How a ‘Wisp of a Girl’ Conquered Pakistan

With half her adult life spent either in exile or in prison, Benazir Bhutto might have lived like a medieval princess, but she died like an ordinary, modern Pakistani. When the assassin struck, Ms. Bhutto, the former prime minister, was doing what so many Pakistanis most love to do: electioneering.

Two months earlier, when she had arrived in Karachi after eight years in exile, there were legitimate questions about her democratic credentials. Even her die-hard supporters were embarrassed by her blatant deal with Pakistan’s military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, the very man who had publicly vowed that she would never return to the country.

Yet when she arrived at the Karachi airport, her reception was spectacular — the biggest street party the city had seen in decades. My friend Moeen Qureshi, a lapsed Bhutto supporter, took his children to the rally “just out of curiosity, to relive my youth.” Fortunately, he left before two suicide bombers struck her convoy, killing more than 130. “This woman,” Mr. Qureshi told his children as they later watched Ms. Bhutto on TV being sped away from the devastation, “is bulletproof Bhutto.”

After that attack, she did seem like the prime-minister-in-waiting. Her party was resurgent, the United States was backing her, and even President Musharraf had started telling journalists — in a purposefully coy tone — that they shouldn’t be so sure that she would return to office a third time.

By this time, I, too, was back in Pakistan. As I traveled from the capital, Islamabad, to my hometown of Lahore to Karachi, everywhere I went she seemed to have kindled a new optimism. It was both endearing and pathetic how, with every stop she made, the local politicians would practically stumble over each other to be seen with her, to receive her blessing.

After the Karachi attack, Ms. Bhutto confided to another friend of mine, a former police officer who knew her well: “I am not sure if they are actually trying to kill me or just scare me. But if I get scared and confine myself to my house, that will be my political death.”

Much has been made since her death of her apparent recklessness. But she had done her calculations and reached the conclusion that the only way she could rally her supporters was by going to them.

“She wasn’t as reckless as people are making her out to be,” the former police officer told me over the phone. “The bulge that you saw under her shalwar kameez wasn’t extra pounds that she had put on during exile. She always wore a bulletproof vest in public.”

I last saw her in a London flat, at a press conference shortly before she departed for Pakistan. There were more than 100 journalists crammed into the small living room of the home of her security adviser, Rehman Malik. She was asked questions concerning the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear program, about the judicial crisis in the country and about her party’s election platform.

As I listened to her feed sound bites to the Western news media, I remembered seeing her as a child campaigning on behalf of her father, then on death row — “a wisp of a girl that generals were scared of,” in the wonderful phrase of the poet Habib Jalib. (How hard it was for me to reconcile, years later as a journalist, the image of that child with the new one of the former prime minister who, according to her many detractors, would barter her country’s hopes for a diamond necklace.)

In the London press conference, she was asked about her deal with Mr. Musharraf, which was going to allow her to return without facing charges for the rampant corruption that occurred under her watch. It was a question that had become the bane of her existence.

Suddenly, her calculated, irritated voice mellowed and she spoke like the naïve, passionate activist I had seen as a child: “I lost my father. Both my brothers were killed violently. Scores of my party workers have died in the struggle for democracy, and now our citizens are being killed indiscriminately every day. We have to stop this. And in order to stop this I’ll talk to anyone that I have to.”

Throughout her career there were attempts to portray her as a Westernized woman of questionable character. Shortly after her death, I was talking with another friend, one who had never thought much of her. “Remember those leaflets we used to collect before her election?” he asked. He was referring to the 1988 election campaign, when her political rivals hired planes to throw leaflets with photographs that were doctored to show her wearing bikinis and miniskirts and dancing at college parties. It did not stop the people from voting her into power.

For Pakistan’s military-mullah establishment, she always remained a bad girl. Not just any ordinary privileged heir to a political dynasty, but a girl half the nation swooned over; a sharp political operator, a speaker who even in her stilted Urdu could have a million people dance to the wave of her hand. And she was not a revolutionary by a long shot — but she could bring people to her rallies, and more important, polling stations by promising them jobs and reasonable electricity bills.

On Thursday a heartbroken Bhutto-lover called and left a teary message on my voice mail. He just wanted to share his grief, but reminded me of something else: “She might have lost her political battle, but look at it this way. She raised three kids, took care of an ailing mother and still managed to stay in South Asia’s most notorious arranged marriage.”

Benazir Bhutto died only a couple of miles from the Army House in Rawalpindi, President Musharraf’s official residence, a place with such excellent security that he has refused to vacate it even since his retirement from the army. Obviously, there is no such safe haven for ordinary Pakistanis, or for the politicians who want to reach out and touch their lives.

Mohammed Hanif, the head of the BBC’s Urdu Service and the author of the forthcoming novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes.