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Bhutto heirs ride Nitish tour

Garhi Khuda Baksh (Larkana), Nov. 12: An unscheduled two-hour detour became the centrepiece of Nitish Kumar’s touch-down-and-take-off scurry across the Sindh countryside on Sunday. It was an alteration of course bid from the “highest levels” and its implications could resound in Pakistan’s domestic politics well after Nitish’s departure home.

He was meant to turn left into the Mohenjo Daro ruins upon exiting the tiny eponymous airfield. His party turned right, instead, and headed to probably the most significant political address in contemporary Pakistan — a nondescript village called Garhi Khuda Baksh deep in Larkana’s abundant ruralia, home to the Bhutto clan and resting place of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, both former Prime Ministers, one hanged by the military dictatorship of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, the other assassinated during the “democratic” dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The mazar looms from afar on the flat country, someone’s effort to approximate the Taj Mahal — a central onion dome in marble closed in by four smaller ones, but sans the Taj’s signature minarets. The graves lie under canopies in a humongous hall, both wrapped in crimson chenille and mounded over with flower petals. Larger-than-life portraits of Benazir Bhutto — it is more a shrine to her than to her father — roll down the surrounding walls, photographs of the slain leader from set shoots, from the campaign trail, from mosques where she sat in prayer, even a soft-focus dissolve that makes her look more a fashion model than feisty politician. Nitish deliberated below each, intently listening to explanations of time and place the pictures were taken.

He had taken no ordinary diversion to be here, it was not merely a change of direction. It was a change of tenor he couldn’t have been unaware he was undertaking. What had so far been a state trip quite suddenly morphed into a political call. A pulsating, often unruly, reception awaited Nitish Kumar at the mausoleum of the Bhuttos, an unabashed and vociferous Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) show that virtually snatched partisan endorsement from the visitor by the time he was done with formalities of paying respect at the ornate graves.

“The past comes alive at monuments like these which embody history and the memories of great leaders,” Nitish wrote in the visitors’ book shortly before untangling himself from the fervent PPP-Bhutto show. “It is a moving experience to visit the final resting place of Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto who shaped the destiny of modern Pakistan.”

The PPP, faced with a tough general election in the coming months, will lap up such approval and give it play; others like Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League (N) and Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, both of whom Nitish is slated to meet before wrapping up his trip, might have reason to quarrel with it. But, as PPP member of the National Assembly Nafisa Shah gleefully exclaimed to Rajya Sabha member and lead delegate N.K. Singh, “Aapke aane se hamare vote barhe hain, cadres mein garm joshi hai, aapka isteqbal kar rahe hain (Our votes have increased because of your visit, the cadres are enthused, they are saluting you).”

In short, the deed was quite done, the PPP had run away with the Nitish visit. At least that is how they saw it.

The chief minister’s itinerary detail made no mention of a trip to Garhi Khuda Baksh; it slipped in, rather ineffably, on the eve of the special flight Nitish boarded to Mohenjo Daro and the upper Sindh town of Sukkur, courtesy the “highest levels”. Sources tell The Telegraph “highest levels” could well be a euphemism for President Asif Ali Zardari, who along with son Bilawal, chairs the PPP and is chief political legatee of the Bhutto clan. The Sindh government, also run by the PPP, has been under instructions not to spare any effort in red-carpeting the Nitish visit. Over the past few days, he has gone from event to event, podium to podium, feted to the gills. His delegation has lost count of the number of Sindhi caps and ajraks (intricately block-printed chadars special to Sindh) they have been handed, the grand stuffing they have been treated — or subjected — to on table after table. Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah has accompanied Nitish most of the time, this when Karachi is going through an especially bloody patch — close to 40 people have been killed in the city in the three days that the Bihar chief minister has been here.

There are, as probably the slightly unkind will put it, no free lunches. Yesterday was payback time at Garhi Khuda Baksh, a journey that, willy-nilly, became a show of solidarity with the Bhuttos and the PPP. Everywhere he went, PPP hordes pushed the barricades, chanting the kind of slogans they mostly do at election time. “Bhutto Zinda Hai, Jeevay, Jeevay Bhutto Jeevay (The Bhuttos are alive, Long Live the Bhuttos)!” They beat drums, they danced, they brought a vibrant sea of PPP flags to every destination — in Mohenjo Daro, in Garhi Khuda Baksh, along the roads in Larkana, in Sukkur.

Nitish was being treated like he were some PPP hero, a standard-bearer of the Bhutto flag, not a dignitary from another land. Quaint coincidence: the PPP flag and election symbol is the “teer” (arrow), and so is Nitish’s JD(U)’s. Aptly fraternal parties? That call would have to lie with Nitish; the PPP, though, already seems quite grabbed by the prospect.