Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan can only be described as triumphant. Every move she made was carefully choreographed, from her dress matching the colors of the national flag, to the prayer beads in her hands, to the words of defiance, glee and then tears of emotions as she alighted from the stairs to her ascendance to the top of the platform on a truck which moved at snail’s pace in the midst of her supporters towards her residence.
Her camp claimed that three million people gathered from all around the country to welcome their leader (independent estimates put it closer to several hundred thousand.) The procession wore the look of a carnival with fireworks, dancing and singing all around, all prepared by her supporters and party members, who put up their reception tents two days before her arrival near the Jinnah airport and all along her route to her residence in Karachi.
But it was quickly clear that there was much she could not control. Hell broke lose when 2 bombs blasted within a span of few seconds and at a few feet distance from her specially constructed bullet proof truck. She had gone inside the truck just a few minutes before the blast to rest her aching feet and then to review her speech, according the press conference she gave later. Within minutes of the attack, Benazir was escorted into another bullet proof car which sped from the location and took her to her home about 20 kilometers away. It is been reported that 140 had been killed in the blast and 538 had been injured in the incident.
There were credible announcements of threats to her life from Taliban elements and she herself told media in a press conference a day after the blasts that she was aware she going to be attacked.
Questions are now being raised. People are wondering why, when she knew of the attacks, she chose to take a slow moving procession in a bullet and blast proof truck while the dedicated workers of her party were walking exposed in that procession.
Three days after the attack, questions are also being asked openly why the most well organized party in the country has not moved swiftly enough to locate the families of the dead in contrast to the efficiency they displayed when bringing them to the venue. 40 unidentified bodies are still lying in morgues.
In short, her popularity is not something that can be taken for granted.
While it is true that her party has a strong political base but a large part of the liberal and working class majority of the country are not too happy at her striking a deal with the man they consider a dictator – Pervez Musharraf – at his weakest time in government.
The political situation in Pakistan is nothing else if not in flux at the moment. The majority of Pakistanis are fed up with extremists as well as the military government. But at the same time, they are also disillusioned at the way top leaders like Bhutto cut deals with government in return for dropping corruption charges against them and then demonstrate such decision-making as on the day of her October 18 return to the country when lives were put at risk and then lost.
Still, the conventional wisdom goes that these events will not decrease her popularity among the masses. On a grassroots level, her party has the majority of votes on her side which will remain on hers no matter what, as people do not change their traditional loyalties easily. The argument is made that she successfully maintains herself as a symbol of heroism and populism, an identity inherited from her father, and that people may still vote for her despite all the contradictions.
Despite the attack and the questions it has raised, Bhutto has many things going for her and she knows it. Musharraf is a great deal weaker after the summer crisis when he tried to bulldoze the judiciary than he ever has before. The United States, who hold significant influence over the Pakistani military leadership, like her. However, her trump card always has been and will continue to be the fact that by all appearances the Pakistani people embrace her, and it is that embrace which keeps her protected.
In the end, only fair and free elections will be able to determine if she is as popular as she appears.