Martyrs for democracy
By Colin Freeman and Massoud Ansari in Karachi | October 21, 2007
Sherbaz Sorihani lay in his hospital bed, his tattered robes torn and his arms and legs covered in cuts. For years, his family have prided themselves on being "diehard" supporters of Benazir Bhutto. Last week, they proved it.
Mr Sorihani, 26, along with his brother Pervez, 27, and cousin Urs, 18, were among the thousands of party volunteers who formed a "human shield" around Ms Bhutto's convoy during her homecoming parade in Karachi on Thursday.
When the suicide bomber attacked, they bore the brunt of the blast: Pervez and Ur were among the 139 killed, while Sherbaz escaped with shrapnel wounds.
"My brother has three young children. Who will look after them now?" asked a tearful Mr Sorihani, whose family had to pay 20,000 rupees (£160) just to hire an ambulance to take the bodies for burial. He then raised a bloodied arm, smiled, and flicked a defiant victory sign. "But I tell you, even if they kill 20 more of my family, we will continue to sacrifice our lives for Ms Bhutto. Today feels like Doomsday but, Inshallah, she will make things better."
The willingness of her supporters to die for the cause shows how Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, formed by her late father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto 40 years ago, goes well beyond mere populism.
For many of her millions of supporters, it is not just a party but a cult, inspiring the same sense of martyrdom as the Taliban fighters suspected of launching the suicide attack.
Such adulation will also bring huge demands to deliver, however. Ms Bhutto's supporters expect her not just to replace Pakistan's stagnant military rule with democracy, but to achieve other equally lofty goals: to end the country's severe poverty and inequality; to improve human rights; to revamp the ramshackle health and education services, and to tackle escalating Islamic militancy, the country's greatest threat.
All are problems that have proved the undoing of previous Pakistani governments - not least Ms Bhutto's own two previous administrations, from 1988-90 and 1993-96.
The scale of the challenge is spelt out by Bhutto supporters like Sardar Lashkari Raisani, 46, an influential tribal leader from the lawless western province of Balochistan, who was at her VIP reception at Karachi airport on Thursday. His journey to greet her from his home city of Quetta was an agonising, day-long drive along pot-holed mountain roads - just one example, he says of the neglect that Baluchistan has suffered during General Musharraf's rule.
Combined with rampant corruption in the courts and police, it means people rely on other forms of authority - firstly Mr Raisani's own tribal law, which sees his family as judge, juries and executioners, but increasingly that of militant Islamic mullahs.
"People really feel that it is time for a revolution," he told the Telegraph. "Things have never been as corrupt as they are now, and the common man has lost faith in the system. Islamic militancy is getting worse, and unless things change, Pakistan will erupt. With 160 million people here, that eruption will be felt by the rest of the world."
Like most PPP supporters, Mr Raisani brings with him a specific wish-list for Ms Bhutto. Its requests range from slashing the prices of wheat and tomatoes in local markets through to freeing 75 members of his own tribe, arrested on suspicion of fighting for Balochistan's separatist insurgency.
Most important of all, though, is jobs, a demand repeated by every PPP faction across the country when they converged on Karachi last week.
It is on this crucial issue, though, that Ms Bhutto parts company with the British and American governments that have quietly backed her return. While she shares their blueprint for Pakistan as a liberal, secular democracy, her economic policies are unabashedly socialist: a huge, government-led job creation program, much of it focused on Pakistan's already bloated state sector.
Such policies helped win her votes during her previous two terms in office, but critics say it is little more than old-fashioned political patronage that will benefit only PPP supporters and reinforce the bitter divisions that have paralysed Pakistani politics for decades. Asked if the jobs would also go to those outside the party, Mr Raisani smiled and said "no comment".
Taj Haider, who leads a PPP think tank, is more diplomatic, insisting that jobs will be given out by merit. But even he admits it may not be in a manner approved by Pakistan's Western creditors.
He has a hugely ambitious target of creating 800,000 new jobs a year by building energy plants, developing fisheries and farming and offering all of Pakistan's millions of shanty town dwellers a plot of land to build their own home.
"Yes, it is socialism, does that scare you?" he said. "But there is no other solution. IMF and World Bank solutions only protect poverty and unemployment."
Whatever his talk of plain dealing, many of Pakistan's power brokers now see a clear advantage in cosying up to the Bhutto camp. Last week the streets of Karachi were full of welcome home billboards sponsored by local bigwigs - their photo often featuring larger than that of Ms Bhutto herself.
"It's a way of getting on the bandwagon," said Ahmed Ali Lakho, a Karachi resident. "They are are all expecting something from being associated with her."
It was when that same bandwagon faltered over corruption and mismanagent that Ms Bhutto's two previous administrations ended in failure.
Disillusioned with her performance, few of her supporters shed many tears to see her go. A decade on, though, they insist that this time she will not disappiont.
"One of the big difficulties before was lack of experience, and the way the military establishment worked against her," said Fauzia Wahab, a PPP-backed parliamentarian. "And it's not fair to criticize her for failing her manifesto, as she she didn't get to serve her full time in office."
This time, Ms Bhutto seems more likely to do so. Public appetite for military rule, be it by General Musharraf or anybody else, is waning, in favour of a sense that only an elected, civilian leader will have the legitimacy to quell the country's growing Islamic militancy and reconcile the country's unruly factionalism.
And even her bitter opponents in the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), a pro-Musharraf party that fought vicious street battles with the PPP only back in May, now strike a conciliatory tone. A third chance for Ms Bhutto, they grudingly concede, may be the least of many evils. "We want to coexist," said Nasreen Jalil, the MQM's deputy mayoress. "Because if we don't fight militarism, we will be wiped out and become the next Afghanistan."