| Bakhtwar in Karachi. (Reuters)
Islamabad, Aug. 8: Rahul Gandhi took 34 years and months of speculation to make up his mind that he would follow in his parents’ footsteps. Bakhtwar Zardari needed only 13 years.
The 13-year-old daughter of Benazir Bhutto and the scion of Pakistan’s version of dynasty is back home on a brief tour — to see her ailing father and take the first tentative steps towards public life.
“I will surely enter the political arena and carry forward the mission of my mother Benazir Bhutto and grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — to serve Pakistan,” Bakhtwar told The Telegraph from Karachi.
Bakhtwar, who lives in Dubai with her mother, said she would join politics after completing her studies. She had arrived in Karachi a week ago to meet her father Asif Ali Zardari — Pakistan’s longest-serving political prisoner.
The political journey of Pakistan’s first family had begun with her great-grandfather Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, who was a Muslim League leader, before the partition of the subcontinent.
In several ways, the dynasties on the two sides of the divide charted a political course that was similar — the most striking parallel is the tragic fault-line that runs through both families.
If Rahul lost his grandmother to her bodyguards’ bullets, Bakhtwar’s grandfather was hanged. Rahul’s father and Bakhtwar’s mother — who shared an excellent rapport when in power — were turfed out in the same year — 1989 — amid corruption charges. Benazir was dismissed by the President, however, not voted out of power, like Rajiv.
The army was unhappy about her peace initiatives with India, though the ostensible reason for removal was corruption. She returned to power later, only to be dismissed, again on corruption charges.
Rajiv Gandhi was on the comeback trail when he was killed in one of the most gruesome assassinations in the subcontinent while Bakhtwar’s uncle Murtaza died a bloody death at the hands of gunmen.
But the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in April 1979 — on what is widely believed as fake murder charges almost two years after former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq overthrew him in a coup — is the moment that has left an indelible mark on the family.
“My family was and is being punished for trying to empower suppressed people,” Bakhtwar said.
She had not been born when Bhutto was hanged. But she said she regularly watches recordings of the senior Bhutto’s press conferences and public meetings which had galvanised crowds across Pakistan in the seventies.
“I like the way he led Pakistan and highlighted the country’s image as a modern and vibrant state abroad,” she said, adding that her political idol is her grandfather.
Bakhtwar said she was touched by the love and affection people showered on her in Pakistan. “Wherever I go, they surround me, and ask about mummy and papa. It is a lovely experience to hear people talking about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and admiring him for his brilliance… and of course his charismatic personality.”
“I am proud of my grandfather and mother for the sacrifices they made to rebuild a strong Pakistan,” she said, debunking the graft charges against Benazir as “fake and politically motivated”.
A frequent visitor to the Zia-ud-din Memorial hospital where Zardari is now under treatment, Bakhtwar — who has a brother, Bilawal, and a sister, Asifa — said: “We miss our father.”
She insisted that Zardari had been jailed for “ulterior political motives”. “Those who are unhappy with my family’s popularity in and outside Pakistan have implicated our father in fake corruption charges.”
Zardari was arrested after the then President Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari, once a close confidant of the Bhuttos, dismissed the Benazir government in November 1996 on charges of corruption and misuse of power.
Most of the cases against Zardari and Benazir were filed during the last government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was also forced out of power after a bloodless military coup in October 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf.
“I was a little disturbed before meeting my father, who has been in jail for over eight years but his smiling face reinforced my strength,” Bakhtwar said.
Bakhtwar did take time off for at least one public engagement. She opened a children’s park in Karachi.
It will take more than ribbon-cutting to revive the political fortunes of her mother’s party. Or to achieve what was said at the height of Benazir’s popularity — which was also Rajiv Gandhi’s golden age — that the fresh-faced leadership could put the past behind and change the complexion of India-Pakistan relations.