January 5th was the 77th birthday of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most controversial figure in Pakistani history. It is time to reminisce and grieve. Bhutto burst on the center-stage of Pakistani politics as Ayub Khan’s foreign minister when he laid the cornerstone for Pakistan’s enduring ties with China in 1963.
The 1965 war with India propelled him onto the world stage, as he mesmerized the UN Security Council with oratory. Then came his celebrated break with Ayub over the Tashkent Declaration in 1966, the formation of the Pakistan People’s Party in 1967 and his arrest and release as the streets from Peshawar to Karachi echoed with cheers of “Jiyae Bhutto, Sada Jiyae.”
The 1970 elections were a major turning point for him, as his party’s strong showing in West Pakistan led to his being appointed the president after the military debacle of 1971. He proceeded to retire 29 senior “fat and flabby” military officers and to restructure the defense organization. In 1972, he met with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Simla and negotiated the release of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war and 6,000 square miles of Pakistani territory without yielding over Kashmir.
To counter India’s military predominance, he initiated Pakistan’s nuclear bomb program stating that Pakistanis would make a bomb even if they had to eat grass. To placate the army, he made a commitment to making it the “finest fighting force in Asia,” and doubled defense expenditures. Striving to develop an independent foreign policy, the author of “The Myth of Independence” pulled Pakistan out of Cold War military alliances. In 1974, he held a very successful Islamic Summit in Lahore. But his crowning achievement had come in the prior year, when the National Assembly passed a new Constitution.
Tragically, Bhutto proved to be a demagogue like Argentina’s Juan Peron. He had come to power on a platform of Islamic socialism, designed to provide food, clothing and housing to every Pakistani. This platform created unrealistic expectations and led to economic anarchy. Tenants stopped paying rent and workers seized factories through “gherao” tactics. Bhutto, who had chided Ayub for “using the language of weapons rather than the weapon of language” to resolve conflicts now did the same to re-institute property rights, alienating his former constituents.
In May 1971, Bhutto had written, “When the history of this country is written it will be admitted by our people and by the world outside that no individual has rendered so much service to the cause of socialism in Pakistan as I have done.” However, within a few years of coming to power, he marginalized the leftist ideologues within his party. The college students who had been in the vanguard of his movement to oust Ayub now joined the growing ranks of those disillusioned with Bhutto.
His large-scale nationalization program was designed to “eliminate, once and for all, poverty and discrimination.” Instead, it resulted in making access to the state a primary means of accumulating a private fortune. Corruption was endemic as resources were transferred from nationalized enterprises to private individuals. Unfettered by socialist concerns, the state intervened to redistribute resources arbitrarily in favor of those who had access to its patronage. By 1976, it was clear that Bhutto had merely replaced market capitalism with state capitalism. On the economic front, per capita income stagnated, income distribution worsened, the foreign debt rose and capital fled from the country. Most of the problems were caused by economic mismanagement, but he blamed them on external events.
Things fared poorly on the political front. Disaffection with his policies caused language riots and labor strikes. The religious parties united against him and his concessions to them only made them more determined to unseat him. He responded by curtailing press freedoms and creating a security force to harass, arrest and torture political opponents.
Citing a terrorist threat, he dismissed the Balochistan government. This led to a large-scale insurrection involving 20,000 insurgents and 80,000 army troops, of whom 5,000 became casualties. Bhutto made no political moves toward reconciliation and the fighting petered out.
In the judgment of Stanley Wolpert, just about all these problems were caused by Bhutto’s inability to attract to his service men of greater integrity or probity. After seeing what he did to J. A. Rahim and Kaneez Fatima, very few such individuals wanted to jump on the Bhutto bandwagon.
Nervous about his political standing, he encouraged subordinates to rig the national elections in 1977. They went overboard, giving him 155 of the 200 seats rather than the simple majority that was expected by most political observers. The subsequent street violence and 350 deaths marked a turning point in his political fortunes.
The army, which always regarded itself as the guardian of national interest, took over power. Two years later, Bhutto was hanged on a murder charge. His prophecy that his “assassination on the gallows” would result in rivers of blood flowing from Peshawar to Karachi remained unfulfilled. He was yesterday’s icon, having succumbed to what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma.”
At the beginning of his presidency, Bhutto had quoted Machiavelli to Oriana Fallachi while analyzing Ayub’s downfall: “Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, difficult to detect in the beginning but easy to cure, and, with the passage of time, easy to detect but difficult to cure.” Unknowingly, he had written his own obituary.
Driven by a sense of destiny, Bhutto considered himself a poet and a revolutionary. But his prized collection of books was filled with volumes about Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon. When he was detained at the Sihala Rest House by the army in 1977, he asked for some of his books on Hitler to be brought to him so that he could figure out “how Hitler was able to control his generals and I was not.”
Bhutto was felled by his towering hubris, which caused him to overreach himself. Years of learning in the west failed to subdue the eastern feudal lord inside of him. Underneath the polished Saville Row exterior there remained the mailed fist of a Mughal emperor.
His biggest mistake was the failure to institutionalize democracy and actualize the promises contained in the 1973 Constitution. But how could he have done it, since he could not countenance opposition within his own party, let alone in parliament? Alas, his brilliance had a Shakespearean quality and carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
The day has come for Pakistan’s leaders to learn from Bhutto’s tragedy and shun authoritarianism. They should listen to the people before claiming to speak for them.