Benazir Bhutto's life has been a rollercoaster of high political drama, acute personal loss, early triumph followed by downfall and charges of corruption. Ginny Dougary meets her in exile in Dubai, as she plans her return to power in Pakistan.
Photo: Mark Harrison
The story of Benazir Bhutto is dramatic enough on paper but becomes almost fantastic in person. Her pampered-princess start in life, raised at her father's knee in the ancestral estate on heady tales of the Bhutto family's political dynasty; her education at Harvard and Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union; her heartbreaking return to Pakistan when she was unable to save her beloved father - despite intense international pressure - from being hanged in 1979 by General Zia's military dictatorship, whose coup had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's democratic government. Her subsequent years of solitary confinement, as the new leader of the Pakistan People's Party (the mantle passed on to her by Bhutto Sr, who founded the socialist party in 1967), in the squalid, inhumane conditions she had last seen her father calmly endure; the isolation of house arrest with virtually no visits or phone calls; her escape to Britain in 1984, campaigning in exile against the injustices of the Zia regime, and triumphant return to Pakistan two years later, where she was greeted by a staggering one million supporters and elected prime minister at the age of 35, in 1988, the youngest person and first woman to hold that position in any modern Muslim nation.
Within two years, her government was controversially dismissed by the military-backed president and an election called, in which the PPP (in a democratic alliance) was defeated. In 1993, she was re-elected, only to be dismissed once again three years later by another president on the grounds of mismanagement and corruption. Since 1999, Bhutto has been in exile in London and, latterly, Dubai, where she was reunited with her colourful husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was released from prison in Pakistan in November 2004, having spent eight years awaiting trial on corruption and murder charges.
Two years earlier, the present president, General Pervez Musharraf, who continues to remain head of the military - seemingly impervious to widespread public criticism of his dual role - introduced a new amendment to Pakistan's constitution, banning prime ministers from holding office for more than two terms. This should disqualify Bhutto from ever resuming that position and also her old rival, Nawaz Sharif. But in Pakistan, anything can happen, and Bhutto is planning to return to her country - regardless of the numerous corruption charges which she and her family still face (as well as the couple's separate, ongoing money-laundering case in Switzerland) - to fight the allegedly free and democratic elections which have been promised by the end of this year. As she says, her own life has mirrored the history of Pakistan and that is why, at such a pivotal time in the West, it is both fascinating and important to hear what Benazir Bhutto has to say.
The four hours spent in her home in Dubai are a rollercoaster of copious laughter and floods of tears, noncommittal cautiousness and breathtaking openness, plain-speaking to the point of impertinence and insinuating charm, high-handed loftiness and affectionate intimacy. Bhutto is the most extraordinary woman who says the most extraordinary things, veering wildly between self-aggrandisement and a knowing, sometimes humorous, recognition of how she can come across.
Although she declines to name names - saying that "it's better not to give the impression that you're trying to fire political shots over somebody else's shoulder" - it is clear that there have been high-level discussions behind the scenes in Washington, where Bhutto is frequently invited to give speeches, and perhaps the UK. There continues to be widespread speculation in the press about the possibility of a deal being struck between Musharraf's "people" and Bhutto's party. Her response to these reports is that although "there have been 'back-channel' contacts with Musharraf for some time, they have not led to any understanding. And so all this talk of an 'understanding' I find very confusing." It is also confusing that while Bhutto does not shirk from criticising Musharraf at every opportunity, she also makes it clear in this interview that she would be prepared to work alongside him as long as certain conditions were met.
In her riveting autobiography Daughter of the East, published in 1988 and recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, she tells us that her father advised her never to lay all her cards on the table. Although there may have been a time when she found it difficult to stick to his advice - "I always lay my cards on the table" she maintained - I certainly find it difficult to pin her down on her current political agenda. It requires an exhausting degree of Paxmanesque persistence, repeatedly asking the same question, to elicit this response on the possibility of a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance: "You have asked me an important question and I want to give you my answer, since my followers will read this and they haven't heard me speak like this before," Bhutto finally allows. "Firstly, I plan to go back to Pakistan by the end of this year whether Mr Musharraf would like it or whether he would not like it. And I believe that the [corruption] cases must all be dropped, which categorically has not happened. Not one single case has been dropped and you will please note that between my mother, my father-in-law and myself there are about 20 charges or more. And what I feel and my party feels is that for more than a decade these charges have been used to hobble the opposition... to undermine my leadership and the PPP, and they should be dropped because none of them has been proven, and if they're not dropped then it creates an unbalance as we enter the elections of 2007. And we feel outraged that government funds have been used on a politically motivated investigation that has borne no fruit over ten years.
"But I also believe there are other important issues for the people of Pakistan to consider, which is would Musharraf continue to keep his uniform? And would there be a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, because at the moment we have shadow-boxing, where the prime minister is technically the head of the government but the substantive decisions are taken by the presidency or the military." The current state of play, she goes on to say, is that General Musharraf's ruling party has said that "they can rig the election so there's no need for free elections or a future parliament headed by the PPP... Which is why it's premature to talk about working alongside General Musharraf at this stage, although in the past we have worked jointly on certain issues such as the Women's Bill.
"At the same time, I want you to know that we are also partners with Mr Nawaz Sharif [in exile after he was deposed by Musharraf's military coup] in something called the charter for the restoration of democracy, so we are talking about a new democratic process in which the people of Pakistan are allowed to choose their leader and put together a coalition. And for that we are calling for a robust international monitoring team to ensure that these elections are fair and free because obviously if they're not, the ruling party will still be in the driver's seat and the creeping Talebanisation of Pakistan will continue."
Bhutto does not rule out the possibility that she might become prime minister again: "If the people vote for my party [she remains chairperson of the PPP, which received the highest number of votes in the last parliamentary election in 2002] and parliament elects me as prime minister, it would be an honour for me to take up that role and General Musharraf would be there as president, so I think that a good working relationship between him and me would be a necessity for Pakistan." What a pragmatist she must be. "Yes, I would have the choice of either respecting the will of the people and making it a success or being short-sighted and putting my personal feelings about past events ahead of the national interest, and what I want more than anything is for Pakistan to prosper as we make a transition to democracy," she says.
I put a number of questions to Senator Tariq Azim Khan, the Federal Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, to establish the Pakistan Government's position. He was affable and helpful on the telephone and sent me his answers, as requested, in writing. Yes, he wrote, there are a number of cases still pending in various courts in Pakistan against Ms Bhutto and her husband, Mr Zadari - and these cases (almost all 10 to 11 years old) have not been dropped. No, it is highly unlikely that she will be arrested upon arrival in Pakistan. She will nevertheless have to apply for bail in the cases where she has been convicted while abroad. And, lastly, for Ms Bhutto to become the prime minister for the third time, the constitution will have to be amended and this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Pakistan has been ruled by the military for so many years since it came into being in 1947, that I wonder whether democracy will ever have a chance to flourish. "Democracy can work in Pakistan if the West stops upholding military dictatorships through their financial and political support," Bhutto says. "Our tragedy has been that the military has been able to exploit the West's strategic interest in Afghanistan for almost two decades." And you and your party would like that support? "Of course, we need that economic assistance and diplomatic support and we didn't have it." Do you think there is any likelihood of you ever getting it? "Pakistan is a critical country," she says.
Musharraf is undeniably under siege at the moment, which has grave implications beyond his own country. There have been violent protests against his dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry on the flimsiest of grounds, provoking fears that the government is attempting to muzzle the independence of the judiciary, and newspapers such as Dawn - set up by the lawyer and founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah - have been alerting the international media community about unacceptable levels of government control.
Meanwhile in the same capital, ostensibly the very stronghold of government power, we witness the strange spectacle of stick-waving, burkha-clad schoolgirls - like a fundamentalist version of St Trinian's - kidnapping suspected brothel-keeping madames (an elderly woman, her daughter, daughter-in-law and six-month-old granddaughter), and then the police officers themselves who came to release the captives. But the more one reads about this incident, the more alarming it becomes. In Feburary, 3,000 of these female students from the hardline Jamia Hafsa madrassa connected to the Lal Masjid mosque, occupied the only children's library in Islamabad, where they remain, saying that any action to remove them will be met with violence. The black-shrouded girls have also been seen in the company of male students carrying Kalashnikov rifles. During their protests, the students chant the names of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader.
The headquarters of Pakistan's intelligence security agency - the ISI - are close to the mosque and it has been reported that several of its members are regulars there. Some believe that there are rogue elements within the agency who have strong ties with al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Ever since Musharraf chose to back America's War on Terror, there have been calls in the mosque for his death.
Even to those of us in the West who are not nuanced in the labyrinthine historical intricacies of the politics of Pakistan, there is a growing concern that what happens so many miles away has the potential to make a devastating impact on our own lives. Dutiful English-born boys, often from blameless Muslim families, continue to travel to Pakistan - some already radicalised but not all - to one or other madrassas, emerging from those religious schools with a hatred of their parents' adopted country, and we are all too aware of where that can lead.
It was my understanding that Musharraf's inability to control the Taleban-controlled Waziristan - on the Pakistan border of Afghanistan - was an inevitable source of disquiet for his American backers and likely to make them at the very least question his leadership qualities. Benazir Bhutto's response to a recent treaty which had been negotiated was: "My party would not have allowed the Taleban to become such a huge force that they would need to sign a peace treaty." What the West wants to avoid at all costs is the possibility of the fundamentalists seizing power. And according to Bhutto, who is, of course, hardly an impartial observer, Musharraf, far from being weak, is strategically catering to the extremists in order to convince the US that unless they continue to back him their worst fears will be realised. Does Bhutto know whether Musharraf is anxious about losing US backing? "The indications are that he is confident that he has the support of the White House and that because of the situation arising with Iran's stand-off with the West he feels that he will continue to be a key ally," she says. "In fact, as far as General Musharraf is concerned, I think he feels that he's got the West in his hands." A provocative remark fully intended, one feels, to pack a well-aimed punch.
Bhutto believes that the PPP is feared by the current powers that be because "my party has a modern agenda, speaks for the ordinary Pakistanis and has grass-roots support," she says. "And they dislike me because I'm a woman and because my father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And they have a hatred for the Bhutto family, stemming from the fact that my father was able to defeat them in the elections - and the only political party that has defeated this army slate or generals' slate in my father's time and my time has been the PPP."
When she was first elected in 1988, there wasn't an awareness of what was really happening in the madrassas - "But by the time I became prime minister for the second time in 1993, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a terrorist state and my government worked very closely with the international community to reform the madrassas and restore law and order." None of this was painless, she says, "there was bloodshed in the streets of Karachi [which was flooded with Afghan refugees in the Eighties and Nineties, and there were terrible scenes of political and sectarian violence] and I can't tell you how awful it was getting daily reports of 30 people killed and 20 people killed, but I ended the army operation there after one year, and in the second year the raids went down and I remember how happy I was when I got my first report of 'zero deaths'. These militant terrorists hold whole cities and towns and villages hostage, and it's not easy confronting them."
Bhutto represents everything the fundamentalists hate - a powerful, highly-educated woman operating in a man's world, seemingly unafraid to voice her independent views and, indeed, seemingly unafraid of anything, including the very real possibility that one day someone might succeed in killing her because of who she is. Her father brought her up to believe in their Islamic faith's certainty that life and death are in God's hands. Perhaps it is also her sense of destiny - the daughter, rather than her brothers, groomed from such an early age to be the political heir to her father, despite her initial reluctance - which explains her equanimity in the face of death. "My father always would say, 'My daughter will go into politics... My daughter will become prime minister', but it's not what I wanted to do. I would say, 'No, Papa, I will never go into politics.' As I've said before, this is not the life I chose; it chose me," she says. "But I accepted the responsibility and I've never wavered in my commitment." Does this unshakable certainty make it easier for her to accept whatever happens to her? "Yes, in a way, because I don't fear death. I remember my last meeting with my father when he told me, 'You know, tonight when I will be killed, my mother and my father will be waiting for me.' It makes me weepy," she says, as her eyes fill up, "but I don't think it can happen unless God wants it to happen because so many people have tried to kill me.
"Let me tell you, the World Trade Center was attacked twice, although most people only remember the second one. But the first time, in 1993, it was Ramzi Yousef and the second attack was by [his uncle] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has confessed and is in American custody, and both these men tried to kill me and failed. So they succeeded with the World Trade towers but they didn't succeed with me." This is quite a bravura statement, despite its matter-of-fact delivery. But then she does have an occasional tendency to express herself in hyperbolic terms, which makes her sound rather grandiose. In the new preface of her autobiography, she compares herself - in the context of her drawn-out reluctance to get married - to Elizabeth I, "who had also endured imprisonment and remained single".
When we discuss her initiative to privatise the public sector in Pakistan, inspired by Margaret Thatcher's policies (an unusual role model for a socialist, particularly one whose father introduced nationalisation to his country), she makes a point of saying: "Very few people realise that it was my government [in 1988-90] that was the catalyst for the privatisation of South Asia... And now when you look at socialism, it is redefined even in the Scandinavian countries and in England. But I redefined socialism. I was simply doing what other socialists were going to do - and ten years before Tony Blair."
At one point, I try unsuccessfully to draw Bhutto out on her social life at Harvard and Oxford, where she cut such a glamorous figure in her racy yellow sports car, and she explains why this whole area is so difficult for her to discuss: "When I returned to Pakistan, I was held on a pedestal. I was neither man nor woman. I was regarded as a saint."
Bhutto may be to some a somewhat tarnished saint by now, her reputation sullied by the corruption charges, of which the most damaging is the ongoing court case in Switzerland, ("Oh, they've gone on endlessly," she sighs), regardless of the eventual outcome. But she is still a force to be reckoned with, as witnessed by the febrile speculation over her comeback. She maintains that had her government remained in power, most of the world's terrorist tragedies would not have occurred - since the trail so often leads back to Pakistan.
"I really do think that there is at least some degree of causality that most major terrorist attacks took place when the extremists did not have to deal with a democratic Pakistani government, when they operated without check and oversight," she writes in the new conclusion to her book. "I believe that if my government had not been destabilised in Pakistan in 1996, the Taleban could not have allowed Osama bin Laden to set up base in Afghanistan, openly recruit and train young men from all over the Muslim world and declare war on America in 1998."
Bhutto knows that in returning to her homeland, she may be arrested or killed the moment she steps off the plane. This is why she is still careful not to discuss her travel arrangements: "I feel very jittery even if my best friend asks me when I'm leaving... I think the threat very much remains because my politics can disturb not only the military dictatorship in Pakistan, but it has a fall-out on al-Qaeda and a fall-out on the Taleban." Do all these thwarted attempts on her life make Bhutto feel weirdly immortal? "No," she says. "I know death comes. I've seen too much death, young death. My young brothers I have buried and my security guard who was like a brother to me was brutally gunned down, two years ago. I've been to the homes of people who have been hanged and people who were shot in the street so, no, I don't feel that there's anything like immortality."
As we sit in Bhutto's study talking about death and torture and mayhem, servants come and go bearing cups of green tea fragrant with cardamom. She is dressed up for the photographs in a dazzling emerald-green shalwar kameez, with matching power-shouldered blazer, and her hair is free of the white headscarf she dons in public. When I ask her whether she has expensive jewellery on, she laughs prettily: "Yes, I do. I confess." There are sapphires and pearl rings, all presents from her husband, as well as a socking great man's watch - "I like big watches... All the better to see you with, my dear" - the face packed with oversize diamonds. The cheapest ring, a simple metal band, was a gift from a follower intended to ward off evil omens.
Her mother, Nusrat, marooned in her lonely descent into Alzheimer's, is somewhere in the house; the only sign of her existence is an empty wheelchair behind the sweeping staircase. Bhutto mentions her often, and it is clear that this once stunning Iranian beauty has left as much of an imprint on her daughter as the father. Over lunch - I am served curry while our hostess abstemiously sticks to broth and tinned tuna - Bhutto surprisingly tells me that she is envious of the way I have let myself go. "My mother was always telling me that if I ever got fat, my husband would leave me for a younger woman," she says. A Pakistani friend of mine told me that in her country, this direct way of speaking is considered quite normal among upper-class society women and is not meant unkindly.
When she was a little girl, Bhutto's father used to say: "Well, if Nehru's daughter can become prime minister of India, my daughter can become prime minister of Pakistan." He was always telling her about women leaders, and that was where her radicalisation began: "Of course, I come from a region that has produced women leaders, and so he would talk to me about Indira Gandhi and Mrs Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Golda Meir and also Joan of Arc." These were remote figures for her as a girl and it was Margaret Thatcher's rise to power, which Bhutto was in England to witness, that really inspired her.
At Harvard, she joined the protests against the Vietnam War and read all the feminist bibles: "I was certainly emboldened by their writing because at that time at college there was still a debate between those women who wanted to get married and those of us who wanted to have careers." When I ask her whether she calls herself a feminist, she looks uncomfortable: "I consider myself a defender of women's rights, yes." You don't like the label? "Well, feminist has connotations of people burning their - ah - underwear in the streets." So did you burn your bra? "No, I never did," she smiles, "and that [bra] is another inappropriate word not used by good Muslim women!" It is at times like this that you catch a glimpse of what fun Bhutto can be, when she goes "off-message" and is distracted from the pressing concerns of her political future. She says that some of the best years of her life were at university: "Because I was free and in a different culture and the shops had all nice things and it was a different world, but that world ended when I returned to Pakistan in 1977."
Bhutto, like most people, is full of contradictions. For all her intelligence and determination, she definitely has her fragile side. You don't expect such a fierce spirit to quote Dale Carnegie as a fount of wisdom or to say that she reads self-help books "to try to cope with stress and anxiety". In her library, the different categories denoted by hand-written paper stickers, four shelves are devoted to self-help, with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much, Self Help for Your Nerves, Secrets about Men that Every Woman Should Know and The Art of Being a Lady.
This last book could have been penned by her mother. While Benazir's father was preparing her to be a political leader, Nusrat was instructing her daughter on how to dress for success. "She was very strict about exercising and her weight, and was always telling us that we had to groom ourselves properly and be neat, tidy and smart," Bhutto says. She still remembers the time when she was 13 and her mother, speaking to her relatives in Persian, complained "'Oh, Benazir has got so fat' in such a disappointed way that I at once redoubled my efforts to get thin." But it was years later, when she was already being half-starved in prison, that she became anorexic.
Now that Bhutto is 53, she finds herself tempted to relax about her appearance, the grooming and the nails. It's not in her nature to worry about such things and she doesn't like it, but it's become a discipline - and she's always on one diet or another. She talks about food like an addict, with her love for Ben & Jerry's caramel fudge ice-cream, chocolate cake and meringues: "I eat for comfort. If I want to reward myself, I eat. If I'm unhappy, I eat. I love my food. It's the one thing that doesn't complain to me or nag me or cause me any immediate unhappiness." Sometimes she fantasises about what it would be like to have a different life: "It would be so nice to have the luxury just to laze. So nice not to have to always get up and get dressed for some occasion. Always having to move from here to there, where everything is scheduled and even having lunch with my kids on their Easter break has to be slotted in. Maybe one day..."
It's hard to know what part Bhutto's husband would play in this fantasy life. I asked Benazir whether they were separated, as he has been living in New York since 2005, but she denies any rift, saying that he needs to be there for medical reasons (hypertension, diabetes, a heart attack) and she flies out to visit him at least once a month. In the past, Bhutto has conceded - and it has been put to her so very often - that her husband has been a political liability, with his nickname of Mr 10 Per Cent and his role as his wife's investment minister. But she also says that she is a human being as well as a politician and so, unlike Tessa Jowell, whatever the fall-out, she continues to stand by her man. Perhaps as a Muslim woman in the political spotlight, it is useful to have a husband in tow - however problematic he may be - but I catch a glimpse of genuine affection when she describes his arrival at their home in Dubai, after his last eight-year incarceration.
"You know, out of the 19 years that we have been married, he has spent 11½ in prison," she says. "And although we were all excited and the children had put out lights and balloons, I was obviously a little apprehensive about getting to know him again. It had been such a long period of time and life is all about shared experiences and I was wondering whether he was the same person I knew...." And...? I ask expectantly. "And I was very happy to see that he came in with the same jaunty smile," she says, and for a moment she looks quite different, and almost youthful, with her flushed cheeks and bright expression.
Bhutto's mother was always trying to line her up with "good husband" material, who would be dutiful and not cause her any problems. When she was finally ready to submit herself to an arranged marriage - as distinct from a forced marriage against the woman's will - what appealed to her about Zardari was that he seemed to be his own man, unafraid to stand up to her but confident enough in himself, presumably unusual in a Muslim man, to take a supporting role to his wife.
Was there ever a moment when she fell in love with her husband? "What is falling in love and what is love? You know, I love my husband and he loves me," she says. "I liked his humour and his looks. I liked the sense he gave me of protection and I Iiked the respect he gave me, OK?" Her husband cut new ground, she says, because people weren't used to a male spouse or having to deal with spouses who had a life or personality or income of their own. There were difficulties at first and lots of heated discussions. "He never imagined that I was going to get elected as prime minister [particularly since she was pregnant with their first child, who was born days before his mother went on to win the elections] although he was about the only person who didn't," she says. "He found it very difficult to cope with initially... the adulation, the scrutiny, the phone surveillance and lack of privacy. Now he's got used to it."
Although the received opinion is that it is Benazir whose standing has been besmirched by her husband's perceived wheeler-dealing, it is also true that he has suffered because of her career. This may explain why she falls apart, quite shockingly, when she recalls the time that her husband was tortured in prison - his neck slit, his tongue cut - and almost killed. "It is so awful when in your own country you cannot get justice," she is gulping with grief. "He nearly died and only narrowly survived and I didn't know what to do to save his life."
I find myself asking her, rather clinically, why she still gets so emotional. It seems odd, although not necessarily unappealing, that she isn't harder after everything she and her family have endured. "What upsets me is that I almost lost my husband," she says, blowing her nose loudly. "And also I was brought up to believe that human beings are good, which is why it shocks me to the core when I see human beings behaving badly." This is the self-help devotee speaking, rather than the tough political pragmatist. The man she calls her new partner in democracy, Nawaz Sharif, was prime minister when her husband was tortured and almost died, and was also responsible for initiating the corruption charges that the couple have been fighting ever since. And it was General Musharraf who Bhutto turned to then, to intercede on her husband's behalf.
Benazir is running late in her scheduled, slotted life. She goes to refresh her make-up for our photograph session, leaving me to chat to a group of men who have been waiting patiently to see her. They are all political exiles and Bhutto supporters - a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and a property developer - and they are polite but nervous. I pass the time reading an interview in Newsweek with Ali Saleem, the son of a retired army officer, and a bisexual transvestite who has a weekly television chat show which is cult viewing in Pakistan. When Benazir reappears, her face now caked in chalky white foundation and a gash of lipstick, I point out the passage where Saleem says that he has modelled himself on her. She asks the serious, suited men whether they think this is a good thing, and it's hard to know whether she's being playful or not. It is a suitably bizarre ending to an unforgettable meeting. It was her father who chose to call his first-born daughter Benazir, which means "without comparison". I think he would feel that she is living up to his name.