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Zulfi Bhutto and Pakistan

Tags: bhutto



Raza Habib Raja

Today is Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s 37th death anniversary. It is time to look back and try to make sense of the enigma that was Bhutto. This article does not try to tread the familiar theme of praising or lamenting Bhutto, but tries to evaluate his impact whether positive of negative( depending how positives or negatives are interpreted by the reader) on the course of history in Pakistan. Impact, can be intended or unintended and can be in line with the objective of a particular policy or can at times lead to completely different outcomes. Impact by no means is the sole contributor or the sole causal factor. Impact is the influence of a particular person, policy or action over subsequent events. And above all, it is the impact which determines legacy which in turn can help us to evaluate Bhutto properly.

So how do we evaluate his influence and impact?

First, Bhutto can rightly be credited with actually creating a mass oriented populist politics in Pakistan. Most important contribution was arousing a collective feeling in the masses that they were definitely a factor to reckon with. He was able to galvanize support and induce street politics and made masses a stakeholder as well as factor to definitely reckon with. His contribution in introducing street politics even transcends his contribution towards formulation of the liberal left. Politics of protest, using people as an effective force to reach to the ultimate objective, effectively started with Bhutto. This kind of politics was subsequently adopted by his opponents and over the years by various parties. Moreover, his styles of oratory and engagement tactics were also aped by various parties and their leaders.

Second, Bhutto is credited for popularizing and in fact assembling left leaning political spectrum into a cohesive electable mass. There is also substantial merit in this assertion although frankly he by no means was an indoctrinated socialist. He was basically a populist who was able to gauge correctly the despair caused by the rising inequalities of the Ayub era and used it to his political advantage. But he was the one who  transformed left wing politics and made it mainstream and this is a huge progressive achievement.

While this had a definite advantage for the genuine leftists initially, as leftism got popular due to him, but subsequently this also became a hindrance. Mindsets generally are the product of the class you belong to. And Bhutto was no exception. Feudal mindset went hand in hand the political acumen and sensitivity. This mindset, despite his adopted ideology, could not change and hindered leftist cause after providing it a break through. The composition of PPP candidates started to reflect increased feudal component over the years and left wing stalwarts like J A Rahim were thrown out and some of the others simply went into oblivion. Bhutto thus contributed towards socialism initially but his feudal background gave rise to conflict of interest. This conflict of interest partly explains as to why land reforms were not effectively carried out while nationalization of industries went overboard. Thus despite conducive environment for land reforms, the landed aristocracy not only survived but subsequently even thrived. Moreover, PPP’s steady descent from originally social democratic party into a strange ragtag of liberal cum feudal ideologies owes a lot to Bhutto’s own background and the way he conducted himself.


But how could he alone contribute, launch and then thwart socialist version of left politics? This actually brings us to the third undoubtedly important impact of Bhutto and that was personality politics. Personality politics is often the characteristic of many developing countries. Here often electorate starts equating a party with a charismatic individual who is generally also responsible for founding or popularizing the party. In some parties, after the initial phase, the individual though remaining powerful fades into background and allows the party to become more dominant. However, in some cases individual becomes more and more powerful and cult of personality forms. This cult of personality often sets the basis for subsequent formulation of dynasty politics as well. Cult of personality if successfully formed gives the individual unusual power over both the electorate and party members.

In Pakistan, Bhutto was a charismatic person who developed a cult like following. By no means is he the creator of this concept as this has been witnessed in many other parts of the world also but in Pakistan it initiated with him and gathered pace subsequently. Apart from PPP, this also had significant impact on the course of development of other parties. The “success” of Bhutto in this respect also paved the way for the other parties to follow suit whether deliberately or because this was what seemed to work. Today, MQM, PML (N) and PTI, all are modeled on same personality template. On PPP this had a regressive impact as it gave Bhutto an unaccountable power over the party affairs and virtually insulated him from all the criticism. Moreover, it extended even after his death to such an extent that once Benazir was accepted as an heir to his legacy she was able to whip the party to her own desires. Unfortunately PPP in order to remain “in” had to constantly whip Bhutto mania and this in the longer run has proven to be catastrophic. In fact during the life of Benazir, there were calls for de-Bhuttofication of PPP by liberal intelligentsia which were thwarted by the party itself knowing that by now party and Bhutto name were one and the same thing.

Fourth influence is regarding the use of nationalism as a potent force in the urban areas. It is true that PPP came into power on a left leaning manifesto but let’s not forget that Bhutto’s own rise was more an outcome of the 1965 war and the strong romantic nationalist fervor emanating out of it. Bhutto initially sky rocked to fame due to whipping up of nationalism and by capitalizing on the impression that Pakistan had thrown the victory in the war away on the negotiation table. That nationalism became a part and parcel of the Pakistani politics afterwards.

Slogans like “Thousand years of war with India” and “ We will eat grass but will make Atomic Bombs” were loaded and today can be called extremely negative. However, after the defeat in 1971, such slogans were perhaps not too out of place also.

His “nationalistic” outlook actually dated from Ayub’s time and it is a well known fact that Bhutto was one of the prime instigators of operation Gibraltor, in which insurgents were sent to Indian Kashmir. This tendency of using “proxy” warriors in order to have “limited” war remained with him during his tenure as a Prime Minister also.

It is alleged that interference in Afghanistan started in Bhutto’s tenure and actually was the result of his Bonapartist outlook.

Primarily his brand of nationalism was anti India and anti United States. Even in the late 1970 when Nizam e Mustafa movement was cornering Bhutto, he was pointing fingers at United States. Lately these brand of nationalism which was helped by Bhutto became counterproductive to PPP as the change in the international conditions has forced PPP to have an accommodative stance with the US. This stance, despite being correct, is at odds with the already developed concept of nationalism and thus hurting its position in the urban areas.

Fifth and an extremely important aspect which is sometimes overlooked due to “liberal” credentials of Bhutto and his tragic end at the hands of far more hardline Zia, is the strategic use of political Islam. ZAB tried to use Islam for “pragmatic” purposes such as appeasing Islamic hardliners to soften their opposition to his rule and also as a rallying and uniting point in the post East Pakistan debacle scenario. His role in second amendment and his efforts to elevate Pakistan in a prominent role in the Islamic world could be construed as efforts to use religion for strategic purposes. He combined selective Isalmization with purging of extreme left in his party. That was actually a secular blunder with devastating aftermaths. Appeasement did not soften the hardliners, it merely made them stronger and pushed Bhutto to the wall in 1977. More importantly it effectively began a trend where Government would bow to the wishes of the hardliners and paved the way for the subsequent Islamization of the country.

By no means, it is fair to say that Bhutto was the sole perpetuator of this trend. But he can not be absolved also.

Sixth significant influence of Bhutto is on shaping of his opposition. In a strange way, Bhutto, besides his impact on left wing political landscape, also had significant influence on the formation of conservative opposition in Pakistan. There are two phases in which his influence was enacted. First was during his rule when his policies really started to alienate conservative middle class and allowed their parties to successfully come under the same platform. This is a significant but sometimes overlooked phenomenon. Bhutto once he came into power involuntarily hit urban middle class too much. The brunt of his policies hit the industrialists and the urban middle class which started becoming more conservative and started to unite. At that time there was not any mainstream conservative democratic party like PML (N) today, therefore consequently JUI, Jamat-i-Islami became the torch bearers of Bhutto’s opposition. However, the major problem was that these parties were primarily religious and though had proximity to conservative values did not represent them completely.

So second influence was after his death when Zia realized the anti Bhutto sentiment prevalent in middle class and knowing that religious parties did not have potentially that kind of mass appeal which a conservative democratic party would have, created a Muslim League. This Muslim League subsequently became a successful and mainstream party in its own right. And ironically its leader Nawaz Sharif’s own rise (though frankly intellectual level of both is way apart!!!!) is quite similar to Bhutto’s and initially he even imitated Bhutto’s style of mass engagement though Mao cap was replaced with a P cap!!!! Initially Nawaz Sharif positioned himself as an alternate to Bhutto’s ideals. In fact I remember in the run up to 1988 elections, an advertisement campaign was launched on print media reminding all the readers of all the “excesses” of Bhutto’s rule in 1970s. Once in power Nawaz Sharif started rolling back aggressively the economic steps Bhutto had taken. While Zia had focused primarily on instilling religiosity as a backlash to Bhutto’s religious “moderation” and general freedom, Nawaz Sharif’s focus was more on the economic front.

Seventh big impact was on the economic front. The economic reforms by Bhutto were heavily influenced by outcome of Ayub’s policies particularly doctrine of functional inequality and industrialization process which was conducted by transferring of resources from agriculture to large scale manufacturing. Bhutto in sync with the grievances caused by Ayub’s reforms both in the working class as well as the landed aristocracy went for nationalization of industries, the banking sector and even the educational institutions. In the hindsight, it may seem like a wrong decision but at that time nationalization was in vogue. 1970s was a decade of “anti materialism” and great leaps were being taken to project collective interest over individual “greed”. What Bhutto did was perfectly in tune with the global mood at that moment. However, the way nationalization was carried out without concomitant effective land reforms did have an over all regressive impact. It hit industrialists and middle class too much while tilting the balance in favor of the landed aristocracy. To some extent what followed later was the outcome of Bhutto’s policies. The economic reforms of 1990’s under various structural adjustment programs were primarily focused at undoing Bhutto’s economic steps. The losses made by state enterprises cast a shadow over the role of public sector in management of such enterprises and forced a change of position even in PPP regarding the role of public sector in economic management.

Thirty six years have passed since Bhutto’s death but his legacy is still strong. In my mind he was by far the most influential individual in the history of Pakistan and our judgment in the end has to be based on his influence over the course of history. Some of his negative influences were purely unintended but nevertheless emanated from him. It is very difficult to see what would have been the political landscape if he was not executed. But most probably we would have been better off. Bhutto was an extraordinary intelligent person who would have eventually moved towards centre-left rather than staying on a confrontational left position. In some ways his death unfortunately triggered many subsequent events which have proven disastrous for Pakistan chiefly being Pakistan’s move towards state sponsored religious right side of the political spectrum.

As I said earlier also that Bhutto was not an angel or for that matter a complete villain. He was a product of his times and his personal conduct has to be evaluated accordingly.

And he died tragically. As one my friends, always reminds me that Bhutto was murdered by the establishment and in that death, perhaps paid some of the dues.

“Woh jo qarz rakhtey they jaan par
woh hasaab aaj chuka dya”

This post first appeared on Pak Tea House | Pakistan – Past, Present And Fut, please read the originial post: here

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Zulfi Bhutto and Pakistan


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