Benazir Bhutto, and her trailblazer of a political party, has always been a source of simultaneous intrigue and irritation for me; I’ve never quite been able to reconcile myself with her heroic popularity and what I perceive to be her gross ineptitude. On one hand, I grew up in a typical working class Sindhi family that adored her and had nothing short of awe for her father. On the other hand, living in Karachi meant a private school education where there were hardly any Sindhis around, and everyone I got to know in the city was far removed from the villages and people that were a formative part of my childhood. My very identity as Sindhi, in the upper middle class echelons of the capital city of Sindh, was a rarity. My friends, more often than not from business class or army backgrounds, always asked me to teach them a phrase or two in Sindhi or to tell them more about what the villages were like. While this was indulging as a kid, it was sometimes downright confusing especially when all of these friends became adults who were pro-army or pro MQM and almost always anti-People’s Party. This hatred juxtaposed with a poster of Benazir Bhutto that has always adorned our kitchen, I never quite figured out my place in this melting pot of political affinities.
Back then, I had no idea that being Sindhi would become the prime signifier of my identity today. Recently I joined the Sindh Rural Support Programme for monitoring, evaluation and research for the Landless Harees Project. I was hired because I was fluent at my mother tongue, which was apparently quite unexpected. Last week on my first field visit to Umerkot, Thar and Mirpur Khas, I interviewed many women farmers who had been allotted land under the programme initiated by the current government last year. Some of them had been provided with seeds, fertilizer, pesticide, health insurance, food nutrition and cash grants to prepare the unused land for cultivation. Moreover, they had received some rudimentary trainings on farming, book-keeping, cooperative formation and uses of health insurance. This is part of a large scale project started in 17 districts of Sindh with the objective of empowering women farmers by making them land-owners of hitherto government-owned land for free. “Marx would be proud,” I sputtered almost inaudibly to the District Manager sitting across from me in Umerkot. His eyes lit up with a childlike glee with the M word! He then went into a detailed account of his politically active days during the Zia era when he was part of the Sindh Haree Movement in its infancy. He jovially admitted to their mistakes and shortcomings as a socialist movement back in the eighties. Comrade Nizamani convinced me why this initiative today would be brilliant if we emphasized more on the cooperative model of development. In my head, I was just relieved to be far, far away from the ‘corporation model of development’ that so many of those same friends of mine in Karachi advocated from their privileged positions in Barclays, JS Investments and Unilever.
I’ve had a lot to chew on with the People’s Party being in power again and having to encounter a million jokes and insults everyday that being in power entail for anybody. To these farmers who have benefited from this project (admittedly few and far between), Benazir and her cronies have been a god-send. I do know that if this government goes bust tomorrow, this project would be discontinued and these women would lose ownership of the land to some newly empowered landlord. Like most initiatives in Pakistan, it is not going to be a sustainable project unless there is political continuity. Here I am two decades later and I still don’t know how to reconcile myself with the ubiquitous popularity in rural Sindh and the oft-articulated failures of Benazir Bhutto in urban Pakistan.