|Still Looking Eastwards
An Interview with Benazir Bhutto
The Army I fear has become a Brahmin class who cannot befriend the civilians, says the ‘Daughter of the East’
The government is dodging issues by hiding behind the religious elements or at times using the liberal face. They keep running between Maulana Sami and Omar Asghar Khan. If you try to sit on two stools you fall. Regimes do not last on external0. support, they come and go because of internal support … Pakistan is a land where political giants quickly turn into mental and moral pigmies. Should Benazir be counted among such tragedies or we can still look forward to the resurrection of dead hopes once so passionately attributes to her?
The NEWS dated July 23, 2000
PE: In the many statements attributed to you, you have urged the present regime to look towards handing over the reins of power to a democratic government. What role can you possibly hope to play in such a set-up, especially since you continue to live in self-imposed exile?
BB: A democracy frees the people living under its rule. It gives them the liberty to decide, and I feel that at this moment I need to fight to achieve that for my people. My fight for freedom should be based wherever it is more appropriate for me to fight and I fight for freedom from London because I feel I can be heard more clearly I was in Pakistan from 1996 till 1999 and during that course I found my task hampered and obstructed, I could not war for justice or the rights of the people and this seemed a better alternate.
PE: Your previous government have been severely criticized for their actions in the pest. Labeled kitchen cabinets, they still bear the grudge of alleged interference on the part of your husband. If given a chance to serve the people once again, how different do you foresee the structure to be?
BB: This perception, I feel, is incorrect, but it nevertheless persists. It is unfortunate in our country that so much is described in terms of personal conduct which is spoken of in judgmental terms rather than through clinical detachment. I really feel that the time has come to divorce politics from personalities and personal conduct and focus on issues. Especially when a person votes for a party, he must scrutinize their agenda and look at what is being done and spent on education and health. We need to look at the growth rate and revenue generation to arrive at an objective conclusion. But when it all degenerates into partisan hysteria it becomes difficult.
PE: Politics, however, is a circus of public figures and their personal lives being made common knowledge. President Bill Clinton’s case, if you recall, did nothing more than reinforce the belief that the people do expect their office-bearers to be above board.
BB: President Clinton had a case against him, there was an inquiry and he was exonerated of those charges and he continued in office. In our case, I did not continue to save my term, despite all those charges being politically motivated. That is the difference between the rule of law and kangaroo conclusions. A government should not be thrown out on the basis of unsubstantiated evidence.
PE: Do you feel that there is a degree of government induced harassment meted out to your party members currently positioned behind bars? How strong is your faith in the judicial system of Pakistan?
BB: I would like to urge a change of focus in this direction as well, I have looked at the cases pertaining to my husband and my self, and so have some independent jurists, and there is nothing in them except a brutal witch-hunt. We have suggested that there should be a truth and reconciliation commission so that the whole process of fabricating cases comes to an end. Now if a person is charged with fabricating a crime in the West, somebody who obstructs justice is penalised. In our country, the victim is victimised again and again.
PE: Ms Bhutto might create an uproar and get justice due to her being a high-profile personality. But think of the common man’s ordeal who has no contacts or connection and would be denied even a basic hearing to establish his innocence.
BB: Because I am Benazir Bhutto I do not get justice! If I was an ordinary person I could get round the way the ordinary people play with the system. But due to being “high profiled”, I am denied ordinary law on the paper nor do I have access to the law off the paper. Thus, we have the whole state gunning for me.
That the privileged get off the hook is perhaps a wrong perception, I have found people in my country get away with murder because they did not matter in the hierarchy of things and yet I have seen my family members – from my father to my husband – charged with murder and abused simply because that particular charge was a cloak for political elimination.
PE: Disagreeing with notion that the common man can hide in a proclaimed ‘law of the jungle’ the masses, too, are affected by what can be termed difficult laws. There are many undergoing trials under the blasphemy laws.
MBB: Yes, the judicial abuse is wrong, when the PPP was in power we brought about the amendment which General Pervaiz Musharraf announced. That no individual would be able to file a blasphemy case and that it would first go to the district commissioner, who would determine whether the blasphemy had really been committed or whether it was a trumped up case. I think it is wrong to abuse the judicial system and to use it as a weapon to abuse the minorities under a cloak of the judicial system, and there should be an end to that.
PE: Questioning about Ehtesab and NAB, one the instrument of a popularly elected regime and the other an arm used b the military rulers to correct the system. Talking as a former Prime Minister and not an affected party, when does one draw a distinction between constructive alternations to a damaged system and just another unfutile process of backtracking?
MBB: It is a matter of dispute whether the last elected government was a civil or political one. There are many in the country, including the PPP, who believe that Nawaz Sharif’s government came into power not on the strength of their votes but in collusion with the state apparatus. We thought it was wrong when Mr. Sharif concentrated the accountability law in his office. This government too is focussing on it, but we do feel that the issue of corruption needs to be tackled. For that we have proposed that there ought to be a law-based documentation. Documents speak. If there are no documents, it means there is no evidence, it has to end but the end must come by giving up the pretext to accountability whose agenda actually lies in setting political scores. We need to look more towards the real issues such as economics, social progress and an attempt to make ours a cleaner society.
PE: Reviewing the current budget, what can you conclude from the relative increase in the defence budget. The high expectations from the revenue generations and the sluggish development in the social sector. Is this all part of an effective cure for an ailing economy.
MBB: The nation stands at a crossroads where, on one hand, there are demands of spending on social and economic purposes. On other hand, people are not willing to cut down on defence budget. We cannot have it both ways, we have to make a choice. The question is whether we can continue with a foreign re policy that is no longer funded by the West. For the last fifteen years, we were given aid in the form of arms and money to fight communism and we used it to fight India. Now that the West is not longer giving us the money we are taking the money from the stomach of the poor man on the street to feed our machines, I have been opposing the economic policies that have been unleashed since 1996, ever since my government was overthrown. The difference, I tell you, is that we tried to bring investment into the country. I traveled to different capitals of the world to woo investors to come to Pakistan and create more jobs and industry – the growth rate did increase. After our removal, I feel, the focus shifted to driving the investment away and instruments were used to decrease the commanding heights Pakistani economy aspired to via politically motivated charges. Our economy has been shrinking and everyone is fixated on tax payment. The Musharraf regime keeps going on about the dishonest taxpayer. Yes there are dishonest taxpayers, every society has them, but even if you net them the economy is not going to grow. Reviving the economy is a separate issue, it can only be rescued through competitive prices, the infusion of fresh capital and political stability. Their three factors have been missing and the obsession of tax collection is just blinding us.
There are good and bad people everywhere. Even in the tax collecting authorities, certain mechanisms need to investigate specific cases. In the example of the pre-shipment companies case in which I have been convicted, the pre-shipment companies used to inspect goods before they entered Pakistan so customs duty could be taken appropriately. For every six rupees gathered previously, one extra rupee was gathered by this service. It prevented corruption, but the whole contract was scandalised and today over-invoicing is taking place and we are losing out on revenue. This is just one example of how revenues can be enhanced. I would say that even looking at the customs officials and the traders both sides have good and bad people. But we are all Pakistanis and therefore need to sit down to resolve matters. I am against the retrenchment of customs officials.
In US they spend fifty percent of their budget on law enforcement and therefore a fear of the law develops. We cannot have too few policemen or customs officials because those people will then enjoy absolute power.
The issue of ours being an undocumented economy comes in here and if we document an undocumented economy without getting assistance we will be driving capital further away. Our entire economy survives on the black economy which is all there through the legal instruments the bearer certificates that have been issued the bonus certificates that were issued during Ayub’s era. Looking at the whole problem in a one dimensional view is difficult, had I been in power I would have asked the Western donors how much money they were willing to pump in to compliment the money driven out once the documentation begins. Again this is a realistic approach that I am proposing and for that I suggest that we need democracy and political stability and we need systems that work not accusations and counter accusations.
PE: Being a champion of the democratic cause how do you evaluate the performance of the current regime?
B B : The performance of the present regime has been very disappointing. There were many people who were disturbed by Nawaz Sharif’s inclination to adopt fascist methods and welcomed the military intervention in the hope that it would put derailed democracy back on track. Indeed of focusing on the transfer of power the regime adopted a rather over-ambitious political and economic agenda and they have become bogged down with that. In many ways it is a continuation of the past. What has changed? If we look at the way the economy is functioning. The foreign policy of the two regimes is similar. There are no solid reasons in their labour policies or those for women or minorities. Instead of a change in the direction, it was more of a squabble on the top layer for power, General Musharraf came on television and said that the accountability process had been very one-sided but what has been changed that? He spoke about inter-provincial alienation but what has been done to change that? Mr Sharif’s father has not been arrested in the name of old age but my father in law is rotting in jail because he happens to be from a minority province! What about water distribution? So looking at the situation it is an over-ambitious agenda and the army needs to adopt a new role towards dealing with public. They cannot go on confronting the public about the electricity bills. How can you bring the civil and military elements into open confrontation? It would al lead to the undermining of the country. I think it is time to pause and reflect but I do not think that some of the people around Musharraf care what happens to the country. They know that if elections are held they will not be able to hold office. Due to that they are willing to justify dictatorship.
Looking at the last decade can we honestly say that democracy failed only because of corrupt leaders or were other apparatus involved? The IJI was formed in 1988 to defeat me. There are records of such instruments saying they skimmed public sector banks of money to bankroll PPP candidates. How can they go to court saying that Nawaz was elected in the last election without a mandate when there was a soldier in each poling booth? We are al players in this the military the people and the politicians and let us sit down and talk it together the going alone and talk attitude is having a backlash which is not healthy or conductive to the development of our society.
The only good side is that in the last ten years of deregulation a free press and NGOs have come up. The emergence of press and NGOs as a social class will bolster the political development in our country.
PE: How strong do you fee is the interference of the IMF in our economic policies?
B B : The IMF dictates our policies because it loans us money as long as we are not willing to cut down on military expenditure we will keep borrowing from them to buy and if we borrow money they do ask ‘what are you going to raise’ and we say petrol, gas and the nation gets caught in a never ending hole. If they want to have a defensive foreign policy then please stop complaining about high utility crisis and if they want to curb inflation then change the foreign policy in view of the new world order.
The common perception among ordinary Pakistanis is that these people do not understand the problems of the masses. Everyone can buy a book to be tennis champion but you cannot become one by just reading the book. Similarly technocrats are not the only solution to the economic dilemma of Pakistan. One of the greatest growth periods of the middle class and the workers was during m term and that is because we belied on the people rather that foreign aid.
PE: Despite strongly projecting democracy, the Americans have slowly begun to accept the present government.
BB: It is an issue that remains disputed. They can feel good and think that they have received acceptance. But, unlike General Zia’s regime, there is no aid flowing forth to prove it. I do see aid coming in if they have over Osama bin Laden or sign the [Nuclear] test ban treaty. The government is dodging issues by hiding behind the religious elements or at times using the liberal face. They keep running between Maulana Samiul Haq and Omar Asghar Khan. If you try to sit on two stools, you fall. Regimes do not last on external support, they come and go because of internal support.
PE: Would you be willing to join hands with a person like Kulsoom Nawaz for the sake of democracy?
BB: We are part of the grand alliance whose aim is to support democracy.
Despite all the reservations about Nawaz’s time in power, we would put personal differences aside for sake of national interests. The PML has to decide whether it is going to practice politics of the past or head in a new direction of a democratic future.
PE: From the ideology on which Pakistan was founded, to the roti kapra makaan slogan of the PPP upon its conception till the turn of the khakis once again, what ails the republic ? Bad governance or sheer bad luck?
BB: Well, it is a very difficult question, I would not call it bad luck or bad governments but sheer inability to come to terms with the democratic verdict and the norms that apply to it. Whatever the results of democracy, good or bad, they should be accepted. We cannot have a group of self appointed people placed above the rest. The ailments of the past will come to haunt us in the future as well. India and Pakistan began their journey side by side but whilst today nine of its citizens lie in the bracket of the richest people of the world, we have not done as well. Reason being they enjoyed democracy and the freedom that came along with whilst we endured dictatorship. The army, I fear, has become a brahmin class who cannot befriend the civilians.
PE: It is unfair to blame all our ills on just martial law. In comparison with India, we are smaller in size and they have enjoyed certain things from the beginning like a high literacy rate?
BB: When I took over the literacy rate was 26 per cent, in the country and it was increased to 35 per cent. By now it should have been 45 per cent. In our term we opened 48,000 schools. It is funny that in our country the people who are poor have ore sense that the rich, educated class. When my brother was tragically killed, a story was concocted that my husband was behind it because Mir had my husband’s mustache shaved off ! the educated lapped the story up. If the economy is doing well, your jobs are safe. It does not take a degree to understand that.
A lot has been said, and when you are prime minister there are expectations for you to be superwoman, Mir was killed steps from my father’s home, I believe that neither my husband nor I were behind it. I have suffered in ways more than just the loss of a brother. The beneficiaries have been other people.
PE: Why has PPP lost its appeal with the masses? Once the voice of the people, it now seems to have lost most of the basic grass root level support.
BB: We had a weak party structure in places like Karachi or Lahore, but our strength I feel still exists in the backward sections of the country and with the poorer people. We are struggling with the weak points, our manifesto committees are trying to draw a program of anew PPP to attract the element of the urban youth to our party. it is a national party with members from Khyber to Karachi and we have no had democracy for a long time we are not very organized.
PE: The court case against Ghinwa Bhutto suggests little more than a family terribly divided, after many deaths and tragedies should not the remaining members of the Bhutto family stick together?
BB: My sister has filed a case under the Islamic succession law. we are Muslims and my father’s estate was never divided up. I would have like to see it outside court, but my father was killed in 1979, and it is really unfair to see a foreigner take over everything that belonged to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
PE: Being a woman you are accused of having failed to live up to the expectations of the women of your country?
BB: Do not judge me just by Pakistan, but by the rest of the world. When I was prime minister, that was the time when most was done for Pakistan. we allowed NGOs to function, appointment of women to superior judiciary, recruitment of 50,000 lady health workers, reduction of the growth rate to 3.1 per cent. These I fell are achievements. Problems are always going to remain, but judge us from where we start off and where we left.
PE: Pakistan suffers from a very negative perception abroad, accused of heading towards the Taliban culture. Why is it moving backwards at a time as the rest of the world is speeding ahead?
BB: Emulation of the Taliban worries me. they are a Pakhtoon warrior groups who believe in ethnic discrimination and it is almost suicidal to move toward that. Look at the bloodshed ethnicity caused in Europe. I would not like to see it being repeated in Pakistan. the romance with the Jehadi element must be erased out of the new generation. The inclination towards dogma and fanaticism must be eradicated, sides should not be taken between religions or even genders. Let us hope General Pervaiz Musharaf lives up to his promise and on 14th August announces the reforms that have been promised to a group who may be a minority due to race but are a majority due to being Pakistanis.
PE: Twenty one years after father’s death thrust you into the political arena, what are the regrets and what can you look forward to? Can the Daughter of the East say that ZAB would be proud of his heir.
BB: I was very young when I entered politics and besides a past also lies a future. I grew up during the cold was which has now ended as the world moves towards to a new order. Pakistan, unfortunately, is moving in a different direction and I would like to see it under my leadership, to integrate it with the global economy and to uphold global values pertaining to human rights, terrorism, narcotics and labor rights.
The time has come to pick up the pieces and build a new subcontinent. I mean new because Quaid-e-Azam said that partition would be the beginning of peace and reconciliation. We have failed the founder of our nation. It pains me to see the Kashmiris suffer and we have proposed that the two countries should have talks for having open and safe borders there.
Hope is needed for a dream in which Pakistan emerges as an integral player in the global arena.
Kashmir is not an issue of what is more or less important. Every single human life is important to me. we need to find a way to build the confidence to help resolve the issue through peaceful dialogue I welcome the move by the India to release some of the Huriyat Party workers and have talks. The South Asian community must rise to the challenge and strengthen itself through a joint market and a powerful economic union.