Benazir Bhutto Shaheed-An icon of struggle and democracy

BB Shaheed sacrificed her life for a cause to make Pakistan a democratic, tolerant, progressive and peaceful country  

14 years have passed since the assassination of the charismatic chairperson of the PPP and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Shaheed. She was martyred near Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi soon after addressing an election rally on December 27, 2007.

The reactionary forces silenced the loudest voice for democracy, rule of law, supremacy of the constitution and parliament, human rights and freedom of expression. She was a symbol of resistance and struggle in her life and became an icon of democracy, courage, and sacrifice after her assassination.

Benazir Bhutto stood against the rising tide of religious extremism and terrorism. She wanted to see a peaceful, prosperous and violence-free Pakistan. It is important on this day to reaffirm commitment to continue the struggle for the ideals she sacrificed her life for.

Her sudden departure created a huge political vacuum not only in the PPP but also in national politics. This vacuum can even be felt today. It was a huge setback and shock for the party. The PPP never fully recovered from that great loss.

Her assassination was a big blow to the democratic, liberal, secular and progressive forces in the country. Pakistan lost a courageous, progressive and popular leader. She was a symbol of national unity and the federation. “Charon sooboun ki zanjeer, Benazir Benazir” was not a mere political slogan. She was a symbol of hope for the poor, downtrodden and working people of this country. She was – and still is – an icon of resistance, struggle and democracy.

She earned the respect of her party workers and leaders through relentless struggle and sacrifice. She twice returned from exile – first in 1986 and then in 2007 – and on both occasions a sea of people from across Pakistan came to receive her.

Benazir Bhutto Shaheed had returned from a long exile, with a clear vision to take Pakistan forward. Her agenda was to introduce reforms in the system to improve the lives of ordinary people. She was determined to defeat the extremist narrative.

She had promised to provide employment, social and economic justice, basic services and equal rights to the people. She received tremendous response to her election campaign and once again proved that she still enjoyed massive support. “Benazir ai hai- Rozgar lai hai” was the popular slogan in the election campaign.

Her 14th death anniversary is being commemorated at a time when democratic rights are under attack. Declining incomes, worsening living conditions, rising inflation and unemployment are all making the lives of working people miserable. The media too stands censored and controlled.

The current situation demands an alternate political and economic narrative and programme to address these issues. The political heir of BB Shaheed, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has taken a clear stand on democratic rights. Like his brave mother, he has refused to bow down before the forces of tyranny and authoritarianism.

But he lacks an alternate economic narrative and people-centric programme based on social and economic justice and equality. Bilawal is progressive and forward looking. He has the charisma of his mother and grandfather but he needs a radical economic programme to connect with young people and other sections of society. 

The PPP needs to abandon the neoliberal economic model so as to serve the economic interests of the working masses. Neoliberalism and ideals of a welfare state cannot go hand in hand.

Benazir Bhutto fought most of her life against military dictators and rightwing reactionary forces. The establishment never accepted her and tried everything to discredit her.

The rightwing forces launched a vicious character assassination campaign against her. Every effort was made to weaken the party. The PPP went through many highs and lows under her leadership but she succeeded to steady the ship against all odds.  

She spent five years in power with a very weak position. The powers that be never gave her a free hand to implement her policies. Her five years in power were used to malign her politics and agenda of reforms. Circumstances never allowed her to show her full potential as prime minister.

Benazir Bhutto Shaheed came to power in the era of the crushing domination of world markets and capitalism. She saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of social democracy. The collapse of the Soviet Block and right wing turn of the social democracy was a setback for the working class movement and left politics.

She emerged as a political leader in the era of the free market and neo-liberalism, which impacted her political views and ideology as well. The era of the decades of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s were completely different from the era of the 1960s and 1970s.

She represented her era. She was an idealist like many other popular leaders but became more pragmatic with the fast-changing realities. It was a journey from idealism to pragmatism – in order to embrace the realities of her period.

But everyone was not happy with her. All those who believed in the social transformation of society were not happy with her politics and policies. The more radical elements who wanted to see the PPP as an anti-imperialist and anti-elite party were left disappointed by her policies.  

The PPP was the party which genuinely stood for rights of peasants, workers and the labourers. But the party that once promised the elimination of feudalism to further the interests of peasantry now banks on candidates from strong feudal backgrounds, especially in Sindh. 

The party that relied on its workers now relies on electables for its survival. It lost its vote bank to politics that revolves around the personal interests of its leaders.

The struggle for freedom, democracy, fundamental rights and for political and social transformation, to solve the problems faced by Pakistan’s working class and poor masses, is a struggle to change the system.

 This means a struggle against capitalism, feudalism, imperialism and rightwing reactionary forces both within and outside the state structures – all at the same time. These are interlinked with each other; any effort to defeat one of them will fail because the others will come to its rescue.

Benazir Bhutto stamped her authority on the party during this struggle, becoming an icon of democracy and resistance. The PPP went through many highs and lows under her leadership. She managed to maintain a certain degree of charisma and popular support among the people.

She was a brave and charismatic leader who stood for the democratic, constitutional and fundamental human and economic rights of the people. She was a true democratic leader who fought against dictators for democracy without any fear.

                                                                           Khalid Bhatti 

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