The Bhutto Legacy
Weekly Pulse
January 8-14, 2010
January 5, 2010 was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s 82nd birthday. Mr. Bhutto was Pakistan’s first popularly elected leader. His was the first democratic government which truly represented the will of the people. And his 1973 Constitution continues to survive until today, even though with major amendments which are an enigma to the spirit of parliamentary democracy the founder of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had envisioned over 40 years ago.

The legacy of Bhutto is one of democracy and constitutionalism, of religious tolerance and Islamic socialism, and of republicanism and liberalism. There were no doubt many paradoxes in Bhuttoism as an ideology and in its actual expression, yet the Bhutto era represented an exceptional moment in Pakistan’s sordid history, marred by martial laws and militancy by the mullahs. Thirty years since his “judicial murder,” the downslide the county has experienced in every sphere of its national life is unprecedented. Looking at the country’s current condition, the Bhutto era appears nothing less than a Golden Age, and many “what if” questions haunt us.

What if General Ziaul Haq had not deposed Bhutto in a 1977 coup? What if Bhutto had won the general elections held the same year without rigging them? What if Bhutto’s charisma had not faded post-mid 1970s and, consequently, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) could not have destabilized Bhutto’s rule to the extent of providing the army another opportunity to state a military coup? What if the Soviet intervention in 1979 had taken place with Pakistan still being led by a popularly elected leader of the stature of Bhutto?

All complex questions—but with a simple answer: Pakistan must have been a better country than it is today, simply because Pakistanis might have gone through entirely different experiences in the last thirty years than what they have confronted in the form of two long military dictatorships during the three decades with a ten-year interval of the so-called transition to democracy.

Greatest Tragedy

Pakistan’s greatest tragedy is that its three leaders in the last 60 years’ history, the founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Bhutto and his daughter Benazir had all the charisma and foresight to lead the nation towards a progressive, tolerant and democratic destination—and, yet, none of them could survive long enough to realize this goal. Jinnah died within a year of the country’s creation, Bhutto was hanged by the military regime of General Zia in 1980, and Benazir Bhutto became a victim of terrorism on December 27th, 2007.

Pakistan’s tragedy is, in fact, rooted in the tragedy of the Bhuttos: the father hanged, the son poisoned, another son killed in a shootout, and the daughter murdered in a terrorist act. The mother is insane. Benazir had carried Bhutto’s legacy forward for almost three decades after her father’s death, since she had the sort of charisma and foresight which her father possessed. Unfortunately, there is no one in sight in the hierarchy of PPP leadership, not even her son Bilawal, to personify these two essential attributes of the legacy of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s president, leads the Party along with his son, but he has his own limitations.

Personality of Contrasts

Z A Bhutto’s personality was full of contrasts. That is why he is loved as much as he is hated. There were things he did wonderfully right, and things he did utterly wrong. Obviously, no matter how much charismatic and far-sighted a leader is, mistakes in politics are unavoidable, especially when a leader has to steer the country out of grave crisis such as the one Pakistan confronted in 1971. That year, one part of the country separated and became Bangladesh.

Mr. Bhutto is criticized on several counts. His criticism often begins with the argument that the founding stone of extremism or Islamization in the country was laid during the Bhutto era, and General Zia only built upon this foundation. True, but we need to understand the circumstances under which the Bhutto regime might have taken decisions to woo Islamists or allow Middle Eastern Islamist trends to flourish in the country.

After losing eastern wing of the country in the name of ethnic nationalism, religion was the only unifying factor in the remaining Pakistan lived by five different ethnic groups, including the Urdu-speaking migrants from India. Western-educated and liberal-leftist, Bhutto would have been the last person to use the religious card for any political ambition. But forced by post-1979 circumstances, which necessitated keeping the various ethnic groups together in order to preserve territorial integrity of the state, the PPP founder used religious symbolism, such as his idea of ‘Islamic socialism.’

The Deadly Shift

Until the end of the Bhutto era, Pakistan retained the same Indo-Persian pacifist religious creed, which the Muslims of India still largely retain. But then this creed was replaced by a violent, Arabist religious culture whose reverberations are now felt almost daily across the country in the shape of suicide terrorist attacks resulting in mass killing of innocent people. Bhutto may have indirectly contributed to this transformation by bringing Pakistan closer to Middle Eastern, principally through the 1974 Islamic summit in Lahore, or by appeasing the country’s political Islamist groups through prohibiting alcoholic beverages and declaring Ahmadis as un-Islamic. Still it was General Zia who mainly contributed to this deadly shift, and, therefore, it is he alone who stands accused of sabotaging Pakistan’s destiny. Terrorism, Talibanization, violent Deobandism and Wahhabism, suicide bombings—all of them are the consequences of Ziaul Haq’s Islamization programme.

Bhutto’s contributions to Pakistan’s foreign policy are enormous. Italian journalist and writer Oriana Fallaci had interviewed so many other contemporary leaders during Bhutto’s time, but the leadership stature she reserves for him is, in her words, “incomparable” to any other world leader of the era. Bhutto’s lasting contribution is that he was able to negotiate with his Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi at Simla in 1974 an agreement, in which India agreed to bilaterally resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan as well as release some 90,000 Pakistani POWs from the 1971 war. Negotiating a deal such as this within years of a humiliating event, denoting perhaps the lowest point in the country’s history, was a dead only Bhutto could accomplish.

The Bhutto regime also put Pakistan on the path of nuclear self-sufficiency. It was Mr Bhutto who founded the nuclear programme, appointed an able nuclear scientist, Munir Ahmad Khan, as chief of the country’s atomic agency. After the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion, the Bhutto government intensified the country’s nuclear quest. The 1974 Islamic summit made Pakistan as a central player in the Muslim world, so did the country’s nuclear quest, which was branded by the West at the time as aimed at producing an “Islamic bomb”—with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger even going to the extent of threatening to make a “horrible example” of Bhutto.

Legacy Lives On

By raising controversial slogans such as that of “Islamic socialism” and pursuing the so-called Islamic bomb project, Bhutto may have invited the wrath of the West or America during the Cold War period, and that may have facilitated his “judicial murder,” since neither the US nor any Western country—nor even the British leadership, as recently declassified government documents suggest—issued any appeal for mercy for Bhutto during his trial or on the eve of his hanging by the military junta. Still the real murderer of Bhutto was none other than General Zia. For keeping Bhutto alive would have meant the early demise of the military dictator. With Bhutto dead, Zia could rule the country for 11 long years.

The tragic death of Bhutto aside, it is true that the charisma he enjoyed in the initial years of his rule had significantly declined in his later years in power. The nationalization project failed, the unavailability or dearness of the basic amenities of life—the very slogan of ‘roti, kapra aur makan’ which represented his popular base, Bhutto’s increasingly dictatorial conduct in later years, the 1977 election rigging by the ruling party, governmental coercion of political opponents, especially by the Federal Security Force (FSF), the notorious torture camps in Kashmir—all of that was in contradiction with Bhuttoism’s founding principles of democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism, and tolerance. Bhutto deserves criticism on these counts, but singling him out for such criticism is refuting the most promising legacy of Pakistani history.

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