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interview

Heir Reluctant

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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Fatima Bhutto on the Disneyfication of the family graveyard and why she likes to steer clear of politics.

Q The parallels between Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi are striking, not just in their beginnings and ends, but even in their disregard for institutions. Is this similarity born of being women in a patriarchal structure?

A All women in powerful positions in the Subcontinent share an elite background. They are all wives or daughters of powerful men. Certainly, this requires a certain amount of ambition in the context of what are very messy countries. It is hard to say whether it is nature or nurture, I think it is a bit of both.

Q You yourself have been part of political campaigns. What kind of adjustments does that require?

A I think that there is something wrong with anyone who enjoys political campaigning. They need their head examined. By nature, I am someone who likes to situate myself a little outside of my surroundings. Campaigning forces you to see awful things every day and not be able to do anything about them. It takes a very thick skin.

Q Your family legacy now is being contested by President Asif Ali Zardari. As you describe it, even the Bhutto family graveyard has become part of this process. What do you make of it?

A It is an incredibly dangerous development. I remember my first visit to the family graveyard. It was an old structure, very civilised, with no walls around it. I was there last a week ago. Now it is like the Disney version of the Taj Mahal. Metal detectors line the entrance, pictures of Benazir’s wedding and her children line the walls. It has become a theme park with no resemblance to the place I knew. There are people selling pakoras outside, two hotels are coming up. A government boundary wall has been built there. Why do the dead need protection? He is building a system out of graves, feeding off the dead.

Q What did Benazir see in Zardari?

A Wonderful question, I wouldn’t know how to answer it. She really did love him. She opted for an arranged marriage so she chose him. It was not an accidental decision.

Q Your book (read review of ‘Songs of Blood and Sword’ here) offers another way of looking at Zardari. You mention your grandfather humiliated his father. Wouldn’t it be natural for him to look for some recompense on marrying Benazir?

A His story is indeed unusual. In a perverse way, it can be seen as a revenge story. But what is missing is the hard work, the pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. He is a man very connected to money and greed. A man who believes once you are in power, you can make the rules. In his father’s case, more than the humiliation, the story that matters to me is the story of a man who jumped from party to party and was part of an anti-Bhutto alliance.

Q What happens to the Bhutto legacy now?

A I don’t have any relations with that side (Zardari and his children); they are a very different species, so I can’t speak for them. Politics can’t be built on ghosts but on platforms. Any other way is dangerous and destructive. Someone told me at my book launch that they don’t believe me when I say I will not enter politics. I can’t over-emphasise that the only way such a system of entitlement can be revoked is by refusing to enable it.

Q Choices though are often imposed, Sonia Gandhi used to say the same thing.

A It took her 20 years before she did do so. I think people outside India also respect her decision, it was not taken lightly. But her case is the exception. This notion that unless you belong to a family you cannot rule is something you now see more and more in Pakistan. The ways in which you so belong can be so flimsy, so enormous energy is exerted on belonging and far too little on more substantial matters.

Q You say at the end of your book that Pakistan is something you cannot let go off. But that is not the Pakistan described by a Constitution or even a government, you have a contempt for the one that exists now. What is this Pakistan that you cannot let go of?

A I grew up with my father talking about Pakistan in an age of dictatorships. He had seen a different Pakistan. It was a new beginning for what was a very new country. And it is a phenomenal country, rich in its people and its resources with the enormously bad fortune of being burdened with bad governance. Anyone who has spent time there is surprised by it.  I can’t wait for the change that the entire country wants so much. I tell a story in the book about how the code of law under Zia prescribed amputations for various crimes but they could not find a single doctor in the entire country who would agree to carry them out while in neighbouring Afghanistan and in Saudi Arabia there was no such problem carrying out the amputations. This really amazing spirit is what keeps you hopeful.