well before becoming the party’s information secretary, I found her appetite for policy-commitment quite exceptional.  Working with her meant being challenged as well as rewarded intellectually, as she was always looking for new ideas while deconstructing, and often respecting, convention. We all know how she fought for regaining space for democracy. We all know that she had the courage of a globally lauded hero and the tenacity of a gladiator, but it was her human rights record that went largely unsung in her lifetime even though she worked relentlessly on that agenda. In every policy paper or speech we wrote, she fought for women, she fought for the dispossessed and she fought for the homeless. In every policy guideline, she worked the unemployed in, she worked the labour in, she worked the farmer in.

While writing the 2008 election manifesto, a contest she tragically did not live to see, we were in a constant strategic back and forth. In every social policy conversation, her basic humanity always came through. One day she woke me up at two in the morning on a call from Dubai, when she wanted a boarding school system devised for poor children and basic nutrition provided for public schools. Another night she argued for two hours on the phone over why we could not have higher public spending to generate employment. The conversation ended with our devising a public works programme for providing guaranteed employment to the lowest income-poor families. She wanted Pakistan to be a welfare state on the lines of the Scandinavian social democracy model, with social nets for the poor and a strong market economy that provided jobs and raised a middle class. She would have been proud to see that after several refinements with our internal policy group, this programme morphed into the Benazir Income Support Programme in the 2008 cabinet.

Her sense of timing was both acute and often prescient. It was almost as if she knew that her destiny was calling her to fulfil her legacy. She was a woman in a hurry, on a mission to transform Pakistan. She made us build a 100-day action programme for her next cabinet so the PPP could deliver more on her promises before the axe fell on us.  She worked non-stop to ensure that her vision was translated into our laptops and mental hard drives, almost as if there was no time left. Until her last day, she worked over 18 hours a day. Her last email to her senior colleagues from the BlackBerry would often be between 2.30-3.30am. The next round in the morning would start at 6.30, before she ventured out to cut a huge swathe into the day.

But she was a leader whose vision went farther than any others. Why? Because she was ahead of her time, and because she had extraordinary courage. She was the only leader who saw that if we don’t step in the way, the fires of extremism will engulf Pakistan. This was the challenge that kept her awake at nights as much as dictatorship did, as much as mass hunger did. She dabbled in the waters of realpolitik, but remained clear-eyed about legitimacy. Any dialogue with any government was always for ensuring a level playing field. That was all she asked for: an open contest and a fair election.

This was the PPP’s strength, which she had turned into a clear brand for the party. Her father had given his life for it, and she always said that one day she too would have to as well. Her fear was not that she would be snuffed out in the prime of her life. It was that she would not be able to make Pakistan safe again for its children. Benazir Bhutto led the one mainstream party who owned the battle against religious orthodoxy and militancy as Pakistan’s internal challenge. And she was the only one willing to mark clear lines in the sand for it. There was to be no compromise on women’s freedoms, no expedient compromises with those who targeted our non-Muslim compatriots, with those who targeted our innocent civilians and soldiers. She knew it was never going to be easy. It was never going to be overnight. The institutional capacity for governance was fragile. But she had the long view of life. She was going to start fixing some of it through a reform package and tough security measures. To her this was never another country’s war. It was Pakistan’s battle for survival.

I end by quoting one of the speeches I wrote for her at a global forum: “ I still push for a new deal for women and men all over the world, not just the Muslim world. I still have a new dream for Pakistan in my head. But like so many other women in the world, I have opportunity in one hand, and its opponent forcing my other. It is choices that move us forward, and the judicious exercise of our choices that make the difference. Women and men are here to make their mark on the world, and I will always be the first to show them the way.”

Bibi, you are still showing us the way and on each birthday Pakistan will honour you as its finest.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2016.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • np
    Jun 20, 2016 - 11:59PM

    “There was to be no compromise on women’s freedoms, no expedient compromises with those who targeted our non-Muslim compatriots,”

    Ma’m would you be kind enough to tell us under whose regime the 2nd amendment targeting Ahmadis was passed?Recommend

  • AS
    Jun 21, 2016 - 1:01AM

    From a woman who had history on her right side, to another who lived to tell the tale and carries the torch held high. Recommend

  • Jawad U Rahman
    Jun 21, 2016 - 1:02AM

    But, what about her various failings? From tolerating mega corruption of her husband to playing a role in creating Taliban 1.0. She, like her father, squandered great leadership potential. What a waste.Recommend

  • Maham
    Jun 21, 2016 - 1:27AM

    By saying you wrote the speech for her takes away from the article. Regardless, wish she was here during my voting age.Recommend

  • Jun 21, 2016 - 1:38AM

    Why are you wasting your time Sherry talking about BB. She is the one who started terrorism in India by sending the so called Freedom Fighters who were definitely resulted in World Terrorism.Recommend

  • abc
    Jun 21, 2016 - 2:54AM

    Actions speak louder than words – I can’t make a fool of myself by accepting what you write. Recommend

  • PakSal
    Jun 21, 2016 - 3:46AM

    BB was a politico, nothing more nothing less … there’s nothing extraordinary about her … she didn’t do anything worthwhile for the nation … most of all she married the most corrupt … and we are still putting up with it.Recommend

  • Javaid
    Jun 21, 2016 - 4:43AM

    Unfortunately disagreed. Her father disintigrated pakistan, destroyed industry, ruined moral values. On the other hand she gave us corruption as she herself was corrupt from head to toe. She gave us surray palace,oil for food thru UNO, swiss bank account, bribed necklace, and corrupt 10 to ….%. This all in the name of poor masses. Shameless companions unfortunatelyRecommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Jun 21, 2016 - 6:37AM

    But the thing that sticks most prominently in my mind when I think of BB is a cosmetic surgery job done very well, because who knows, without it, she may well never have secured the PMship.Recommend

  • Ali
    Jun 21, 2016 - 7:25AM

    I remember her going on and on about rental power plants.
    even her son was doing the same uptil recently.
    Turned out to be one of the worst schemes in history.Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Jun 21, 2016 - 7:55AM

    BB may have been a darling of the West (characters like Solarz and Pressler, , are cases in point) but in the final analysis was an anathema for Pakistan; being the epitome of corruption and arrogance.Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jun 21, 2016 - 9:40AM

    Sadly the comment section speaks louder than the article.Recommend

  • Toti calling
    Jun 21, 2016 - 10:17AM

    BB was a good leader, but never had absolute majority to change anything. At the time Nawaz Sharif was obsessed to bring her to prison, once even trying to bribe a judge to find her guilty. It is a shame that her life was taken when she was still young. Her father and her brothers were also killed. In may view PPPP needs a new leader and I find Sherry Rehman a good candidate. She is liberal and secular and is also well educated and last and not least is a woman. And she expresses her view even when they annoy the right wing clergy. Recommend

  • Shazia
    Jun 21, 2016 - 10:32AM

    Sherry why haven’t you come clear about the publication of books detailing your relationship and interactions with the Bhutto family in general and Benazir Bhutto in particular. Books written by Amit Rai and Roshan Mirza. Why haven’t you ever answered the question about where you met Benazir Bhutto the first time. You always have a vague response. It would be nice if you for once came out with an honest clarification about these.Recommend

  • RHS
    Jun 21, 2016 - 11:47AM

    BB could inspire others like her father once did. She was removed because she made Pakistan look good. Many of the comments thus far do not do justice to her like this article does. Good job SR.. Recommend

  • Usman Khan
    Jun 21, 2016 - 1:00PM

    The Pakistan Peoples Party’s actions have spoken louder than words. This comment board screams out reality. After decades in power, I have never confused Sindh for Scandinavia. Recommend

  • Jun 21, 2016 - 2:43PM

    Both her tenures were filled with unprecedented corruption. Sad but that’s her legacy.Recommend

  • Junaid
    Jun 21, 2016 - 2:47PM

    Yes Sherry. I can see Sindh becoming Norway. Recommend

  • Syed Babar Ali
    Jun 22, 2016 - 1:15AM

    The worst part of Bhutto legacy: he banned murrey brewery beer all across pakistan in 1977, 6 years after disintegrating pakistan for what?Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Jun 22, 2016 - 7:24AM

    @Syed Babar Ali:
    I am told that he banned it because it was and still is a lousy beer…apparently, each bottle tastes different !Recommend

  • Jun 22, 2016 - 9:55AM

    Dipak@Haji Atiya:
    Not true. Murray Brewery was and still is one of te top beer brand wit excellent taste. ZAB closed down the brewery because they did not contribute to ZAB Corruption Fund.Recommend

  • Liaquat Ali Thaheem
    Jun 22, 2016 - 11:37AM

    The greatest virtue of this write up is that…it gives me courage to face adverse and intolerant circumstances in Pakistan. Thank you Sherry. Recommend

  • Saleem
    Jun 22, 2016 - 1:04PM

    For the credibility of the author of this article please see page 150 of the book “Getting Away with Murder” by Heraldo Munoz head of the UN Commission that investigated Benazir’s assassination. Recommend

  • javed qamer
    Jun 22, 2016 - 7:25PM

    Only in Pakistan a politician accused of corruption is lionized.
    Her legacy is Zardari who brought pakistan to its knees.Recommend

  • hoshiar singh gill
    Jun 23, 2016 - 12:29AM

    She once claimed she took most of her inspiration from Hazrat Bibi kahadija.It sounded like a very hollow claim !Recommend

  • Sultan Ali Ahmed
    Jun 23, 2016 - 9:11AM

    Amazing read! She was fearless, visionary and a great leader. No one can fill her shoesRecommend

  • hoshiar singh gill
    Jul 6, 2016 - 7:54PM

    @Haji Atiya:
    Not true. I tasted it while staying in Pearl Continental, Lahore. It was probably the best beer I’ve ever tasted. It tasted the same every day for 10 days! Cheers from U.K. Recommend

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