Bhutto's hometown in frenzy at return of exiled leader
A small queue of peasant girls approaches the grave of Pakistan's former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, on the outskirts of his family's ancestral home in Larkana. One by one, they climb the steps and kneel with their heads slightly bowed. The eldest leans over to kiss the silk cloth that shrouds the marble encased remains of Pakistan's most explosive leader, while her sisters raise their cupped hands in prayer. Others stand at a distance, silently sprinkling rose petals from between the surrounding pillars.
These displays of reverence – more usually found at the shrines of sufi saints – are wearily familiar to Muhammad Issa, the caretaker of the grave and the vast Mughal-imitation tomb that houses it. "Some 50 to 60 carloads arrive every day," he says. "They come from all over the country and beyond to pay their respects to Bhutto sahib."
Later this week, it will be the turn of his eldest daughter and political heir. Eight years after fleeing the country amid allegations of corruption on an epic scale, Benazir Bhutto plans to return to Pakistan on Thursday to launch a bid for an historic third term as prime minister.
"She'll get her crown back, God willing," says Abdul Ghafoor, a flower seller in the hot and dusty bazaar, who is gathering orders for roses that will be showered on Ms Bhutto as she tours the streets. "It will be our heart's delight if she returns. We were saddened she left us."
The sentiments are met with vigorous nods from the crowd that has assembled around the stall. "She never forgot us when she went," says another man. "It was just because of the government. They forced her to be away from us."
Others weigh in with tales of how prayers for her return to power are routinely offered in the local mosques, and scores of cows are being slaughtered in her honour.
Those who manage to move beyond the cultish devotion all complain that little has been done over the past decade to improve their lives. Along with the summer heat, poverty in Pakistan is at its most severe in this Sindh region.
Many still live in serfdom on the sprawling estates of feudal landowners. Water supplies are limited. And levels of crime are disturbingly high.
According to Hussain Haroon, a prominent Sindhi political commentator who also keenly awaits Ms Bhutto's return, Islamabad has long been content to ignore the smallest province. "The only time that the people of Sindh have got their rights," he says, "is when the PPP [Pakistan People's Party] is in power."
Much of the enthusiasm for Ms Bhutto is buttressed on the memory of her father, whose portraits are just as inescapable as hers across the town. "I love Benazir because of her Zulfikar Ali Bhutto," explains a shopkeeper, Muhammad Ali Sheikh. "He made our people famous. He took them to new glories."
Born to one of Sindh's wealthiest landowning families, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emerged as Pakistan's first democratically elected leader after the civil war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. His fiery speeches, often laced with taunts against the generals and the rich, won him prestige among the poor of Punjab and Sindh. In 1977, he was toppled in a military coup, and hanged on trumped-up murder charges two years later.
Ms Bhutto inherited the torch of leadership of the PPP through the bars of her father's death cell. After braving years of prison and exile, she returned to Pakistan in 1986 as the heroine of the pro-democracy struggle to a million-strong welcome in Lahore. The resonance of the Bhutto name was enough for her to secure a narrow triumph at the polls two years later. But her stock fell sharply over the next decade as she was accused of salting away the spoils of power.
While her party's popularity has remained mostly untouched by the corruption allegations, her moves towards a power-sharing deal with the unpopular General Pervez Musharraf may damage her at the parliamentary elections expected in January. Over recent months, the woman who once sang the virtues of toppling military dictatorships has come under fire from rivals, former party members and estranged family members for betraying her father's legacy.
None more so than Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, Benazir's great-uncle and head of the Bhutto clan. At his estate on the edge of the town, Mumtaz believes that Benazir has brought disgrace on the family's name.
"The Bhuttos have been in politics since politics began in united India," he says indignantly. "Never during that time was the stain of corruption ever associated with the Bhutto name. She has been living abroad to save her skin, and now is willing to support a politically dead general in return for relief."
Ms Bhutto has maintained she is merely working towards a transition to democracy . But though her popularity in Sindh is undisturbed, a recent poll from the US-based International Republican Institute, says it has slipped by 4 per cent nationally. General Musharraf's has hit an all-time low.
But, some 300 miles south in Karachi, preparations for are nearly complete. Vast billboards, bearing life-size images of Ms Bhutto beside her father, are being consecrated to her "historic welcome".