Benazir Bhutto has mellowed with age and matured with time. She has also sharpened her political skills in exile. She timed her annual pilgrimage to Washington amid talk of new political arrangements in Pakistan and to pointedly remind Americans that she had "heard" George Bush’s inaugural address, the one about ending tyranny in the world and bringing freedom and democracy. She called it the "doctrine of democracy" from which Pakistan could not be exempt or the doctrine loses credibility.
"Bibi" -- as she is referred to by many -- speaks with confidence and at a recent get together she sparkled with wit and wisdom. The charm offensive floored the nearly all-male audience as she joked about "deals" and "dheel" [leeway] -- deal being the tentative talks with the military government about the future and the "dheel" being the release of her husband Asif Zardari after eight years in prison. Gone was the shrillness of earlier days and in its place was a more well-rounded politician who knows she deserves better. She exuded hope and clear future ambition. She knows she can win elections in Pakistan -- if she is allowed to return and campaign openly in a free and fair electoral environment.
This is where the Americans can help, given their hefty links with Pakistan. Bhutto met "friends" around Washington to bring them up to date on her plans. But she didn’t get high-level attention from the Bush Administration despite all the buzz about democracy. Her supporters said she was, in fact, "insulted" when the State Department came up with only an "office director" level diplomat for a meeting in place of Christina Rocca, assistant secretary for South Asia, who was under the weather. The meeting was fixed but Bhutto didn’t show up and didn’t send a message either. There was much heart burn all around with US officials saying in a somewhat imperious tone that she was given the access at the "level considered appropriate" for a former prime minister. "We don’t see anything out of the ordinary" in this, said one official, refusing to concede that others might read a whole message in the medium.
Neither the Bush Administration nor the American bureaucracy seems to have much love for Bibi. They consider her immature, even corrupt and somewhat irresponsible. "She trades on the idea that she is the chosen one," said one official. Who doesn’t? Currently the chosen one in Pakistan is a general who speaks the language of moderation one day and fumes the next. The Bush-Mush policy fit has been expedient and official Washington has found adequate accommodation with the general. But it doesn’t quite mesh with Bush’s inaugural address, which was noted around the world for its lyrical paean to democracy. So the US bureaucracy is shifting gears and readjusting the priorities a bit.
Since January, official US statements on Pakistan have changed with the restoration of democracy occupying a higher profile. Americans say they want the 2007 elections in Pakistan to be held according to "international standards" with participation from political parties. They can see that Musharraf is becoming unpopular at home and any long-term engagement with Pakistan will have to include relations with mainstream political parties. Circumstances on the ground have also forced the Americans to look at the reality -- if political parties continue to be marginalized, the mullahs will only gain in stature and power. Already ruling one province and in coalition in another, the religious parties are strengthening their position.
Early contours of the blueprint for a democratic Pakistan will include Bhutto’s party but will it include Bhutto herself? The Americans at this stage are unwilling to give her any assurance that she will be allowed to return to Pakistan, campaign and run for a seat. They want her to wait peacefully and allow the assembly to complete its five-year term, a feat that Musharraf can then flog in his campaign. She obviously doesn’t want him to have that benefit and would like elections to be held earlier.
Sitting in the home of a well-to-do Pakistani American supporter of her party, Bhutto tackled tricky questions about her party’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s emissaries with aplomb. In fact, her campaign has begun at least among overseas supporters. So impressive was her demand for justice, free and fair election and an end to political persecution by the general’s regime, a woman sitting next to me said "Amen" when Bhutto finished.
Bhutto was prepared with facts and figures to support her case that an average Pakistani is worse off under the military dictatorship despite the "gifts" coming from the Americans and the post-9/11 swelling of funds from overseas Pakistanis. "The elections of 2002 have failed. The states are not happy, the working classes are not happy. Today 33 percent of the people are below the poverty line and 24 percent live on subsistence level. That is a staggering 57 percent of the people," Bhutto told a packed room filled with supporters.
No wonder the general is afraid of her return. She is in a position to rally her troops and rejuvenate her party. It will be hard for the Americans to justify her continued exile given that even Hosni Mubarak is talking of a multi-candidate election in Egypt.