India loves icons and Delhi loves visiting celebrities, and if they come from neighbouring Pakistan and are opposed to the government in power, then they are really feted. It’s happened in the past to the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto when she was at her least-significant politically, and it happened to former president General Pervez Musharraf, who was hailed as some sort of sub-continental power guru once he was out of office.
This weekend it’s happened to Fatima Bhutto, 27-year old niece of the former Pakistani prime minister. She has been was in Delhi to promote her new book, “Songs of Blood and Sword, a daughter’s memoir”, which traces the country’s blood-letting and appalling governance as it tells the story of the assassination 14 years ago of her father, Murtaza Bhutto – in which her uncle Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s current president, was allegedly involved.
A highly self-confident journalist, the vivacious and attractive Fatima Bhutto (left) has wowed newspaper and magazine editors in the US, UK and elsewhere for several years with the same ease that Benazir Bhutto charmed the same people.
Benazir conned them, along with many politicians, into accepting her as a significant political figure when she was out of power, even though her reputation as a capable politician was near zero.
Fatima’s success – and she is a capable writer – has been to persuade editors ranging from Tina Brown’s Daily Beast website in the US to the New Statesman in London to run her articles highly critical of Pakistan’s rulers as if she was an independent journalist, which she is not. What she is, understandably, is a committed campaigner out to avenge her father’s death and, therefore, to damn Zardari who, as Benazir Bhutto’s husband, is her uncle by marriage.
This hefty 450-page book is part of that campaign. It tells of a traumatic family history. Her grandfather, prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 by a military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. Both her father and his brother died violently, and Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.
The physical similarities with Benazir Bhutto, who I first knew in the mid-1980s, are amazing. Watching and listening to Fatima on television the other evening as she fenced in lilting tones with her interviewer, it was if I was listening to her aunt protesting her and Zardari’s innocence of corruption, murder and other allegedly “trumped up” criminal charges.
Fatima, understandably, hates the comparison, which she says has been made since she was a child. “I was told I was much like my aunt, both as a compliment and as an admonishment. Now the comparisons are grating,” she says.
She certainly is much more directly focussed on detail than her aunt, who generally dealt in slogans and platitudes. This was evident at two book discussion sessions in Delhi where, in a more Americanised accent than on television, she dealt with questions openly and directly. “She doesn’t seem so much like a convent girl,” commented the wife of an admiring Indian politician, caustically.
I had planned to write this blog post on dynasty, noting how both Pakistan’s and India’s established ruling families now have relatives ready to challenge them. I would have set Fatima up as a future political challenger to Zardari’s and Benazir’s 21-year old son, Bilawal, in the same way that Varun Gandhi, a nephew of Sonia Gandhi, the current head of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the Congress Party, has become a general secretary of the Hindu-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party and thus a political opponent of Rahul, Sonia’s son and heir.
But Fatima Bhutto, who lives in Karachi where her book (amazingly) was launched a few days ago, will have none of it. She has denied political ambitions many times in the past, and repeated that when I spoke to her on Saturday evening. Might she be tempted, I wondered, if Pakistan were one day to return to some sort of peaceful politics?
“Definitely not!” she replied, adding that there was a need to “break the musical chairs” sequence of Pakistan’s feudal and military governments being passed from the Bhutto’s to the family of Nawaz Sharif and then to the army, and back again, as has happened for the past 40 years.
That certainly needs to be done – but I wonder whether one day, if or when Pakistan emerges from its current turmoil, she will be hoisted into politics as a new face with a new style, even if not a new name.