Benazir and Indira as Papa's Puppets

Benazir and Indira as Papa's Puppets

The Complex Electra
Farzana Versey
December 28, 2007, Counterpunch

Brave and courageous. These words have not yet been applied to Nawaz Sharif who returned to a turbulent Pakistan, but Benazir Bhutto was honoured with such terms. She died on what people will now see as those terms. As the first Muslim woman to become head of state, she came with a readymade bonafide of martyr-rebel.

“Despite threats of death, I will not acquiesce to tyranny, but rather lead the fight against it,” she had said recently. If she would have got the opportunity, it would have been the third time. Politics is about erring often enough to be human.

Benazir may have identified with India’s Rajiv Gandhi, but those were superficial similarities. Her real mirror, if it may be called so, was Indira Gandhi.

Aside from the fact that both were ambitious women, they shared complete devotion to and obsession with their fathers. While Ms. Gandhi was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s only child, it is rather interesting that despite the politics of the subcontinent, as indeed the world, being heavily patriarchal Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto chose his daughter over his sons as his political heir.

The two male parents became Svengali and nemesis, their ghosts continued to not merely haunt but hypnotise their daughters. When Indira first came into politics, she was called “goongi gudiya” (the dumb doll). Her whole political credo was therefore designed to hit back.

She was Papa’s puppet. Naturally, in that small stage she had to move according to a pre-set rhythm. Katherine Frank’s biography talks about her paranoia regarding those she considered Nehru’s enemies. She felt that they were “out to trap her father and bring him down”. What was happening is that she was fearful for herself. Even as puppet she wanted to be on centre-stage. Perhaps, by getting her father to move away from the clique, she was subconsciously trying to claim complete ownership.

Psychology would describe this as the Electra Complex that combines penis envy with castration fear. Symbolically, the desire for impregnation would manifest itself in being able to internalise the father’s ideology.

Neither Benazir nor Indira managed to strike out on their own in terms of policy or altering the role of the family as ‘monarchy’. Benazir, had she lived longer, would have brought her children into the political arena just as Indira Gandhi did.

Dynastic rule in democracies or quasi democracies has been about perpetuating the name of the father. (The widow as successor is essentially legitimised only as ‘carrier’ of the husband’s progeny.) The spouse is a prop, often a convenient one to act as buffer and even bear the brunt of blame. Indira’s marriage to Feroze Gandhi was a façade that went through moments of turmoil to keep it alive. In all likelihood, she took his name to try and be her own person and not merely the offspring of Nehru.

Feroze was known to be a womaniser. Indira was aware of it. Her humiliation would be avenged only if he felt that while he had proved his manhood, he had lost out as the “nation’s son-in-law”.

Asif Ali Zardari came with similar credentials. Benazir settled into arranged matrimony and baby-producing to give Pakistan the sort of woman who did regular things and had descendants to perpetuate the royal pure blood.

With such delusions, these women till the very last posed a threat only to themselves.

Indira Gandhi saw imaginary demons. The result: The Emergency. Like all frightened people, she camouflaged her baseless theories about others trying to plot against her government and stall its functioning beneath self-righteousness, declaring that democracy was not more important than the nation. She could not even tolerate a peaceful resistance movement. She was found guilty of corrupt electoral practices by the High Court.

Benazir Bhutto was exiled to escape corruption charges. The pretence of being the people’s princess had to wear off once it was realised her father had been the emperor with no clothes. The veneer of statesman was wearing thin.

Is it any surprise that Ms. Bhutto blatantly supported the Taliban regime in its initial years to make certain that the Afghans did not breathe down her neck?

This was similar in manner to Indira Gandhi propping up Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a leader in Punjab, when he was a non-entity. She and her younger son Sanjay used him till it was convenient.

The mistake we make is to confuse populism for popularity. There is no doubt that both these women had their ears to the ground; as opposed to the sons of the soil, they were the mothers of the earth. This again works well in the Electra Complex where the daughters aspire to replace the mother. In villages and remote towns it can have tremendous appeal. The poor and illiterate in our subcontinent like to be seen as loyal subjects being the benefactors of largesse. Political coquetry is a trait that comes with the territory.

To make the situation even better, both these women had the benefit of a western education and an urbane lifestyle. This seems a bit ironical for they insisted on holding steadfastly to the dying socialist principles of their fathers. These principles were for the most part straw pillars meant for the masses; these families remained committed to feudalism in their own lives. They had the luxury of encouraging coteries without seeming to court anyone.

In India, Ms. Gandhi took away the privy purses, but kept the princes. She spoke about rationality, but had a hedonistic ‘godman’ as a close confidante. She was suave and sophisticated, but she encouraged greasy middlemen. She spoke about “social democracy” but blatantly gave a fillip to underhand financial dealings that came to be known as ‘the license permit raj’. And she thrived on strife. This is how she came to support the Mukti Bahini in what was then East Pakistan and became Bangladesh.

A goddess was born. A few years later, she had internalised the spook and revelled in the praise, “Indira is India, and India is Indira.”

Benazir did not have to deal with such a coinage, perhaps because heading an Islamic country meant no idol worship. Instead, she deftly marketed herself as the broadminded, non-jihadi face of Pakistan. Her version of social democracy too was embedded in the old-fashioned ideals of dignity of other people’s labour while she sat back as her husband made the money and got to keep the change.

It takes some sleight of mind to master the act of playing both distressed damsel and the dominatrix-matriarch fiercely protective of everything around them and, as a consequence, their own position.

While most women in ‘tough’ roles are accused of mimicking men, as the ‘Only Man in the Cabinet’ and ‘Ms. Virgin Ironpants’, Indira and Benazir demasculinised themselves. Talking about woman power, what they really did was to build a cottage industry of being wronged. Politics became not just a playground for suppressed emotions but a serious arena for catharsis.

Both women were elected to office twice. Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her most trusted bodyguard. No one has as yet suggested that it could well have been a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) sympathiser who did Benazir in. She was the visible face of the party, but the ideology was dictated by the spectre of Zulfiqar Ali. Some say that her niece Fatima Bhutto, who has made serious allegations against her aunt for the murder of her father Murtaza, could possibly play an important role.

If that were to happen, we would have one more “mind-controlled victim” avenging her father’s death and dreaming his dreams. Individual voices in Pakistan are being muffled by echoes of old thoughts.


  1. FYI, MP3 of Benazir Bhutto's niece, Fatima Bhutto interviewed by Chuck Mertz of This is Hell on November 24 (her segment is between minutes 4-36 of the program).

  2. I disagree with the comparison (it appears stretched). Benazir never had it as easy as Indira Gandhi. Benazir's struggles were a lot harder and the society in which she struggled was a lot tougher, too. She carried her father's name, of course, but she was her own person who had to grow up quickly after her dad was executed. She was a tenacious and courageous lady. I admire a lot about her. The piece could have been more sensitive under the present circumstances.

  3. Two cent review
    This is a very timely article, however lacks depth while drawing far-reaching conclusions based on analysis not quite borne by historical evidence. Firstly, there is little evidence to support the claim that Z.A. Bhutto "chose his daughter over his sons". There is plenty of evidence as to why Benazir rose to prominence - evoking a Freudian paradigm (in lieu of real evidence) is akin to a psychoanalyst looking for a psycho. Benazir was the oldest of the siblings, Murtaza, her younger brother was far more radical and less prone to the political gerrymandering a prerequisite for any aspiring politician. On the contrary, Benazir played the game well and aligned herself with the PPP leadership even at a very young age. The differences in personality traits will come to bear on their relationships with each other and the manner in which they chose their respective spouses. This disparity will be further amplified after Z. A. Bhutto's execution when Murzata went underground to avenge for his father's death, while Benazir joined "the party" - much to Nusrat Bhutto's chagrin. While offering rudimentary psychoanalysis based on what Freud called the Oepidus Complex vis-à-vis Benazir/Indra choice, no theory is offered as to why the son(s) were not chosen - reverse penis envy or perhaps the womb envy?. As for Indra - there wasn't much of a choice, unless of course Nehru fathered illegitimate children - much to Lord Mountbatten’s' chagrin. If disparagement/glorification of female genitalia are expressions of male fixation and fetishism, reverse must also be true. Bill’s in the mail.

  4. FV:

    You have hit the nail on the head. Indira and BB can be as similar as they can be. The complexities of democracy, polity and society in respective countries made their actions seem different. At a base level, the comparison is apt and well-put.
    Although, I have my doubts about comparing ZA Bhutto and Nehru.

  5. Farzana,
    Being that this is an opinion piece, and given my lack of knowledge of Indira to compare to Benazir, I will hold back on criticism.

    To say that Benazir never had it as easy as Indira might not be entirely accurate. Benazir had it quite easy until her father was executed in 1979. When that happened,when she was imprisoned, her life was in turmoil, but to some extent, Benazir had banked upon her father's name. It is evident from some of her interviews that she would have been someone's puppet, in order to survive in politics, not necessarily her Papa's. This is not said in disrespect of the dead. . .

  6. Farzana... This is an excellent piece, well researched more importantly objective.

    SK... I tried to open the link but was unable to do so. Would appreciate if you could help me with it.

  7. Farzana,

    Benazir was a product of the Simla Conference. I have reason to believe that.

    That was her first exposure to complicated political issues, war, diplomacy, and towering personalities with Power. That experience when her father took her along at a very young age became embedded in her.

    Her idols were first her father (who was a charismatic womanizer amongst much else) and Indira Gandhi (who was an elegant blue-blooded princess plus a tyrant plus attracted to playboys), who married Feroze Gandhi (a womanizer) and Benazir modeled her life on these enormously powerful personalities finding the similarities. She identified with these.

    She was attracted to Zardari (a charismatic womanizer and famous playboy), became a tyrant in her own party (just like her father and Indira), and died violently just as the above two did ... in sheer false bravado that somehow no one could touch them (remember Bhutto's words that Himalayas will shake if they kill me, and Indira's refusal to do away with the Sikh bodyguards after Bhindranwale?).

    In the end, all of them let down their country, their followers, their responsibilities being incharge of great nations at difficult junctures, all in delusions of self-assumed divine authority over enemies.

    People much lesser than them killed them all. Very easily.

    These are the failings of great power and great personalities. The combination is lethal.

  8. No truer words were said.

    [If that were to happen, we would have one more “mind-controlled victim” avenging her father’s death and dreaming his dreams. Individual voices in Pakistan are being muffled by echoes of old thoughts.]

  9. Thanks for the comments, and I am not going to argue with the different opinions because this is an opinion piece...I only do opinion pieces.

    However, a few points:
    1. Sensitivity in the present circumstances? To what? A public figure can and will be dissected. I wonder how sensitive it is for people to come up with weird conspiracy theories. Besides, I was told that in the West people do have a tradition of 'celebrating' the person's life. So, what is ok for the westerners and expats, is darn well ok for us...and even if it is not, it is ok by me. It is not like I have dragged her children in and made snide comments. This is analysis...disagreement with it is a prerogative. That's it.

    2. I have made one set of comparisons; it does not mean the flip side is untrue or has not registered. When I write about Rajiv Gandhi I would discuss the Oedipus Complex.

    3. I have not compared ZAB and Nehru as politicians at all.

    On a slightly facetious note...

    - I don't always like it deep...so this was a bird's eye-View.
    - whatmeworry (if you don't, then why no name?)...the first post was extremely lucid.
    - "Bill’s in the mail." Don't want him. Tom, Dick and Harry are already here.

    Once again, I value your views, even if I do not agree with some.

    "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimickry, their passions a quotation."

    These words of Oscar Wilde apply to the 'characters' I have tried to understand through one particular prism of thought. There are several others...

  10. Salim Chauhan30/12/2007, 05:19

    What a brilliant article! You have convincingly trashed the convenient resort to dynastic rule by nostalgic and vested interests in both India and Pakistan. By drawing some astonishing parallels, connecting the obvious dots, and then arriving at some very unpredictable conclusions, you have capably presented the case against the seed of political charisma. You have also differentiated between popularity and populism and discouraged us from confusing the two.

    I would only add that, Farzana, you should include the American experience in this analogy. Whether it's Gandhi or Bhutto, or Kennedy, Bush, or Clinton - the name in itself is no guarantee of future results.

    Thanks for an presenting a uniquely interesting viewpoint that definitely goes against the grain.


  11. BB and Indira Gandhi were both extremely intelligent and courageous PMs of subcontinent. I salute both of these ladies for their bravery.

    This is piece has hurt my feelings and it feels like FV has sprinkled salt on my wounds which are fresh and I find this piece very insensitive and irresponsible.


  12. PPP sources, meanwhile, said Benazir Bhutto’s 19-year-old son Bilawal Zardari will be elected the new chief of the party on Sunday at a scheduled meeting. The sources said Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari had turned down the offer to lead the PPP. "Bilawal will be the new chief of the party," a PPP leader told this newspaper from Larkana.

    This news item is not merely to say, I told you so...just wondering whether Pakistani democracy can be steered by a 19-year-old.


    Too many comparisons would not have worked, although TV channels here compared it with the Kennedy Curse.

    As an aside, since you are new here, take a look at my rejoinder to Jemima Khan. http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/2007/10/rejoinder-to-jemima-khan.html

    One needs to look at a perspective from where one is standing to where the other is.


    FV would not wish to hurt you of all people, but FV also has to say what she has to. My stand has remained unchanged and you will see in the above link that I did strike a fair balance. Wouldn't you prefer that I stayed true to msyelf rather than pretend? This time we will agree to disagree, ok? You be well. And I mean it.

    Incidentally, when I was young I did think IG had a tremendously charismatic persona and was the best thing to happen to India. One got disillusioned later...
    - - -

    The editor of The Arab News has written asking me for permission to reproduce this piece. This information is more than a little interesting.


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