Thursday, 3 January 2008

Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi

It was very sad to hear of Benazir Bhutto's assassination last week. Like many other Indians, I have had mixed feelings towards Benazir. On the one hand, she was smart, articulate, Westernised (and I mean that as a compliment) and came to power both times through democratic elections. But on the other, she was not particularly friendly to India when she was prime minister of Pakistan. I don't know what peculiar property the seat of power in Pakistan has, but anyone sitting there tends to become anti-India. It's a bit like the mythical throne of Vikramaditya which conferred wisdom on anyone who sat on it, just in reverse. The memory of Benazir Bhutto to Indians is predominantly one of the hopes for peace belied.

I just want to record two thoughts here. I feel really bad for her young children. It must be absolutely terrible for them to lose their mother in this way. And now, with the nomination of her young son Bilawal (19) as leader of the party, there is fresh danger too. I hope and pray that they stay safe.

My second thought is about the many similarities between Benazir Bhutto and India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, some uncanny, some funny.

Both belonged to political dynasties and were the offspring of former prime ministers (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, respectively). Both were assassinated when they were in opposition, while they were campaigning before an election. Both their parents were assassinated too (I consider the judicial hanging of Z.A. Bhutto by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq an act of political vendetta and therefore an assassination). Both had siblings who died violent and unnatural deaths (Murtaza Bhutto shot dead in unexplained circumstances, Shahnawaz Bhutto found dead in a hotel room, Sanjay Gandhi killed in an air crash). Both had their sons enter politics as well (Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Rahul Gandhi).

The two did meet when they were prime ministers of their respective countries, at least once that I remember. Rajiv Gandhi made a personal reference to the Simla accord signed by Z.A. Bhutto and Indira Gandhi in his speech when he said, "Your father and my mother..." This personal touch was later criticised by political commentators when the India-Pakistan relationship deteriorated again. It was sarcastically referred to as the your-father-and-my-mother diplomacy.

I think Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi were both more comfortable in English than in their respective languages. Left to themselves, they would have been part of the elite of their countries who can easily survive without speaking any local language. But fortunately or unfortunately, politics in countries with large populations that don't speak English forces leaders to speak the local language - with hilarious results.

I remember watching parts of Rajiv Gandhi's speech in Assam after an accord was signed with the agitating Assam Gana Parishad. He said in Hindi, "Hum accord ko implement karenge, letter mein aur spirit mein" (We will implement the accord in letter and in spirit).

Likewise, I saw a short clip of Benazir Bhutto making a speech in Urdu to the Pakistani parliament, "Main is assembly ki floor par declare karti hoon..." (I declare on the floor of this assembly...)

I remember laughing out loud and exclaiming, "This woman is Rajiv Gandhi's sister!"

Neither could speak Urdu/Hindi without resorting to English on every alternate word.

Well, there ends another era. I wish the Bhutto children strength and courage in the days ahead. And I hope Pakistan comes out of its current turmoil and becomes stable, peaceful and democratic once more, if not for its own sake, then at least for India's. While India has always lived with the threat of a hostile and militarily strong Pakistan, a stable enemy country is far preferable to one where law and order have completely broken down and unpredictable violence can spill over the border at any time.
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