How do you deal with that kind of resistance? There’s a price you pay for change. How do you deal with that?
Benazir Bhutto: There will always be critics. They say in politics there will be the appointed and the disappointed. So there will always be the critics. One has to take it, I learned that right after my first election. I thought all I have to do is win an election and all my critics will disappear and according to Barbara Cartland we’ll live happily ever after. But I realized you wake up later, and your critics are still around and you still have to factor them in.
My experience has made me a more inclusive person, not inclusive to the margins, but inclusive to those people who have differences with us but who are still moderates, so I tried to be more inclusive. It’s not easy because the other side has to respond too. Ultimately there will be critics but one has to do what is right as long as the majority of people support that.
Building schools was right. I tried to placate even the clerics originally. I adopted a very aggressive stance. I thought I had to prove I was as tough as a man because I was in a man’s world. Now I think it’s not a man’s world anymore but in those days it was supposed to be. So I also tried to be very aggressive and warmongering in my second term to try and co-opt my opposition. I am a consensus sort of person, I like to win people over. Not to compromise the core of my values, but I seek the middle way and I tried do that. I think in retrospect it was wrong because I did not co-opt them and I alienated some of my own supporters. But at the same time we got the three years to eliminate polio, to build schools and electrify villages.
Now I feel that if politics was a man’s world in 1997, now it’s a human’s world, and that when people vote for women, they vote because they think women are more nurturing, that they give life, they produce children, and they give life. As the larger issues of communism and capitalism fade away, the focus in my view is turning more and more to the human being, and with more women coming into the work force or into the press, there is a sense that women leaders will be sensitive to the needs of mother and child.
Are there other women leaders in Pakistan today who could be your successor?
Benazir Bhutto: When I meet a young woman student now and ask her what do you want to be, she says, “Prime minister.” So I’m sure that there are lots and lots of young girls out there who one day can be prime minister. But I think we need to also make it easier for women to win elections in Pakistan, and that’s why we have proposed affirmative action: a kind of list system where, on the basis of votes that each party gets, they can then list about 25 percent or 33 percent women to bring more women into parliament.
Certainly there are women activists, but not too many. The base of women who can win elections to parliament is too small, but former Primer Minister Nawaz Sharif’s wife has also started politicking, which is really a vindication for us, because they used to be very much against women coming out into the political field.
But of the younger students, the people who were in their first year, second year, third year of university when I was prime minister, those are the women who think that to be successful means to be prime minister of the country. If you ask a man what he wants to be, he’ll turn around and say, “A businessman,” or “A lawyer,” but the girl students that I talked to all wanted to be prime minister.
That generation that grew up in the last decade, used to seeing me as prime minister or as leader of the opposition, has now seen Wajed winning in Bangladesh and Mrs. Çiller in Turkey, and other Muslim countries, this has had an impact on the Muslim world. In Oman now they have started having women parliamentarians, and I think they may be permitting them in local elections in Kuwait and some of the other Middle Eastern countries.
When I first got elected, they said, “A woman has usurped a man’s place! She should be killed, she should be assassinated, she has committed heresy!” So going from heresy to seeing it happen! Part of it is the information technology because it brings what is happening in the rest of the world to ordinary women in parts of the Muslin world and they say, “Why not us?”
Could you begin by telling us something about your childhood in Karachi?
Benazir Bhutto: 1953. It was a very different world then. Very few motor cars and much more poverty. The gap between the rich and the poor was greater, too. I remember people walking barefoot and bare-backed because of the poverty.
It was a very privileged life that we led with huge homes and scores of staff with everything looked after. Now the world has changed much more. There’s a greater appreciation of each human being, being equal and entitled to the same opportunity, as well as an emphasis on human dignity. In those days there was much less dignity. I remember that the poorer people would greet the richer people by bending down and touching their feet, or prostrating them and throwing themselves on the feet, so it was a totally different kind of world and it has changed for the better in that sense.
As you say, you led a life of privilege amidst great poverty. Were you aware of these disparities? How did this influence you?
Benazir Bhutto: My father was always championing the cause of the poor. He was very much against the status quo, so he was always telling us that it is wrong, that there should be people in such abject poverty, unable to feed their children. I’d be sitting there when women would come to my mother and say, “Take my children, we can’t feed them.”
My father was a lawyer. I remember him coming back and saying that a man came and said, “I don’t have any money to pay you for this case.” Some other case he’d been involved in. And he said, “Take my cow because I don’t have any money,” and that was the cow that would give them milk to feed the children. So it was quite shocking to me, and I was sensitive to it because my father was sensitive to it. And he’d take us — we were landowners, large landowners — and he would take us to the lands and he would tell me, “Look at the way these people sweat in the heat and in the sun in the fields, and it is because of their sweat that you will have the opportunity to be educated, and you have a debt to these people, because they weren’t born to sweat like this. And, “You have a debt and you’ve got to come back and pay that debt by serving your people.”
Your father was an important influence in your life?
Benazir Bhutto: A very important influence. Now when I look back on it, it was my father who was against the gender constraints of my time. And my mother, she used to be a working woman herself, she joined the National Guards. She was a captain in the National Guards. She was the first woman in Karachi to own a car and to drive, and people used to talk about her because they said, you know, “We’re not supposed to drive cars.” But when I look back on it, it was my mother who taught that a woman grew up to be married and to have children, and she would tell my father in front of me, “Why do you want to educate her? No man will want to marry her.” So all the time, for her, success depended on having a good catch as a husband, and having children. Whereas for my father, he broke free of those constraints, and he insisted that I have an education. He said, “Boys and girls are equal. I want my daughter to have the same opportunities.”
How do you account for that?
Benazir Bhutto: I really don’t know, because I never had a chance to ask him. As a child I just assumed this is what fathers did, and when I finished university he was in prison. Then he was unjustly hanged by a military dictator. Now in reflection, I would like to ask him, “What made you do things differently?”
I’d go to other people’s homes, and I remember a friend of mine — they couldn’t eat food until the brothers had finished, and the leftovers would be given to the daughters. That never happened in our home. I remember that I used to sit at the head of the table because I was the eldest child. That never happened in other homes, and I should have asked my father when I had the chance, but he enabled me to appreciate that a woman is not a lesser creature.
And also my nuns. I used to go to a convent school, the Convent of Jesus and Mary. And I remember very much Mother Eugene used to teach us literature and poetry, and to reach for the moon, and the lodestar, and inspiring us. It was very inspirational and motivational that one could conquer the moon and the stars if one reached out. It was all about reaching out. I think the two powerful influences in my life in my childhood was my father and my teacher in the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Mother Eugene.
I was fascinated with literature. My father gave me a love for books. He loved reading books and he’d make sure that I bought books and he’d buy me books. And then Mother Eugene made my imagination run wild through Shakespeare — Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar — and Keats and Browning and Byron.
What books were most important to you?
Benazir Bhutto: It was mostly historical biographies that I would read. I remember starting out with King Alfred of England, and the cakes that he burned when he got lost and was taken in and given refuge. Alexander, the Great, cutting the Gordian knot. Nobody could do it, but he sliced it. His horse who was frightened; he tamed the horse because he understood it was the shadow that frightened the horse. I read mostly about people who were achievers.
My father was himself an achiever and maybe it was a time of achievers. I grew up at a time when colonialism had just ended. The whole inspiration behind colonialism had been to discover the world and achieve more. There was a sense of adventure in going to unmapped places, braving beasts of unknown description, to conquer the world. We were still very much in that phase when words and expressions were more grandiose and the imagination was more grandiose. Now things are much leaner and meaner.
Were you a good student?
Benazir Bhutto: I was a good student. My father put a great emphasis on education, and I found that he would always be so pleased when I did well. But it was terrible for my siblings because they were always being compared by the teachers to me and they would revolt against it, because I’d have a neat handwriting. It’s awful now, but right then it was neat, and I’d get my work done and finish everything. I was very studious. I was very, very studious. I had a love for learning. The others didn’t like to sit down and do their homework, but I loved doing it.
You were the oldest?
Benazir Bhutto: I was the eldest, and I had a great sense of responsibility. When my parents would leave the house they’d tell me, “Take care of the other kids.” I’d be only three and my youngest sister would be one but I still remember, “Take care of the kids.”
I remember once we came to England. I think I was about four, and my younger sister was two. They used to have these gas pipes, and I was always a very curious child and they told me, “Don’t touch those pipes.” And I went and touched them and opened it up and my parents came back just in time because I nearly poisoned the whole household. So I learned not to be too curious after that.
Were there other influences or inspirations in your early life?
Benazir Bhutto: When I was a very young child I remember I was always against violence. It was an era when people used to go shooting and hunting. I remember once coming out on the veranda in our home in the countryside — and my father was teaching my brother to shoot a parrot and… I remember seeing the parrot fall down dead and bleed, and I remember being appalled by it. And I remember the parrot fluttering and I can’t bear to see blood to this day or killing. I’m very much against war and conflict and the taking of life, and I think that seeing that little bird — green and beautiful and living and chirping in the tree, and then falling down dead — did have a profound effect. It sounds silly to say that I should feel so strongly about a bird, but I remember my father telling me when he was facing the death sentence that “I remember the little girl who cried so much because a bird died, how she must feel.” So for me, human life is very, very sacred.
There’s another thing I remember. This man had come to our home. He was a fisherman and he used to fish from the sea nearby and he used to sell us the fish. And he fell very ill, so my mother took him — he was again shoeless and backless — and my mother took him inside the house and said, you know, “What do you want, or whatever, to make you feel better?” And I remember he wanted a Coca-Cola. Now everybody drinks Coke, but in those days it was difficult to get a Coke, and that was his wish. And he was very sick and my mother wanted to send him to the doctor, and I remember he didn’t want to go to the doctor. He was clinging to the car, and I always felt, after that, that perhaps people need to have their dignity and to die in peace rather than to be taken to strange clinics. So I feel a great empathy now when there is a rediscovering of the way — of how people should be allowed to pass away. I’ve had many traumatic deaths in my life, and perhaps that has given me more sensitivity to the need to take leave amongst one’s loved ones to begin the journey to the next world — because I believe there is a next world — than to let it just end in a clinical room.
Was there a moment of self revelation or self-discovery when you knew what you wanted to do with your life, that you were going to be different just as your father had been different?
Benazir Bhutto: It was not sudden. It came gradually. There were two moments, let us say, when it happened. One of the moments was when my father died and I had my — before he died, I had my last meeting with him, in the death cell, and he said that, “You have suffered so much.” I had been in prison myself, and he said, “You are so young. You just finished your university. You came back. You had your whole life and look at the terror under which we have lived.” So he said, “I set you free. Why don’t you go and live in London or Paris or Switzerland or Washington, and you are well taken care of, and have some happiness because you have seen too much suffering.” I reached out through the prison bars, and I remember grasping his hands and saying, “No, papa, I will continue the struggle that you began for democracy.”
So that was one of the points where I decided that I didn’t want out. I’d stay, but I still didn’t think I’d ever be prime minister. I thought my mother would be the prime minister, and that I’d work for her to be the prime minister, and that’s what I did. But my mother got sick and actually she had lung cancer, but we didn’t know she was getting Alzheimer’s. So she started behaving differently and we thought it’s because she’s had this serious illness, and she’s reflecting on how to lead her life. And suddenly I found that since mommy was away and the whole party was about to collapse unless I was there, so I started looking after the party at that stage. When I went back, I remember people were shouting, “Prime Minister Benazir!” And suddenly it struck me that “looking after” means — with mommy ill — “looking after” means that I will be the prime minister. So it was in that sort of moment when I realized the responsibility that I had taken over could lead me all the way to an office that could govern the destiny of more than 100 million Muslims in Pakistan.
You came to America to go to college. How did the years at Harvard affect you or influence you?
Benazir Bhutto: I think the most profound influence in my formative years was the years I spent at Harvard. I went there at a time of great social ferment, at a time when the Vietnam war was being fought. I — as a nation — was against the Vietnam war, but I found that my American fellow students were against that war too. So — and they didn’t want to fight the war. They were protesting it and I found that if you didn’t like something you could do something about it. It was also a time when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and idealism — Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott from California, labor rights. So I was very much into saving the world. My generation grew up in saving the world. We thought education wasn’t important. Exams weren’t important, although I still did it because I was scared my father would get cross, but I discovered that life was more than my homework and my tuitions and my tutorial. Life was about the larger issues where we could all play a role.
The women’s movement had just started. Kate Millet had just written her book and I remember all the discussions we’d have about which of us women would succeed. I remember a very dear friend of mine in college years, who I have hardly seen since, Wendy Lesser. She was putting out a literary magazine in California the last I heard. But we’d sit there having these intense conversations about women succeeding. Could they succeed? Could they break the barriers? At that time many women still thought that their objective in life was to go and be married, and not so much to have a career.
It was the time of McGovern running, and President Nixon’s resignation. You know, Massachusetts was the only state that voted for McGovern, so it showed how idealistic we were compared to the rest of the world. Recycling newspapers, I’d go around trying to recycle newspapers. I see a bit of that age come back in the sense of the environmental issues which are getting important, but less in issues of sacrificing yourself for the larger community. Now I think it’s more an age of the individual comes first. Then it was more an age where we as individuals subordinate ourselves to the larger communal good.
So you took all of this back to Pakistan with you?
Benazir Bhutto: Yes. I said, “Why can’t we change our presidents?” because I saw Watergate happening and President Nixon being impeached. I saw the power of democracy. It was really — I felt powerful. I felt my voice counted. And meantime in Pakistan my father had been trying to empower the ordinary Pakistanis and telling them that they could break free of the shackles of feudalism and a military industrial complex. So when I went back, my own experience put me a bit ahead because I had a broader experience. I had experience in Pakistan and in America, and I had seen it succeed. So I went back really at the right time.
Did you have any doubts about what a woman could accomplish in a Muslim country?
Benazir Bhutto: I didn’t have any doubts. My father was so important to me, and he thought a woman could succeed. He would tell me that “My daughter is going to make me more proud than Indira Ghandi made her father.” So for me it was normal for daughters to succeed. Indira Ghandi was a very powerful leader. Mrs. Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka had been the first woman prime minister. Then of course, we had Fatima Jinna, who was also a presidential candidate — unsuccessful but a presidential candidate.
I grew up in a region full of powerful women and I thought, “Well if they can do it, I can do it too.” But when I used to talk to others they would say, “You’re mad. How can a woman succeed?” Not necessarily in politics, but I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to have my own newspaper. You know, I wanted to do things, and other people — men and women — would find that very surprising, so others doubted it. Even my own husband, when he married me, he thought I was under delusions that I could beat a military dictator, and he thought that, “When she wakes up and finds out that it’s all wrong and she can’t, then I’ll be there to console her.” Little knowing that I was the one who had to console him when I won.
There would be people saying, “Women are second class citizens, women don’t have the same rights as men, and how can you think that people will elect you?” My father would say, “My daughter will be making me more proud.” I always felt that I could become prime minister if I wanted to. I had faith in myself, but at that stage I didn’t want to, because I had seen the assassination attempts on my father. I’d seen the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur in Bangladesh, and maybe there was just some kind of subconscious fear of what politics could bring, so I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want the fear, the worries.
Was it the execution of your father that changed that?
Benazir Bhutto: His (my father’s) execution changed that, because I felt I just couldn’t let his blood, and the blood of all those others who had died — because the dictator hanged so many people who were supportive of him. And they were coming on the streets to have him freed, and he’d have them whiplashed or hanged, and I thought they all did so much and he did so much, and how can we let the dictator win and let all this blood go to waste? So it was really at that time a sense of vindicating them rather than having my own agenda. I did believe in democracy but later on I developed an independent agenda of my own.
As a woman, as a politician, as a leader, how much room is there for idealism in political leadership and achieving your goals?
Benazir Bhutto: For me idealism has been the motivation. I think power for itself is useless. If it was just power, how could one — politics is an obsession. You cannot just be in politics — or if you really want something — it is not an eight to five job. It’s an around the clock job. So if it was just power I think it would be very empty. I think idealism is very important. The need to change, to bring about change. I feel that life is like — or society is like — a canvas, and that if we get office you are given an opportunity to paint it. And it is up to you whether you make a good picture or whether you make a bad picture. I think it is very, very important to have ideals, because when one has ideals one thinks the suffering is worth it. And for me the suffering has been worth it because I think I could change things, and I am still idealistic and I am still optimistic. And people tell me, “Why are you still idealistic and optimistic?” And I say, “Because there could be ten people who are bad, but there are 90 people who are good.”
You do have to be practical, so there are times when you make compromises, not because you want to, but that’s how the political mathematics plays out. There have been times when we have been forced into coalitions and we’ve been unable to do the things we want to do because of other coalition powers. It’s a balancing. It’s a game of mathematics. How much are you gaining? How much can you do, and how much are you losing? You put those down and you look at it and you say, “Well okay, the gains are so much; if this is the price that has to be paid, let’s pay it.”
Do you ever stop and think back on how you might have handled things differently in your career, in your life?
Benazir Bhutto: Very much so. When I look back on my life, I think of the different stages when we were so raw and naive, before we realized how things work. I think back to the time when my father was in prison. There were hard liners, they rejected compromise. There was a lot of pressure on the military dictator, but we just weren’t ready to compromise. I think now I would look at it differently.
I think back to my first tenure as prime minister, and I didn’t get on with the president because he wanted to have a kind of presidential system and I believed in the parliamentary system. Then I remember a later president who was from my own party. I think of the amount of power I gave him, and he treated me so shabbily. If I had given the first president half the powers that I gave my own president, maybe he would not have knocked us out, and democracy could have taken stronger root.
I look back also to little things. There used to be a South Asian Association Regional Conference, and I was supposed to go to New Delhi and I didn’t go because somebody told me, “Oh, let the president go. He’s from the Punjab and if he makes an agreement it will be more acceptable.” Now I realize that maybe he was unable to do it because he came from a more militaristic background than I did.
Little things or big things, you look back and you say, “I wish I had done that a different way.” Much more critical to my own life was my failure to understand the world is moving towards transparency. I had lived through this era of military dictatorship when the press would write all sorts of things and it would be water off the duck’s back. When there were these demands, I did make an information act, but didn’t follow it through, so I wish I had given more freedom of information.
I wish I had tackled the so-called corruption issues more deeply. It was a precedent. We all knew kickbacks must be taken. Not personally but on the level that, “These things happen.” It wasn’t like, “We are here to change it.” It was like, “This is how business is done.” In retrospect, I think that I would have done many, many, many things differently.
But you learn from your own experiences. How do you succeed? By making right decisions. But how do you come to the right decisions? Through experience. And how do you get experience? Through wrong decisions. In retrospect, one is older and wiser.
But you simply have to keep going?
Benazir Bhutto: You have to keep going and keep in touch with people. Power is such a strange phenomenon that one gets isolated from the real world. People can’t see you. They can’t phone you. They have to go through the operator, and it’s up to the operator who he puts through. They can’t write you, because the secretary is going to read the letters and decide which ones are going to come to you And in countries like mine, where there has been less democracy for so many decades, and people are less literate, or very few have been educated overseas, the ability to decide what is important for the other person is missing, and it’s more an ability of who they want to please. This is quite frustrating for me because I have had exposure to the other world and I understand that it has to be done differently.
So really one becomes a prisoner. I used to meet my party people, I used to meet poor people in the villages, and they were all very happy because we were doing poverty alleviation and so on. But people in the urban middle classes were very unhappy, and I realize now that I should have been out more meeting people who worked with us, or meeting people who were the representatives of organized groups.
The other thing I learned, in the past when I used to meet people I used to want to tell them what we were doing. Now I realize that you have to listen to people and what they are saying we ought to be doing, because that’s the feedback. I heard the Prime Minister of Ireland say, “Even if you have an idea, let the other person think it’s their idea,” and he was so right.
Each time one is in trouble or hits rock bottom, it’s a time for reflection. I think being able to climb back depends very much on the ability to reflect and see how the world has changed, because it’s going to go on changing.
If a young person came to you who wanted to live a life of activism, a political life, what would your advice be to them?
Benazir Bhutto: I’d tell them, “If you believe in something, go for it, but know that when you go for it there’s a price to be paid. Be ready to pay that price and you can contribute to the welfare of society, and society will acknowledge you and respect you for it. And don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid.”
You and your husband are facing another personal crisis. What do you see ahead for yourself? What are you looking forward to?
Benazir Bhutto: I’ve left it to the Lord to decide which is the best path for me, while myself seeking high office. I learned in two decades that you can shape the direction of your society by being in power or even being outside power. So for the first time I realize you don’t have to be prime minister to dominate the debate, so I thought it’s better for me to concentrate on the party and build the party as an institution. Otherwise we never have the time. We’ve always been hounded, or we’re governing. Somebody needs to take time out to organize the party. So I said, “Let somebody else be the prime minister.” The party didn’t agree to it. They said, “We want you.” Now, as the situation is spiraling out of control more and more, people are saying, “But you’re the only national figure. You’ve got a team and you’ve got the experience and you’ve got a program, so we need you.”
But it’s ambiguous, because while people want me, they have reservations. They may be founded well or founded wrong, but they have reservations about the role of my husband. It’s very difficult, because when I was in government my husband used to deal with all the traditional politicians, and he was a great help to me. Now I see the crisis is bigger and people expect me to overcome the bigger crisis, and I have that apprehension of “How will I do it if he’s not there to be dealing with some of the tribal lords and people who are in parliament?” You can’t wish them away. So I have that sort of hesitation.
The second thing is on a more personal level. Of the 12 years I’ve been married, my husband has been behind bars for seven, so I say, “How is it life?” Again we are in politics, and the children won’t have the mother or the father, and my son is now 12. In the next five years he’ll be 17 and go off to college and then get a job and get married and have his own home. So I have these ambiguous feelings, “Is it right or not?” But I’ve always had a strong sense of duty, so I feel that I ought to go and put myself over as a candidate. My party has endorsed me for prime minister, but whether that happens or not, I leave it to the Lord to say whatever is best for me and best for my country.
Or your son could become prime minister. How would you feel about his going into politics?
Benazir Bhutto: If my children go into politics? Again very ambiguous, because I don’t want them to go through what I went through. As a mother I want to protect them from the tragedies that I have seen in my life, but they are growing up in a political home. They see politicians all the time. So for them being in politics is natural and they play games about who is going to be prime minister. I tell them, “Wait a minute. First you’ve got to get a job and you’ve got to get a profession. You can’t even think about politics without having a law degree or a medicine degree or engineering, some degree.” So I temper their enthusiasm. The world is changing, and I think that in the new global century you can have a career without being in government. Through NGOs and community service there’s a great deal that can be done.
What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead? I mean, not just for you or for Pakistan but in the world as we start our way through the 21st Century?
Benazir Bhutto: Ethnic and religious violence. I think that as nation states begin to become weaker because of the force of globalization, there will be a greater reversion to ethnicity and to religious violence. I fear that the international community lacks a mechanism for conflict prevention or being in a position to end the conflict. Everyone is looking towards America, and the American people have their own problems. They can be there if there’s a strategic concern, but they can’t be there everywhere. So there is a lack of growth of regional institutions that could deal with regional violence and leave the global problems or the strategic problems to the more global powers. I fear the 21st Century could witness a period of contradiction where there is the greatest era of peace — the super power rivalry having gone — but there is a lot of localized violence.
Still looking ahead into the 21st century, what are your hopes for us all? What are your hopes for Pakistan and the world?
Benazir Bhutto: My hope is really for a world of peace that provides people opportunities to prosper. Each individual is given life once to lead, and each individual deserves a chance to succeed, especially if they are prepared to work hard. People need peace and they need opportunity, in Pakistan and everywhere else. That’s the world I’d like to see.
We hope to see you again someday, perhaps to congratulate you on a Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the conflict in Kashmir. That would be nice.
Benazir Bhutto: That would be very nice. I would certainly work towards it if life and fate and my people gave me that opportunity.
Well, thank you for giving us this opportunity. We’ve enjoyed talking to you.
Thank you very much.