The battle of all mothers: Benazir Bhutto is at war, so is her mother; at each other's throats. 'You're fired' was the prime minister's cry. 'Matricide]' was the reply. Michael Fathers reports

Michael Fathers
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:20

From now on you might choose to address the prime minister of Pakistan as Mrs Benazir Zardari. Last week her family stopped calling her a Bhutto. Her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, making a brief appearance from jail in Karachi on Saturday, referred to his sister for the first time as Begum Zardari, making clear she belonged to another tribe.

Her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, who tends to turn a shade of ghostly grey when she hears the word Zardari, surname of her daughter's in-laws, said that Benazir had 'definitely gone cuckoo' and was 'obviously frightened of her family'.

She had not only barred her mother from the prime minister's residence in Islamabad, but the first 'press directive' - the initial administrative step in Pakistan towards censorship - of her new government was to gag her mother. Newspaper editors were warned that it would not be wise to interview Begum Nusrat.

This followed Benazir's 'secret coup' in Lahore on 5 December, which ousted her mother from the leadership of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The party's 32-member executive committee, summoned from their beds across the country, were flown to the Punjab province capital to chuck out Begum Nusrat and promote Benazir to the commanding title of 'chairperson'.

It was said that Benazir, 40, was fearful her mother, as leader of the party her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's executed prime minister, had founded, would appoint Murtaza, 39, party chairman and then step aside.

Begum Nusrat said: 'She telephoned me from Lahore and said: 'Mummy, how would you like to be patron-in-chief of the PPP?' I laughed. 'Pinkie (her family nickname),' I said, 'where in the world is there a patron-in-chief of a political party? You have a patron of a tennis club, a charity, an arts committee.' So I refused. And she said: 'Well, think it over'. The same day she held this illegal meeting and had me deposed.'

Since then the prime minister has refused to talk to her family. Friends and relatives who have pleaded in tears to her for a reconciliation have been hushed and told not to mention Murtaza or Begum Nusrat in her presence. The rift, it would seem, is final.

Benazir and Murtaza have squabbled most of their life. Ask any member of the family if Benazir bossed her siblings and you are met with roars of laughter. Murtaza says she tried to boss everybody. 'She would say: 'I want to watch this TV programme. Don't make a noise, I'm reading. Do this. Or don't do that. It would provoke me and my brother more.'

In her autobiography, Daughter of the East, Benazir describes a scene in which she and Murtaza were at each other's throats during a family reunion in France in 1985. She argued that Murtaza's commitment to violence to overthrow General Zia ul-Haq was undermining her position. Their brother, Shah Nawaz, and sister, Sanaam, intervened and politics was banned from future gatherings.

But it was Benazir's arranged marriage to Asif Zardari, a Karachi playboy and property developer, which was the cause of the deep and perhaps unbridgeable rift in the family.

The feud between Murtaza and Asif and Benazir began at another family reunion in France in 1989, when Murtaza met his brother-in-law for the first time.

He pushed Asif into a corner of their hotel suite and warned him that his business deals were undermining Benazir's government. (When it fell, Asif was jailed for two years.) Murtaza also lectured Asif on the Bhutto legacy, saying it was not to be sullied by an upstart or hijacked by the Zardari family and its cronies. Asif made no attempt to defend himself but he nursed the insult. Later he warned a terrified Benazir that Murtaza and his 'boys' were trying to kill them and their children.

Today, Asif wields enormous influence. 'If Asif doesn't like you that's it,' one PPP official said. Friends say Benazir has a blind spot to all complaints about him.

The family's differences came to public notice in September, when Murtaza, in exile for 16 years and wanted at home on terrorist charges relating to his opposition to General Zia's martial law regime, announced that he would contest a slate of seats in Sind province - the Bhutto stronghold - under the name of the Shaheed Bhutto (Bhutto the martyr) Committee in Pakistan's general election.

Begum Nusrat, who wanted her son back in Pakistan, offered her support. Benazir was outraged, claiming it was an attempt to undermine her authority and weaken the PPP in key constituencies.

Murtaza remained in Damascus and sent his wife and children to campaign on his behalf. The political platform of the Shaheed committee alleged that the PPP had been taken over by opportunists and big businessmen. It implied that Benazir had forsaken her father's socialist policies, had joined forces with his enemies and was surrounded by corrupt toadies.

One enemy and opportunist in particular was identified. He was Hussein Haqqani, her media adviser. Begum Nusrat and Murtaza were outraged over his appointment. He was a former student leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamic fundamentalist group that had violently opposed the PPP. In the 1988 general election he had been spokesman for Nawaz Sharif, Benazir's chief opponent, and had orchestrated a campaign of dirty tricks against the Bhutto women, publishing leaflets which showed their faces superimposed on nude bodies.

Later he fell out with Sharif and joined Benazir before the election announcement this year. Benazir argued that it was better to have Haqqani working with her than against her, and that she could dump him when it suited her. The family refused to accept this.

In the event Murtaza won only one seat. Benazir, who had just secured victory for the PPP and was about to form a new government, could afford to be magnanimous. She made her one and only statement on her brother: 'Whatever political life he wants to follow, whether to join the PPP or to oppose it, is quite a separate matter. On a personal level I would be very happy any day he chose to return. Why shouldn't he come back? It's his home, it's his country.'

And so he did. And went straight to prison as soon as his aircraft landed at Karachi. He faced charges of hijacking and sabotage, linked to the underground group Al Zulfikar, which Murtaza and his late brother, Shah Nawaz (murdered in France in 1985 at the age of 26), set up to try to topple the generals who had overthrown their father and had him executed in 1979.

Benazir refused to speak to Murtaza before the elections. She has refused to speak to him since his return. Her aides have made it clear that Benazir and her husband expect Murtaza to be inside for up to two years. Begum Nusrat claims government lawyers have been told bail will be refused for six to eight months and that her son's trial is being deliberately delayed.

At issue in the present conflict is the Bhutto name and who inherits the Bhutto legacy. Take the family name away, as Murtaza did at the weekend by calling his sister Mrs Zardari, and in effect you are attempting to remove her popular appeal. Pakistan, Murtaza is saying, has a Zardari government, not a Bhutto one.

Murtaza has openly admitted that he is seeking to rally the disaffected Bhuttoists. Benazir, he argues, has sold out to their father's enemies, who are intent on destroying his party.

There are no holds barred in this dynastic conflict. Expect the fight for the PPP to be fierce and bloody.

(Photographs omitted)

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