Democracy, she said!

In Local
March 31, 2024

Usually, compilations of any sort are termed as boring by readers because they are a collection of already published work, which thanks to the World Wide Web is already out there. However, veteran journalist Zahid Hussain’s Face to Face with Benazir is different in this regard since it tackles subjects that are still relevant to the Pakistani public. Not only does it take the audience back in time and cover everything from Benazir Bhutto’s iconic comeback in 1986, but also covers her rise and fall for the next 16 years.

In 14 exclusive interviews published in leading magazines of the day, Zahid Hussain asks the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairperson tough questions who replies to them in the best manner forward. Lightstone Publishers’ decision to publish those 14 interviews together was nothing short of a masterstroke, and if you get to read them ahead of the upcoming elections, you will realise that only the calendar has changed, the issues persist.

Reading this book is like watching Hollywood flick Frequency in which a son gets to talk to his already dead father through a radio ‘frequency’. The issues Benazir Bhutto raised in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s still exist, and although she is thankful in one of the interviews that she hasn’t been assassinated, she somehow knew how her life would come to an end.

To her detractors, she was born with a 'silver spoon' and grew up as the daughter of first the foreign minister, then the President, and later the Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. They might believe that she wasn’t fit for the job and only became the party head because of her Bhutto connection but once they get to read her views, they will realise that she possessed a sharp mind, remained humble, and always spoke of the people no matter how hard the situation may be for her.

Through these interviews, you not only get to know about BB’s transition from General Zia ul Haq’s nemesis to becoming the first female Prime Minister in the Islamic World, which was followed by her game of musical chairs with Nawaz Sharif, courtesy of the establishment behind the scenes. She talks about the hardships she had to face when she was not in power and even named those responsible, but never stooped low to their level when she made her comeback.

In her own words, Benazir abhorred revenge, hated horse trading, and loathed those who had deceived her. By reading her words penned by someone else, you get the feeling of a well-written biography where the different moods of the subject are captured perfectly. Although not much is said about the years she spent before returning to Pakistan in 1986, she does drop a few hints. Not only does that show that she always cared for the present and had an eye on the future, but rarely looked at the rearview mirror since it didn’t concern her.

The narration ahead of each interview is also a treat to read but it would have been much better had the author added some more details such as where the interview was conducted, whether she spoke to him on the telephone or in person, whether the venue for the interaction was the Prime Minister’s House, her home town Larkana or someplace else. It is clear in some interviews as to where it took place but additional details would have helped those readers who weren’t born at that time or were too young to remember.

The book holds sentimental value for the older readers and would prove to be informative for the younger ones since it caters to both. While it will take the older ones on a trip down memory lane, it will teach the newer readers a lot of things such as how to take an interview, how to report an incident without being biased, and how to give respect to the interviewee.

Unlike an autobiography or biography, this book doesn’t cover the entire life of the subject; instead, it talks to the person 14 times in 16 years, with each instant taking place before or after something very important. If the first interview was conducted in 1986 when BB returned to Pakistan, the next two were taken before Zia ul Haq’s plane crash in which BB predicted that 'Zia’s era is dead'.

If that’s not enough to impress the readers, she returned with the fourth interview right after being sworn in as the Prime Minister in which she chalked out her plan, whereas she complains about her character assassination in the next interview taken six months later. How she felt six months after she was forced out from the government is something she talks about in the sixth interview whereas blames PPP turncoat Jam Sadiq Ali for his illegal activities for the PPP’s inability to win the elections, a few months later.

Before resuming power in late 1993, BB gave two more interviews to the author in which she talked about the issues of the people and while she wholeheartedly defended her husband Asif Ali Zardari who was imprisoned for alleged corruption charges, she also gave pointers as to what would make Pakistan work.

After returning to power in 1993 for the second and last time, BB spoke her mind and explained to the interviewer that her objective was to give Pakistan a clean and effective government. However, when she was back in the opposition, she refused to stay silent and pointed out the many flaws in her arch-rival Nawaz Sharif’s strategy.

Although she never came to power after her second term, Benazir Bhutto exudes great confidence, unmatchable grace, and a sharp mind in the last three interviews, taken between March 2001 and July 2002. In these interviews, she talks about the tape scandal that eventually vindicated her and her husband but also gives her views on General Pervez Musharaf’s conduct as Head of State. She minces no words in attacking the dictator but also makes it visible that she would not bow down to threats and return to her country, to her people, and to serve them in the best way possible.

Sadly, BB was assassinated in December 2007 and although her party won the elections she was campaigning for, she wasn’t there to see the PPP’s return to power. Instead, the party carries forward her legacy to date; she would have been proud of her eldest son Bilawal Bhutto when he followed his maternal grandfather’s footsteps to become Pakistan’s Foreign Minister a couple of years back and one hopes her takes the Bhutto torch forward and carry on her good work.

What’s most interesting in the book is the fact that nothing seems to have changed in the last 38 years in Pakistan; the poor are getting poorer, and anti-PPP forces are still struggling in Sindh, a province where MQM is still fighting for the rights of Muhajirs; Punjab is still dominated by the Sharifs while the military has refused to leave the electoral process alone because a lot is at stake for them too.

Be it her views on the Afghan War (yes, it has been around for a long time!) and the refugees, her defense of General Hamid Gul's sacking as ISI chief, or her prediction regarding the country's future, whatever she said in this book still seems appropriate, valid and fresh. If her followers want to know how she would have felt today, grab this book. Yes, there are a few typos here and there (they bug the phone, not hug the phone!) but what it brings to the table is unmatchable. Also, a few highlighted comments from the interviews would have broken the monotonous look of the book, but the publishers might have opted out of it due to space.

Then there is the scarcity of photographs in this book which is odd considering Benazir Bhutto’s life and times are well-documented by photojournalists and wire agencies. A few coloured images of Benazir Bhutto would have added weight to these interviews because it would have shown her transition from a young leader in 1986 to a graceful Prime Minister in the 90s. Yes, the images might be available on the internet but Zahid Hussain interviewing Benazir Bhutto between 1986 and 2002 would surely have lifted the reader's mood.

On the whole Face to Face with Benazir is a wonderful book to read in the current political scenario where few people are hoping for a change and the rest believe that only a miracle can save the country. In such testing times, words of wisdom from BB can steer them all in the right direction.

Omair Alavi is a freelance contributor who writes about film, television, and popular culture

All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer



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