TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Democracy in the Line of Fire: On Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination

State-sponsored suppression of political opposition is the first step for a polity’s regression to political tyranny. Use of terror and torture without recourse to trial is the second. Use of extremist forces to kill political opponents is the third and final step to assure the death of democracy. Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007), the former prime minister of Pakistan, was well aware of all three steps when she boldly opposed General Parvez Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency and suspension of human rights and free speech in Pakistan on November 3, 2007. Ms. Bhutto’s political career was shaped by the struggle between populist and absolutist power, and informed by the moderate and extremist ideologies, that often threatened to obstruct democratic lifelines of Pakistan. These struggles were rehearsed within the family as they were performed on the public stage. Her father and political mentor was the former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who was executed in 1979 on charges of having ordered the murder of a political opponent. Her brother Murtaza opposed her allegedly ambitious “misrepresentation” of their father’s democratic political legacy; a family dispute that led to her brief political falling-out with her mother Nusret in the early 90s. Her husband Asif Ali Zardari—one of the main reasons for her last departure from Pakistan in 1999—faced many charges of corruption and political opposition on grounds of abuse of spousal power.

Against and in opposition to all the familiar and familial connotations of daughter, sister, and wife that can be read in obituaries everywhere now, Benazir Bhutto stood out as an ambitious and complex woman politician of the postcolonial world. Even as she acquired myriad epithets on the Indian subcontinent—Perpetually Pregnant Prime Minister and Mistress of Misrule, to name just two—as years went by, Bhutto seemed to be gaining deeper insight into the politics of a politically turbulent and unpredictable nation. Many of these insights were gained in exile—albeit it should be stated that this exilic experience was largely a result of her own corrupt politics as a Prime Minister. Nonetheless, as she watched her nation from a distance, she made entries and reentries that were truly “Benazir” (meaning: unique/beyond comparison) to the self-advancement of her political career. In 1986, following the death of General Zia-ul-Haq, Bhutto had returned to a post-military rule Pakistan; her populist rise to power was fueled by the polity’s hope for a revival of democratic structures of governance in an Islamic-majority republic on the one hand, and U.S. support on the other. Her own political follies, highlighted by the cover-ups of corruption charges on her husband, led to her political decline, and in 1999, she had to leave her home country.

The Pakistan Ms. Bhutto left behind was a nation challenged by internal struggles between moderate and extreme right-wing political factions. The Pakistan she returned to in 2007, however, was different by more than one order of magnitude. It was a post-9/11 Pakistan; the nation and its ruler were acknowledged worldwide as a major ally in the war against terror.

That Bhutto lost her life to terrorism—state-sponsored or Islamist, we are not sure yet—does not come as a surprise. Between early November and late December 2007, the script of the political and social drama in Pakistan was edited and re-edited through a curious process of substitution through elimination. While the state of emergency was declared in the wake of rising extremism in Pakistan, on November 29, General Parvez Musharraf staged his own extreme makeover by declaring that he was President Musharraf (for the second time since June 2001). On December 15, after several weeks of international pressure he “un-declared” the state of emergency and set January 8, 2008, as the date of general elections. Finally, the politics of gunpowder, treason, and plot that started on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day this year came to a full circle on December 27, as we witnessed the making of another world-historical file-shot: Ms. Bhutto, waving to the people from the sunroof of a vehicle after a political rally in Rawalpindi, falling victim to the action of a by-now-familiar professional—the anonymous “suicide bomber.”

The tragedy of democratic governance, punctuated by a democratic farce, returned as a spectacle. Rawalpindi is today the world’s Kars—the politically eventful town in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (2004).

Two days into Ms. Bhutto’s assassination, we have learned a few theories of the cause of Ms. Bhutto’s death: a bullet, shrapnel; no bullet, no shrapnel; a fracture in the skull, but not due to the bullet or the shrapnel and so forth. We have also learned a great deal about the executive force behind the assassination: the Department of Information of the Government of Pakistan has named terrorist organizations such as the Taliban or Al Qaeda or both; the latter have since denied responsibility; the Government of Pakistan has insisted on the factual accuracy of their claims, and so forth. Meanwhile the U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for an “independent international investigation” of the cause of Ms. Bhutto’s death.

The efficacy of these claims and counterclaims will be decided in days, months, and years to come. The exact role played by the national and international actors will fuel the imagination of political commentators for a while. As events unfold, it will become clear if the international community decides in favor of an international investigation, or decides to accept the findings of the Government of Pakistan.

More recently, Ms. Bhutto herself demonstrated a deeper understanding of unethical implications of such a nexus, at least in thought and word. In a telephone interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on November 3, she succinctly stated: “In my view, dictatorship fuels extremism. The extremists feed off dictatorship, and dictatorship feeds off the extremists. The dictatorship needs the extremists to justify its existence, and the extremists need dictatorship to expand and spread.” In the same interview Ms. Bhutto had admitted to the threat to her life, but had emphasized instead her predicament to assure the revival of democratic governance in her home country. The solution to the “ascendancy in the activities of the extremists,” she pointed out, was “respecting the constitution, respecting the rule of law, and investing in the people, trusting the people, and allowing the people to determine their future.”

How Ms. Bhutto and the Pakistan Peoples Party would have fared in the election, how successful would she have been in upholding of the constitution of Pakistan are questions that will be a matter of speculation for ages to come. What can be stated with certainty today is that Ms. Bhutto’s death and the blow to democracy in Pakistan must be understood in a transnational, transregional, and transcontinental context, as a problem of democratic governance with global dimensions, through a cosmopolitan obligation of publics beyond Pakistan. The political drama that happens between the Hindukush and the Arabian Sea, between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, on the geopolitical unit known as the Indian subcontinent, is consequent of, and has consequences on what happens on the rest of the world stage. The violence that followed the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947—culminating in the assassination of M. K. Gandhi in 1948 cannot be discarded as a civil war between Hindus and Muslims who could not get along; the immediate history of British colonialism in the subcontinent (on Fox News Network I’ve heard it as being referred to as the “Eastern Line”) and the redistribution of power in the world after Second World War were deeply connected to the violence. New Delhi and other parts of India were in flames in 1984 after the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi; the politics of Sikh extremism wasn’t centered around Amritsar or Delhi but involved Sikh separatists in Canada and the UK. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a Tamilian suicide bomber in 1993 was not due to a southern Indian’s intolerance toward a northern leader; it had broad and deep links to the still unresolved issue of peacekeeping in Northern Sri Lanka. These historical moments from South Asian history should by no means serve to conflate the unique and complex set of political ambition and purpose associated with each one of these events. What is common is the fact that when the very foundations of democracy shook in this part of the world, the reasons and the consequences were locatable beyond local and national boundaries. In other words, if extremist measures or the politics of terrorism is to be viewed as a threat to “global” democracy, the attention to regional particularity should not reject universally applicable nexus between power, absolute power, and extremism. [1]

This would perhaps be the best lesson to be learned from Ms. Bhutto’s second homecoming. As we try to achieve clarity on the democratic future of Pakistan, the international community cannot continue to elide the undemocratic structures of governance practiced by its allies in the war against terror.

A democratic possibility can be destructed in a second; its corpus exhumed in haste without the need for an autopsy. The symbolic import of this statement in the context of South Asian and World politics will be unpacked for us someday—perhaps when the sequel to Musharraf’s autobiography In the Line of Fire (2007) is available for purchase.


1. Elizabeth Bumiller, “How Bhutto Won Washington,” New York Times, December 30, 2007. Bumiller’s emphasis on the “feudal” (read: mainly local) dimensions of Pakistan’s politics can be characterized in one word: provincial.

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