In September I was in the United States, travelling around the cities of the East Coast. The exiled Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto had been there a few weeks previously, visiting the same cities and frequently speaking at the same venues (albeit to much larger and more interested audiences). Besides academics and policy makers, Ms Bhutto also met senior politicians and the mandarins of the State Department. I learnt that she had—to use a colloquialism that does not come naturally to me but seems apt for the situation at hand—‘wooed’ her hosts so effectively that she was now being presented as the last, and best, hope for democracy in Pakistan.
One reason Benazir made such an impression on the East Coast establishment was, of course, was that in matters of education she was one of them. She had studied at Radcliffe, the women’s wing of Harvard University, and, before that, at Oxford. She spoke impeccable English and could, when called upon, quote the Founding Fathers—Jefferson, Madison, and so on.
The second reason the American elite took to Benazir was that they were desperate for better news from the Islamic world. Their attempts to build, or more accurately impose, democracy and the rule of law in Afghanistan and Iraq had come undone. Hamid Karzai was not much more than the Mayor of Kabul. The Iraqi Government did not even control most of Baghdad.
The news from Pakistan was not very good, either. The Americans had backed General Pervez Musharraf because he had agreed to help them in the war against terror. Besides, he had presented himself as a Pakistani Attaturk—as a modernizer who would promote economic growth and secularism in a society steeped in backwardness and superstition. But six years after 9/11, the General was seen to have reneged on both these promises. Al Qaeda and the Taliban were in effective command of Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, from where they made frequent raids into Afghanistan. Two Pakistani provinces were run by Islamic parties.
The Americans did not want to abandon Musharraf, but hoped that for his sake and theirs he would agree to a deal with Benazir. If he shed his uniform and stayed on as President, and the lady stepped in as Prime Minister, could not this be represented as a transition to democracy, albeit a guided and gradual one?
In October Benazir came back to Pakistan, her return breathlessly covered by the Western media. The Sunday Times ran a two page story that was steeped in sycophancy. The correspondent spoke of how she had known Benazir for twenty years, in which time she had apparently never wavered from her democratic faith, while apparently also displaying a deep empathy with the poor and excluded. The corruption charges against her and her husband were mentioned, but dismissed as having never been proved. Other papers were as reverential, speaking likewise of her courage and her commitment. The only note of dissent was struck by the former wife of the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who described Benazir as ‘a kleptocrat in a Hermes scarf’.
The American Establishment is known for its gullibility, the British press for its superficiality. That they would both take so whole-heartedly to Benazir is not wholly unexpected. What was more surprising, and depressing, was a story carried by the BBC World Service in the third week of November, which compared Ms Bhutto with the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. By the standards of television, it was a long story, running to about six or seven minutes. It represented these two Asian women as, in effect, two peas in a pod—alike and akin in their battle against authoritarianism, and in the stoicness with which they had endured suffering and discrimination.
The BBC story mentioned the fact that both ladies had fathers who were also politicians. But their respective husbands were not mentioned. One does not know whether this was deliberate. To bring in the spouses would certainly have disturbed the symmetry that lay in the eyes of the story’s presenter (as well as writer). Suu Kyi’s husband, who died some years ago of cancer, was Michael Aris, a distinguished scholar of Tibetan Buddhism who was a decent man besides. Benazir, on the other hand, is married to a wholly unsavoury character, a fixer and operator who, during the time she was Prime Minister, was known as ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’.
A woman cannot be blamed—or praised—for her husband, but as it happens the differences between Benazir and Suu Kyi run much deeper. They have displayed varying degrees of commitment to their respective countries. Ms Bhutto’s long exile from Pakistan was entirely voluntary; and it was very comfortable. She chose to live in luxury in England and Dubai rather than face the prospect of being put into prison if found guilty of the charges laid against her. It was only when the Americans assured her that she could come back without hindrance that she returned to Karachi.
The Burmese lady’s patriotism is far more reliable than that of her Pakistani counterpart. Benazir asks what her country can do for her, Suu Kyi asks what she can do for her country. When Michael Aris lay dying, the junta in Rangoon said they would grant Suu Kyi a permit to see her family on condition that she should not return. To see the man she loved one last time she would have to turn her back on her country, perhaps forever. It was a tragic choice—more tragic than any other modern politician, indeed any other modern individual, has had to face. No one would have held it against her had she left Burma to be with her husband and children. In the end, Suu Kyi stayed, for she knew that with her out of the way the generals would more easily consolidate their rule.
The two women also differ in the ways they have claimed their fathers’ legacies. Benazir was groomed for power from an early age—like Rahul Gandhi, she was brought up to believe that to become Prime Minister of her country was her birthright. On the other hand, there was a four-decade-long interregnum between the death of Aung San and his daughter’s entry into politics. It was on a visit to see her ailing mother that Suu Kyi was dragged into the democracy movement, staying on to lead and guide it through a very troubled period indeed.
Their political orientations are rather different, too. While Suu Kyi has a principled commitment to non-violence and to democratic procedure, Benazir has a rather opportunist approach to power and authority. The words that come to mind when describing the great Burmese freedom-fighter are courageous, honest, decent, principled, democratic. On the other hand, the career and credo of the Pakistani politician can be summed up in the words vain, disingenuous, delusionary, ambitious, demagogic.