What will Benazir Bhutto do?
LARKANA, Pakistan – When Benazir Bhutto comes back to Pakistan, Mukesh Kumar will get a better job. His family will reclaim the 36 fertile acres of rice paddies that they lost to squatters six years ago. His father will be cured of his paralysis.Kumar, an illiterate, 35-year-old gas station janitor, believes all of these things because, like many people in this tumbledown town on the sunbaked plains of southern Pakistan, he holds an almost religious devotion to Bhutto.”When she comes, she will solve all of our problems,” Kumar said.But one thing the former prime minister is not expected to do Thursday – when she flies back to Pakistan after eight years in exile – is dislodge the nation’s deeply unpopular president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Indeed, she may have helped to save him.Bhutto, 54, has built her dramatic and controversial political career on fighting the military establishment that has run Pakistan for more than half its history. But this fall, with Musharraf at his most vulnerable point since he seized power in an army-led coup in 1999, Bhutto cut a deal.He quashed the corruption cases against her. She kept her supporters out of anti-Musharraf demonstrations and ensured that lawmakers in her party did not resign in protest of his re-election. Pakistan’s odd couple could be sharing power by January, if she succeeds in her quest to win back the prime minister job for a third term.Bhutto’s cooperation with the general, which was encouraged by the United States, has left even many of her supporters confused about what she represents and what she intends to do after her flight lands in Karachi, the nation’s largest city.The homecoming will inevitably be compared to her last return from exile, in 1986, when she flew to the eastern city of Lahore and up to 1 million Pakistanis turned out to hear her preach revolution against the military dictator of the day, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Two years later, she became the first woman in history to lead a Muslim nation.Aides say the crowds this time could be nearly as large. But it is unlikely there will be any calls for revolution, and it is still unclear how Bhutto’s return will play outside of her traditional strongholds.Different storiesIn 1986, said political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi, she was “the underdog,” fighting a general who had imprisoned her and executed her father, a former prime minister himself. Now – after 21 years, two scandal-marred terms as prime minister and one deal with a man she has often decried as a dictator – it’s a much different story. “Her role as a kind of anti-establishment person has obviously been tainted,” Rizvi said.But here in the city of Larkana, the Bhutto family’s ancestral homeland, that hardly seems to matter.”We have blind faith in her,” said Ayaz Soomro, the local president of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. “Our future is wrapped up in hers. Without her, we are empty-handed, empty-minded. We are out of power and out of jobs.”If Bhutto told the people of Larkana to vote for a dog, Soomro said, they would do it in a heartbeat.The explanations for such extreme devotion are various, and they speak to the tension between Bhutto’s feudal background and the liberal, democratic image that the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Bhutto works assiduously to cultivate in the West.The Bhuttos have long been the largest landowners in the Larkana area, and a considerable percentage of the region’s poverty-stricken residents have spent their lives farming Bhutto family guava groves and sugar-cane fields. For them, she is not just a leader, but also a lord.There’s an ethnic dimension, too. Bhutto shares with the people here a Sindhi heritage that has put them at a disadvantage during periods when Pakistan has been run by the Punjabi-dominated army.And then there’s the patronage. A Bhutto-run government, residents know well, means jobs and money will once again flow to a region that has suffered in her absence. A decade ago, the people here say, Larkana was thriving. But now the roads are in dire need of repair, unemployment is up and bandits armed with Kalashnikovs prowl the highway leading into town, even in broad daylight.It’s little wonder, then, that Larkana is going all-out to welcome her back.Four days before Bhutto was due to set foot in Pakistan, her face was already ubiquitous here, smiling down from posters that adorned nearly every wall and utility poll. Signs exclaimed “Prime Minister Benazir” and exhorted everyone to “Go to Karachi airport on October 18 to give Benazir a historic welcome.” More than 1,400 buses, trucks and cars were being readied for the six-hour drive south.Even the security concerns – Bhutto allegedly has been targeted for assassination by Islamic extremists – are unlikely to deter the faithful.”People will give their lives for her,” said Sher Khan, 30. “Like we love our country, we love Benazir Bhutto.”Not everyone in Larkana holds her in such high regard. Her sister-in-law, Ghinwa Bhutto, leads a breakaway faction of the Pakistan People’s Party and argues that Benazir Bhutto has betrayed the party’s original values – which included socialism and keeping a distance from both the United States and the military.The deal with Musharraf, she said, is just the latest indicator that Benazir Bhutto wants power above all else. “The way this return is being staged is a giant setback for the democratic process in Pakistan,” Ghinwa Bhutto said.Nationwide, Pakistanis seem inclined to share her distaste for a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance. And Bhutto’s association with Musharraf seems to have tarnished her image.Still, here in Sindh province, Bhutto has taken steps to make sure her family’s name continues to be revered for decades to come.Above the verdant fields around Larkana, a five-domed, white-marble, Taj Mahal-esque tomb rises like a mirage. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father and Pakistan’s civilian prime minister during the 1970s, is buried here. Before he was hanged by Zia, the military ruler who overthrew him, Bhutto had requested a simple stone slab to mark his burial place. His daughter had other ideas.The project, still not finished, has taken more than a decade and has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, in the end, it is expected to serve its purpose.During a recent visit, Mashooque Ali Jatoi, a local leader of Bhutto’s party, pointed to a child of 2 or 3 being helped down the monument’s steps by his mother.”When this young boy is 15 or 20, he will not join any other party,” Jatoi said. “He will just cheer, `Long live Bhutto!’ “