|Benazir Bhutto breaks down on her arrival in Karachi. (AP)
Karachi, Oct. 18: Benazir Bhutto arrived to a tumultuous welcome in Pakistan today after eight years in self-imposed exile, defying militants’ death threats and promising to reshape the country’s already unsettled political landscape.
The two-time Prime Minister wept as she got off the plane that brought her from Dubai to Karachi around 2.30pm (3pm Indian time). At the airport, she climbed on the roof of a bullet-proof truck and began a triumphant procession through the city joined by tens of thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters.
“I am thankful to God, I am very happy that I’m back in my country and I was dreaming of this day,” said the 54-year-old Pakistan People’s Party leader, wearing a green salwar-kameez and white headscarf — the colours of the national flag — and clutching prayer beads in her right hand.
Her truck progressed just 100 metres in the first hour and party leaders said she was unlikely to reach her 70 Clifton residence — normally a 75-minute drive even during rush hour — before 9am tomorrow. But late tonight, twin explosions went off.
The authorities deployed over 20,000 security personnel in the airport and along her route, and used electronic jammers to prevent bomb attacks by Islamic radicals, angered by her deal with President Pervez Musharraf and support for the US-led war on terror. The precautions failed to deter her party from mounting a spirited street party.
Students wearing PPP shirts held hands and formed five concentric rings around the truck to keep back the crush. People stood with the party’s red, black and green flags and banners on the tops of trucks and sat in nearby trees. Many shouted, “Jiay (long live) Bhutto!”
Men banged on drums and danced along the route to the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah where the PPP leader planned to make a speech. Benazir, squeezed between other party bigwigs at the front of the truck rather than in a bullet-proof cubicle toward the rear, waved and smiled.
Asked to compare this with her last homecoming to fight military ruler Zia-ul Haq in 1986, two years before she went on to become Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, she said: “I am much older. I have learned a lot over the last 20 years but we are still fighting a dictatorship.”
Benazir has paved her way back by negotiating a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. The return contrasted sharply with that of her rival and fellow former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came back from seven years in exile last month to be deported straight from the airport.
Azad Bhatti, 35, a farmer who had travelled from Hyderabad, said he had “blind faith” in Benazir. “When she is in power there is no bomb blast because she provides jobs.”
Many others were sceptical that Benazir can meet her promises to fight poverty, dictatorship and extremism.
“People are intelligent now, they don’t buy this rubbish,” said Karachi businessman Kamran Saleen, 38.
Benazir, who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, returns ahead of January parliamentary elections hoping to campaign for a record third Premiership. Many, however, feel she has risked her popularity by compromising with the unpopular Musharraf.
Benazir said her party would continue to negotiate with Musharraf — elected President this month with a court challenge to the legality of his candidature still pending — to move the country towards democracy. If the effort fails, the PPP would take to the streets.
The US is believed to have quietly encouraged the Benazir-Musharraf alliance to keep Pakistan pro-West and committed to fighting militancy, but most Pakistanis think it will not last long.
Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari stayed back in Dubai.