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Pilgrimage to nowhere

A year on from Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Fatima Bhutto visits the family mausoleum and reflect

The old Bhutto mazaar, or graveyard, is in a small town called Garhi Khuda Bux. It is not fair to call it a town; it’s a hamlet really, nestled between swaths of fertile agricultural land and small town centres that cater to travelling traders and produce distributors. When I was younger, I used to know we were close to the mazaar as we drove by the old paan wallah. He was a geriatric who sold betel-leaf paans, conical beedi cigarettes and a pack or two of Gold Leaf extra-strong smokes from the table he sat on. The mazaaritself was hundreds of years old and is where the Bhuttos have been buried since they settled in Sind. Wooden pillars, carved with lattice designs, marked the absence of the four walls that would have enclosed the open-air burial site. It was a sombre resting place: four corners of Sind lay open around you, and the dusty smell of the air in Garhi Khuda Bux’s desert climate surrounded mourners who came to mark death anniversaries and birthdays.

It's all gone now.

It was torn down by the last member of the family to be buried there, Benazir Bhutto, and rebuilt as a mausoleum. In a country where politics has always orbited around personalities, she was determined that hers would be the largest and the grandest. Benazir rebuilt the old family mazaar in the manner of an Aladdin-style castle. The structure has a domed roof, four minaret-like points facing in different directions, a grand driveway so that no one need bother to walk, and elaborate staircases which lead nowhere. It's revolting. It looks like the Disney version of the Taj Mahal.

A visiting journalist once asked me what was going to be built on a second storey of the grandiose mausoleum, the one the staircases presumably were erected for. "A gift store, probably," I answered. I was joking. But there is one now - actually, there are plenty, they're just not on the second floor.

Outside the mausoleum there are juice sellers, men with portable pakora and popcorn machines, stalls selling pictures of all the dead Bhuttos and more stalls selling posters and tapes of the dead Bhuttos' speeches. It's macabre, but this is the shrine that Benazir built for herself; this is the afterbirth of her death.

Now her posters, in the manner of those at Sufi shrines, hang inside the mausoleum, over the graves even. There is no space for the sacred, there is no space for grief, only space for advertising and political grandstanding of "Look whom I'm related to"-type posters, "Vote for my children, they're next!" warnings, and so on.

One year after Benazir's assassination, this is what her legacy has come down to. And it is fitting that in her death, like in her life, there is no talk of principles or ideology, only of personality and genealogy.

There is, however, a small matter to contend with: the larger legacy, so to speak. Two months after her violent death, the party she headed as chairperson for life (an actual title) - the Pakistan Peoples Party - came to power on a sympathy vote. The people voted for a ghost and they ended up with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and her cronies in power. Pakistan is, to date, the only nuclear-armed country in the world led by two former criminals. And as the new PPP's first year in power comes to a close, coinciding with the death of its chairperson, I feel compelled, as a Pakistani, to recap what all this means and to ask, "What legacy have we been left with?"

Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of the poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live

Clearly, it is a legacy with no sense of irony. In the United States the Pakistani diplomatic mission to Texas is hard at work raising funds for a Charlie Wilson Chair of Pakistan Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Out of all the people in the universe who should have a chair in Pakistani studies named after them, the American congressman who funded the mujahedin (now Taliban) through Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, is the stupidest person to choose. Remember how well Wilson’s efforts turned out? Well, right here in Pakistan we have daily reminders. In the last week of December, a branch of the Peshawar Model School was attacked. The school, which offers private education to 12,000 of the poorest children in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban – thanks, Charlie Wilson – because it teaches girls and boys together. Two buses were burned to a crisp and ten others were quite seriously torched. A parcel of dynamite that exploded in the principal’s office maimed several staff and groundskeepers.

US drones continue to breach Pakistani sovereignty, with the blessing of President Zardari, who proclaimed to those being anonymously killed that "the air strikes will go on". Somebody told him that was a bad PR move, so he quickly rescinded the proclamation.

The front page of a leading English-language daily last month carried a statement by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, in large, bold letters, "Kayani pledges matching response to India strike in no time". The story directly opposite read, in a con siderably smaller font, "US missiles kill seven in South Waziristan". This referred to civilians killed on 22 December, but, in fact, the unmanned drones have been killing since the autumn.

While it remains acceptable for Americans to come and kill our citizens, Pakistan's government has issued bombastic and seemingly harsh statements to counter the threat of a possible Indian air strike following the fallout of the Mumbai massacres. It's nice to be distracted from an actual daily death toll, after all.

There's more, lots more legacy to contend with. At a mid-December Asia Society panel in New York, grave charges were placed against Pakistan. Salman Rushdie, no fan of Pakistan (and why would he be, when the country's parliament pledged its continued desire to prolong his fatwa and allowed several members publicly to offer to kill him after he was knighted in 2007), summed up the way people are now looking at Pakistan: "The headquarters of al-Qaeda, the headquarters of the Taliban, the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammad is in the world centre of terrorism - Pakistan." For emphasis, he added, "All the roads of world terrorism lead to Pakistan."

For those Rushdie bashers who would be quick to fatwa him for that statement, it is worth remembering that he is as Pakistani as he is Indian, his family having moved to Karachi and lived and died there.

But it is not just Rushdie who lacks faith in this new Pakistan. A poll conducted in the country in October by the International Republican Institute showed that 88 per cent of Pakistanis think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Fifty-nine per cent said they felt their economic situation would worsen in the coming year and the PPP received a rating so unfavourable that the pollsters compared it to former President Pervez Musharraf's figures last January. Why should Pakistanis have any confidence in their government? Recently it was made known that the puppet prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, had spent 50 million rupees on five foreign trips over the pre vious four months. That's something close to £450,000 - for one man (and his very large entourage, apparently). I smell corruption. You'd have no sense of smell if you didn't.

Legacies aren't enough in Pakistan. They never were, but now we have ample proof why. Personalities and dynasties are meaningless in a country where, every day, gastrointestinal disease kills children because they have no access to potable water. Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of Pakistan's poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live.

Mohammad Azam Khan worked for a private cable channel. He killed himself in early December, having not received a salary for five months. His colleagues held protest rallies around the country, but no one - especially not the media - wants us to remember his name or why he felt he had no choice but to take his own life.

Pakistanis have bigger problems to contend with, bigger causes to grieve for than Benazir Bhutto. And yet, a year on from her death, we are still at the mercy of our ghosts.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times