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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008

Embodiment of Pakistan's paradoxes


LOS ANGELES — A gift given to me years ago from Benazir Bhutto, an elegantly decorated wood jewelry box slathered in glossy lacquer, still adorns a sideboard in our home.

The then-prime minister of Pakistan had wanted everyone in the room of visitors to remember her for her best. This was in 1993, not long after her second election as prime minister.

No Pakistan leader ever knows how long she, or he, will be around. In 1979 her father was hanged by the Pakistani military dictator then in power; his last will and testament to her and to the world was a book titled "If I Am Assassinated." In 1996, even while his daughter was still prime minister, her uncorrupt brother, Murtaza Bhutto, was ambushed and executed.

And so now, Benazir herself, organizing another run to power in the hopes that the third time would prove to be the charm, is assassinated in Rawalpindi, in the very city where almost three decades before her father had been killed.

The jewelry box always reminds me of Benazir for many reasons. Like her, it is physically gorgeous. Not an inch of it is plain or commonplace. It's a Sheherazade sort of period piece — a felicitous comparison to the heroine of "One Thousand and One Nights." We sense that the late Benazir Bhutto is destined to become a historic Muslim woman heroine.

Keep in mind that pristine saints do not routinely make enduring historic figures. Marie Antoinette, Evita Peron and Margaret Thatcher were no goody-two-shoes. Neither was Benazir.

This dynastic dame of Muslim Pakistan was notoriously highhanded, dismissive of contradictions, endlessly content to be insulated by rear-kissing acolytes, power-driven, short-tempered, snakily self-serving and a creature who required considerable comfort in the pricey elegance department.

She would have denied this all, probably. She would say there was no truth to the corruption cases pending against her and/or her husband in Switzerland, Spain and Britain. She denied knowing anything about the beyond-opulent diamond necklace that rests in a bank box paid for by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, himself having served time for corruption, and she would have flailed as calumny the widespread charges that she and her family over the years had raked in enough money stored in Switzerland from looting Pakistan that they were close to being able to afford to purchase their own country.

Whatever the precise reality of all these charges, this child princess of Pakistan (she was only 35 when she first took office as prime minister) was obviously not a woman of cheap tastes.

As the young twig is bent, so grows the tree: The early education at Lady Jennings Nursery School in Karachi, the college degree from Harvard, further study at Oxford. There was the apartment in the Barbican section of London, the occasional family reunion in the French Riviera, the lavish family home in an upmarket section of Dubai, and the sense — as the prescient British-Pakistani historian and author Tariq Ali memorably put it — that Benazir viewed her Pakistani political party (Pakistan People's Party) as a personal "family heirloom."

Predictably, Benazir's final will and testament, now made public, underscores her sense of entitlement as it shamelessly denotes her husband as the inheritor of the PPP.

And hubby Zardari is some piece of work, of course. Widely alleged to have much cash stashed in Switzerland, he was to be the Pakistani Raj behind the PPP throne. Thus he quickly handed off the title to their eldest child, 19-year-old Bilawal, and tried to duck behind the throne. The unflustered young prince quickly announced he was taking on the Bhutto name and ditching "Zardari" but would finish his studies at Oxford before doing anything new.

Even so, whoever is to actually run the PPP will be a Bhutto one way or the other — as it has always been. But the late Benazir will go down in history as much more than just a bridge Bhutto: This announced admirer of Thatcher was herself a kind of Asian iron lady of history.

The vicious political killing of her father radicalized her to the core and galvanized her political ambitions. She came to realize that her life was not her own and that any Bhutto would never have any private life.

Reflecting on the breakup of her marriage-alliance to Zardari earlier this year, she wrote candidly: "In the end, personal life is sacrificed on the altar of political commitment. This is because the public is the political family. To succeed and reach the top, most families, irrespective of gender, whether in politics or other professions, have to go the extra mile, consequently sacrificing personal interests to the larger cause."

In the end, oft-troubled Pakistan paid her back by killing her, as it had her father and her brother. History plays by its own rules, has its own code of morality and sets its own legacy agenda.

History will show that Benazir Bhutto amounted to more than some mere dynasty darling, more than some commonplace coquette of corruption, more than a spoiled striver for ambition's sake.

For inside the box of the puzzle that was Ms. Bhutto was the essence of Pakistan, with all its irresistible attractions and off-putting contradictions.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a syndicated columnist, has been writing columns about Asia and America since 1996. His latest book is "Confessions of an American Media Man." Copyright 2008 Tom Plate


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