Posted by: John Elliott | November 21, 2020

Book Reviews: Bhutto friendship, dynasty and Pakistan divided

The Fragrance of Tears – My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto by Victoria Schofield, Head of Zeus–An Apollo Book, London, 2020

The Bhutto Dynasty – The Struggle for Power in Pakistan by Owen Bennett-Jones, Yale University Press London and Penguin-Random House India, 2020 

The Nine Lives of Pakistan – Dispatches from a Divided Nation by Declan Walsh, Bloomsbury Publishing London 2020

Rule by self-serving dynasties and military dictators or religious zealots rarely leads to stable government and a prosperous country. Combine all three and the result is almost inevitably negative. That has been the plight of Pakistan since it was created in 1947, split in two with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, and then faced the additional burden of becoming a buffer state on the edge of communism after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to years of turmoil and terrorism.

Three new books examine aspects of this history, two of them through the prism of the Bhutto family, which has provided two prime ministers – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir – plus her husband Asif Zardari who became a surprisingly resilient president after her assassination. Benazir’s and Zardari’s son Bilawal is now limbering up uncertainly as the head of the family’s Peoples’ Party of Pakistan (PPP), awaiting his turn, if the military is willing. The third book looks more broadly at the country and its people, including the Bhuttos and many others.

Victoria Schofield, an historian and author, has written a carefully crafted personal memoir of her 33-year long friendship with Benazir. This is a delicately painted human story of a friend who became prime minister twice between 1988 and 1996 but is often seen as one of the more disappointing South Asia dynasts. 

Owen Bennett-Jones is a former BBC journalist who has specialised in Pakistan for many years.. He has produced a well-researched and detailed biography of the dynasty, written with a reporter’s eye for detail.  He originally planned a book on Benazir, the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country, after producing a series of BBC podcasts on her assassination in 2007. He then expanded the scope to cover the dynasty, including Zulfikar and their ancestors, tracing the family’s origins back twelve centuries to Hindu Rajput (warrior caste) origins when their name was probably Bhutta or Boota. An “a” at the end of a family name often became “o”, we are told, “as part of the process of colonial anglicisation”.

Declan Walsh, an (Irish) New York Times reporter who was expelled in 2013 without knowing why after nine years in Pakistan, has written a highly readable and compelling portrait that digs deep with a light touch into this little-understood country. Most of the chapters are pegged to lives of nine significant people who range from a human rights lawyer and a businessman turned Bhutto supporter (shot for offending extreme Islamic sensitivities) to a Baluchistan separatist leader and a famous spy. Many others crop up at various stages, including the Bhuttos and another spy who eventually explains that Walsh was expelled for getting too involved in the unending tumult and intrigues of Baluchistan. 

Walsh captures Benazir brilliantly when he visits her in Dubai: “She sat in a gilded armchair, tapping on her BlackBerry, picking from a box of chocolates. A Mercedes was parked outside. ‘Do help yourself Mr Walsh’, she purred, at once imperious and intimate.” It is a sketch I recognise instantly from meeting her in a London Barbican flat (no chocolates and an ordinary chair) and the family home in Karachi (a low arm chair and a coffee table with cakes).

It is easy to take a negative view on Benazir, even though she was regarded in the west as something of a heroine. She can be seen as a spoilt and occasionally fierce-tempered feudal autocrat with a dynast’s strong sense of entitlement, who fell in too easily with the corrupt ways of Zardari after their arranged marriage and failed to turn the advantages of her upbringing, including five years at Harvard and three at Oxford University, into a positive force for change when she became prime minister.

Schofield opens up a more personally sympathetic view of a woman with a sense of duty and, increasingly, of dynasty. Her memoir gently tracks Benazir’s life from Oxford University to Pakistan at the time of Zulfikar’s trial and hanging in 1979, then into active politics, marriage, periods of house-arrest and exile, prime ministership, and an eventual triumphant final return from exile to re-enter active politics – and assassination a few weeks later. Throughout, Schofield was involved to varying degrees as friend, assistant, letter-writer, lobbyist, companion at important events, and family confidante and guardian.

The relationship begins at Oxford University in 1974 when Schofield arrives as a fresh undergraduate and is introduced to Benazir, who invites her to “come and have tea”. Those are the “salad days”, recounted in a chapter laced with a social calendar of amply annotated notable names, both women becoming presidents of the Oxford Union. 

Later, in May 1978, Schofield receives a letter from Benazir that, as she says, changed her life, leading to a concern for Pakistan, and also Kashmir, that continues today. It was an invitation to visit Pakistan just after Zulfikar had been condemned to death for alleged murder. Schofield goes, presumably for a few weeks, but stays for nearly a year, broken only by a brief Christmas visit home. 

The judges at Zulfikar’s trial – drawn by Victoria Schofield in the courtroom

She joins the team defending Zulfikar, typing and carrying briefs including his own submissions and letters to world leaders, and she becomes a companion for Pinkie, as Benazir was known to her friends. This is the most interesting part of the book because Schofield is there, in Pakistan, sharing the hopes, the anxieties, and the eventual despair when Zulfikar was executed, developing contacts and friends and occasionally writing for The Spectator

Back in the UK, she joined the BBC and wrote a book on her experiences, Bhutto: Trial and Execution, that was published by Cassell. It was, she readily admits, greeted as “biased”. Tariq Ali, she tells us, said she was “a chum so made no attempt to objectivity”. (Oddly, Bennett-Jones makes no mention of Schofield or her book.)

In later years, Benazir is frequently living a distant life from her friend. But the relationship becomes so close that, when Schofield offers to help with the Bhutto children after Benazir’s assassination, Zardari says, “Yes of course you must stay in touch with them. You know they smell her on you”.

Schofield brings Benazir to life with so much insight that one longs for a little less discretion and a few more personal revelations and discussions on policy. Her story, spanning 33 years, is remarkable. It must be rare for an outsider to draw so close to a top politician and national leader and not only sustain but develop the relationship over a long period without being drawn into the political maelstrom – and without any attempt to cash in on the closeness, even though Schofield clearly enjoys the contacts and experiences. She is careful with what she doesn’t tell us, steering the path of a memoir rather than a biography and of a loyal friend and supporter avoiding controversy. 

Benazir’s assassination

Both the Bhutto books begin with a chapter on Benazir’s assassination during an election rally in Rawalpindi, and Walsh also describes it. Schofield tells how she heard about it on a train in Lincolnshire when Rita Payne, a BBC producer, called with the news. Walsh was on a plane flying into Karachi.

Bennett-Jones opens with Benazir being warned that morning by the general who headed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that “someone would try to kill her that day”. 

Bhutto told the general that he should arrest the suicide bombers. He said he could not because it would expose his sources, though he would “do his best”. While they were speaking, two 15-year old boys were being readied by the Pakistan Taliban to be the suicide bombers. They “had to bathe to ensure they were clean for when they entered paradise” though, as it turned out, one of them completed the deed so the other one fled. 

That detail comes in the first two paragraphs of Bennett-Jones’ introduction, which also illustrates Benazir’s fatalistic approach – Zardari told her not to go out but she replied that “some things I have to do”. After she was shot, her back-up car quickly drove away, police vanished, the road was hosed down clearing pools of blood and glass, and inquiries yielded little. Bennett-Jones continues the story with a detailed chapter that contains new information, revealing a plot that originated with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in 1989 and also involved the Pakistan Taliban, maybe with encouragement, or at least, condoning, from the ISI. The US had earlier refused to help improve her security, and there was an eventual cover-up.

She ‘dated men’

Moving back in the story, both Schofield and Bennett-Jones tell us that Benazir roared around Oxford in a yellow sports car, an MG. Schofield however is silent on her much-gossiped relationships, and Bennett-Jones provides just two words – she “dated men”. It would have also been interesting to hear more from Schofield about the steps that took Benazir to an arranged marriage at the age of 31 when she was back in Pakistan. I was frequently there for the Financial Times and know (from one of them) that she cast her eye over three or four possible husbands before allowing the family to find a candidate. 

In many ways Zardari, who came from a feudal Sindhi family and was known around Karachi as a fun loving, party-going polo player, was a disaster. The Bhuttos apparently thought he’d be harmless, never foreseeing how he would lead the couple into charges of massive corruption. He was labelled “Mr Ten Per Cent” because his alleged take on investment projects, for which he was jailed.  

Benazir seems to have been content with the match and Bennett-Jones tells us that “he delivered for her”. He quotes a US ambassador who said (while discussing how she had tried to justify their corruption) that “she was completely in love with him; she could never deny him anything”. Benazir however told Hilary Clinton at the time of Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal that “We both know from our own lives that men can behave like alley cats”.

Zulfikar, drawn by Schofield in the courtroom

Bennett-Jones lists the negatives on her rule, quoting a veteran bureaucrat who said she allowed the “destroying of financial institutions, rampant corruption, loot and plunder, widespread lawlessness, political vindictiveness and senseless confrontation with the senior judiciary and the president”. Others said she was too pro-American (she certainly had friends and supporters there) and was insufficiently committed, early on, to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. 

Her father’s biographer said she was too focussed on glorifying Zulfikar’s memory and not enough on helping the poor. On the nuclear issue, Bennett Jones analyses and does not dismiss a report that Benazir took nuclear secrets in an overcoat pocket on a trip to North Korea – it is known that that the countries shared know-how, but the overcoat story is contested.

Looking back over those years, it is a story of missed opportunities. Perhaps the greatest was that Benazir and Rajiv Gandhi, then the Indian prime minister, did not survive for long enough to try to begin bridging the gap between their two countries. Both the Bhutto books tell us how they first met soon after Benazir became prime minister at the end of 1988 and had hopes that they could leave the past behind and begin to move ahead. But it was not to be – neither country’s establishments wanted the youngsters’ enthusiasm (Rajiv was 44 and Benazir 35) to become policy. And it never has.

A slightly shorter version of this review, focusing on the Bhutto books, will be appearing in the December edition of “The Round Table, The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs”. It is on the website https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/UVQD6N8YIAKT4HDIHVW7/full?


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