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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE BALLAD OF BENAZIR AND ASIF

How a Bhutto came to marry an obscure playboy and what role he played in her downfall

By Susan Berfield


IN PAKISTAN MYTHS GROW untamed, intrigues sprout in every shady patch, innuendoes slither along the ground. More than anywhere else perhaps, the privileged cultivate their own realities. In private gardens, truths are buried in unmarked plots and half-truths nurtured instead. Perceptions take root and take over. In this fertile, half-imagined land one family can easily overshadow all others. So it was with the Bhutto clan, and it became entwined with the nation's fate. To them it was destiny, to others dynasty.

The tale begins in 1977: The patriarch, a leader who charms the poor but rules recklessly, is overthrown by a general and later hanged. For nine years, the eldest daughter tries to topple the usurper. Eventually he dies -- and against all odds she is swept to power. Pakistan's new prime minister is intelligent, ambitious, commanding, young. Benazir Bhutto is democracy's darling, a woman leader in a land where women don't lead.

And then she stumbles, spectacularly.

She is thrust from power, twice, like a common politician. Her failures are held up to public ridicule. Her achievements shrivel in comparison. Her brother Murtaza emerges from exile to lay claim to his father's legacy. The relatives publicly feud. Murtaza dies in a hail of police bullets and his wife Ghinwa takes up his cause. Benazir's husband Asif is accused of complicity in the murder. Authorities put her husband in jail and awe the country with tales of how the First Couple went about amassing homes and secret Swiss bank accounts to the tune of $1.5 billion. The investigators aren't half as convincing as they think they are, but by now people are willing to believe the worst.

Here is where our story begins. Part fairy tale, part morality play -- the ordinary facts behind the extraordinary myths. How Benazir rose to the occasion and then to power. How she came to marry a man no one had ever heard of and how his name came to symbolize corruption. How she made herself into an icon and then unmade herself.

Once upon a time, there was a 13-year-old girl who lived in a protected, privileged world. She went to a convent school, dressed in clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, wore (low) high-heel shoes but not lipstick, never talked to boys outside the family, read romance novels. Her name, Benazir, means "without equal" in her mother tongue (Sindhi). But she was called Pinkie, because of her rosy complexion.

At 16 she went to learn the ways of the New World. Pinkie arrived at Radcliffe College in Boston with her mother, a leather jacket purchased in France and the sense that she had traveled not just to another country, but to another time.

It was 1969. She adjusted quickly: corduroys substituted for shalwar kameez and feminist author Kate Millet replaced children's writer Enid Blyton. Pinkie protested against the Vietnam War, refused to use aerosol deodorant, wept during the movie Love Story. She had no need for security guards, slept in a bunk bed, served milk and cookies to her dormmates (among them Robert Kennedy's daughter Kathleen), and conducted campus tours for prospective students. She liked to play matchmaker, and would continue to do so even as prime minister, but she never dated.

She recalls collecting money to help cyclone victims in what was then East Pakistan. But others remember more her take-no-prisoners defense of the government's aggression in what would become Bangladesh. On campus, Pakistan's behavior was criticized openly and often. But a classmate says Pinkie "gave out as good as she got."

In 1973 Pinkie left for Oxford, where she became Benazir: a confident, directed young woman who drove a yellow MGB convertible (a college graduation present from dad), wore designer dresses and ate at London's best restaurants. Already Benazir was her father's daughter and coveted the presidency of the Oxford Debate Union. The post had lost cachet in Britain, but it would impress the people back home. Benazir became the first foreign woman to head the Union.

Benazir returned to Pakistan in 1977 when her father was still prime minister. He was as much feared as respected. But Benazir's devotion to him was complete; she would hear no criticism. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded the Pakistan People's Party, and was the first leader to be freely elected. He was the kind of man who could throw off his coat and roll up his sleeves at campaign rallies without looking like he was trying too hard. Bhutto, a landowner of some prominence, was praised for "betraying his class."

In power he was condemned for betraying his allies. He nationalized most industry and earned the enmity of the elite. He misjudged Gen. Zia ul-Haq, his army chief, and paid dearly for it. One week after Benazir's homecoming, Zia arrested her father for allegedly ordering the death of a political opponent. Then he declared martial law.

In those days, when her world turned upside-down Benazir began behaving like a son. Her brothers, younger and (more) likely to be jailed, returned overseas to complete their studies (and would eventually turn to terrorism to unseat the dictator). Benazir, with her mother and a few girlfriends, waged a desperate campaign to save Bhutto. At first Urdu felt unfamiliar on her sharp tongue, then she found her voice. Her vocabulary changed. Now she spoke the language of her homeland: treachery, conspiracy, betrayal.

For the next five years (from 1979 until 1984) Benazir was kept under house arrest, sometimes jailed, and once held for 10 months in solitary confinement. Her mother, Nusrat -- a Karachi socialite who tooled around town in a sports car -- was also frequently detained. In 1982 Nusrat was permitted to leave the country for cancer treatment, and two years later Benazir was allowed to travel to London for an ear operation.

Prison had hardened her. She was bold, determined, dominating. It was her duty to lead, she said. But she didn't protest when others said it was her right. "Benazir made no secret of wanting to be the heir," says her uncle, Mumtaz Bhutto. "She denied anybody else the right to succeed her father, lead the party or even play a major role in politics."

And who could object? She had the Bhutto blood, the charisma, the stamina. Her brothers were suspected of terrorism; her mother spent much of her time in southern France. Benazir had an international reputation, she could work the press.

Benazir wanted to be a symbol -- the face of good, of democracy, of her people. She apparently had plastic surgery on her nose and chin to complete her transformation. Later, on the campaign trail, she began covering her head. Benazir looked beautiful, tragic, deserving of power. Image had become reality, and for a while it was glorious.

Benazir was in Europe when Zia lifted martial law at the end of 1985. Zia was still army commander and president, but he had promised elections, sometime. Benazir decided to go home. She had returned to Pakistan once before, to bury her youngest brother, 28-year-old Shahnawaz, who was mysteriously poisoned in his home in Cannes. When Benazir landed in Lahore in April 1986, she wore a bullet-proof vest provided by an American political consultant. No one knows how many hundreds of thousands gathered in Lahore that day or in dusty towns around the country later. In Faisalabad, where she arrived at 5 a.m., people had waited 12 hours to hear her speak. "She was treated like the Messiah," says Salmaan Taseer, who traveled with her through the Punjab. "It was surreal."

But all was not well in the House of Bhutto. The party that dad built was volatile, many of its members in prison. Benazir's calls for mass protest went unheeded. The party elders saw the founder's daughter as a useful political symbol, a gloss of glamour, not much more. Benazir was becoming frustrated. When Taseer, party spokesman at the time, visited her after his release from jail, Benazir said to him: "You're a real publicity hound, aren't you?" Taseer didn't see her again until her wedding more than a year later.

Benazir never expected to marry. She was a woman of independent means. Why bother? In the end, she married for the most conventional reason of all: security. After her brothers wed she realized she would lose her status in the family home. "I, who was my father's darling, the apple of his eye, who ruled the home, sat at the head of the table, would be relegated to a second-hand position. That's when I realized I needed a home of my own." Of course, it would not be a conventional marriage. Benazir needed a man who would "not be afraid to walk behind [her]." There weren't many heroes available.

Enter Asif Ali Zardari, a back-slapping, polo-playing, small-time businessman. His father owned land in Sindh, ran the chic Bambino cinema in Karachi, held a seat in the national assembly. Asif was the kind of boy who used to ride his motor scooter around the school yard and then roar off, the kind of young man who might set up a nightclub in his home. He had little aptitude for academics and no interest in politics. Many of Benazir's friends had never heard his name; to Karachi's upper crust, where the term "people like us" is used without irony, he was a wannabe.

Benazir's mother took a full year to consider the Zardaris' proposal. Then Benazir stalled. Finally she agreed to meet Asif in a London hotel, with her mother, the aunt who had conveyed the offer, her sister and several friends. He was attentive, just assertive enough, and unflustered by the commotion. Benazir's girlfriends told her he would be easy to come home to. She said he didn't seem like a nag.

Five days later the engagement was announced. "He thought he was a knight in shining armor coming to rescue a damsel in distress," Benazir says. "He thought he would protect me from the wicked dictator."

Asif may have been Benazir's Prince Charming, but she was not spell-bound. "There was tremendous resentment in my party about my marriage," she says. "There was this huge feeling that he didn't match me." Before their wedding, Benazir was obliged to issue a press release defending her betrothed. It included a question and answer with Asif. Question: "It is said that you are a playboy who plays polo by day and frequents discos at night. Are you suited to marrying a political leader?" Answer: "Such stories are highly exaggerated. Anyway, the past is the past, and it is the future I share with her that is important."

That was in December of 1987. Asif built a practical, big-roomed house for Benazir in Clifton, a moneyed Karachi neighborhood where no one objected to the six-meter walls (reinforced with steel) that surround the compound. They were settling in to life in the opposition when Gen. Zia died in a plane crash in August 1988. The military men scheduled democratic elections for November.

Benazir began campaigning just weeks after she gave birth by Cesarean section to her first child. She drew huge crowds and gave short speeches about the parlous lives of the poor. Once, however, as she and Asif set off on a tour, she was caught reading her just-released autobiography, ignoring the cheering crowds. Asif went along for the ride, so to speak; he was sure the military would never let his wife win. On election night, Benazir was on the phone trying to get the results precinct by precinct. Asif was in their living room reading Conan the Barbarian comic books. "It was the shock of my husband's life when I became prime minister," says Benazir. "I had this vision that once elected it would be like a fairy tale. All will live happily ever after."

But our heroine disappoints us. Just 20 months after winning power, Benazir is ousted for allegedly running a corrupt and inept administration. We can make excuses: her first job was governing a nation of 100 million mostly poor souls who had lived under martial law for a decade; her party was full of street fighters who couldn't quite adjust to desk jobs; she was surrounded by people who were more loyal than competent, constrained by the military, compromised by her husband. But Benazir made mistakes, too.

For the next three years Benazir would sit in the opposition as her arch-rival, Nawaz Sharif, tried to run Pakistan. In 1993, he was flung out on similar charges and Benazir returned to power. This time she lasted three years. In 1996 Benazir was removed by her hand-picked president, Farooq Leghari. He had compiled a 200-page document alleging corruption, nepotism, economic mismanagement and extra-judicial killings. Benazir calls her ouster "absolute treachery." She says: "Leghari was always butter-polishing me and praising me to the seventh heaven. He had been a very docile follower to my face."

Benazir thought she had been betrayed. Pakistanis thought she had betrayed them. And, justly or not, they put the blame on Asif, and on Benazir for letting him get away with everything short of murder -- and maybe that, too.

In the popular imagination, Asif was the most powerful man in Pakistan: Every big deal, from submarines to rice, needed his say-so and his friends' involvement. Benazir tolerated it, profited from it. Or so it was said. When she first came to power, and moved to Islamabad, Asif stayed in Karachi. That decision was their biggest mistake, she says, because "nobody knew him in Islamabad," where rumors that he was abusing his new status quickly gained currency. Benazir returned to Karachi each weekend. When she held meetings at their home, Asif used to joke: "What are you politicians up to now?" He never joined the discussions, preferring to slip out for a drive in the Mercedes.

Asif did help friends set up businesses in backward areas of Sindh, Benazir says. "But fixing appointments is one thing, taking commissions is something else." Still, Benazir used to beg her husband not to be so accessible, says a close friend. Asif wasn't comfortable turning people away, and he relished the attention he received as First Husband.

The marriage weathered other strains. Benazir learned Asif was having an affair with a friend of hers. They would meet in a bungalow on the Zardari property. Benazir had it bulldozed and burned. Friends say she was shattered. She lost weight, talked of his "philandering" constantly, asked people if they were on the A team or the B team. She wanted to shame him. There was a public split, and then a reconciliation. Along the way, it seems, Benazir had fallen in love with the man few thought she should have married in the first place.

Benazir seemed not to notice that Asif's image was tarnishing her own. When she returned to power in 1993, people warned her not to give her husband a prominent political role. She ignored them. Asif had been elected a senator, but she gave him an office in the prime minister's house; in 1996 she appointed him investment minister and gave him a seat in the cabinet. Some called him the de facto prime minister, claimed he had a shadow cabinet to speed up deal-making. One frequent visitor to Asif's suite says the people he saw coming and going were "shady guys from sunny places." Benazir, he says, was taken in too. "Every slick, sweet-talking con man fools her." Asif used to sit around with his friends talking about money, how much people were worth, the cost of cognac and polo ponies. Asif wanted to be an Adnan Kashoggi, a Dodi Fayed.

But our heroine had higher aspirations. She helped restore democracy, she started opening the economy, controlling inflation, increasing social spending, promoting population control. It is hard to say precisely what went wrong. Everyone has a theory: she lost faith, needed a reality check, was isolated, surrounded by courtiers, had a "messiah complex," was sucked into the system, thought she wouldn't get caught, gave up.

Benazir seemed to believe she could undo, or outlast, the perception that her husband was corrupt. "He wined and dined foreign investors, gave them respect, and the money was pouring into Pakistan," she says. What was there to complain about? The two polo fields carved out of a mountain behind the prime minister's home supposedly at government expense: "Paid for them ourselves." Asif says: "If I thought it would have helped to step down, if the people, the party thought it would, I would have stepped down and played polo."

Maybe he should have. Earlier this year the party that dad built was virtually annihilated at the polls, and Sharif returned to power with a mission to bring down Benazir and Asif. Investigators have put forward 65 cases of "financial irregularities" involving the former first couple and their family. Swiss authorities have frozen accounts. There is talk of safety deposit boxes filled with diamonds, homes throughout Europe.

Benazir denies all. The accountability process? "It's a witch hunt. They are tearing my reputation to shreds." The money? "I'm a pauper compared to a billionaire." The frozen accounts? "It is irrelevant whether or not the accounts are mine. The question is: have I done anything criminal? No. My only crime has been to serve this country selflessly." The documents that apparently show a gold-exporting company transferred money into one of the couple's accounts? "You might have made a transfer into my account. What does that have to do with me?"

Benazir is bitter. Benazir is weary. She wants "peace and tranquility, a settled life." She would prefer a "backseat role in the party rather than a front-seat role." Now 44, she has begun encouraging party leaders to act on their own so she can feel free to come and go. She has already sent her three children abroad. Bilawal, 9, and daughters Bukhtawar, 7, and Asifa, 4 , live in Dubai with their ailing grandmother, Nusrat.

Meantime, Asif awaits trial on charges that he was complicit in the murder of Benazir's brother Murtaza. One recent Saturday, Benazir visited Asif in the Karachi central jail. Impeccably dressed even in prison, he is wearing a crisp white shalwar kameez, polished brown cowboy boots, sunglasses in his pocket. He sits in a plastic chair, twirling his moustache as he consults his lawyers. Benazir says their suffering at the hands of their opponents has brought them closer together. He leans forward and says: "Distance makes the heart grow fonder." And so that is where we leave our story, with Pakistan's most famous couple eating sandwiches and half-melted chocolates in a makeshift prison courtroom.

Susan Berfield is an Asiaweek Senior Writer


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