By Saad Hafiz
Thirty-six years have passed since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, was executed by a military dictatorship on April 4, 1979. However, Bhutto’s legacy and significance in the country’s troubled political history remain the focus of heated debate even today. His passionate supporters remember him as the populist reformer and spellbinding orator who restored national pride after a humiliating defeat by the Indian army in 1971, the man who returned Pakistan to civilian rule. Bhutto’s detractors see him as a polarising figure who squandered enormous possibilities. They point to acts of repression — the tortures and imprisonments during his rule — and the charges of a rigged election in 1977, which was his final bid to retain power.
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Bhutto’s political life can be divided into three distinct periods: a minister in military dictator Ayub Khan’s cabinet (1958 to 1966), dissident politician (1967 to 1970) and president/prime minister (1971 to 1977). During these periods, Bhutto, the ultimate political animal and tactician, adapted his actions to suit prevailing conditions and realities. During his political obscurity, searching for opportunities to advance himself, Bhutto played the hyper-nationalist, establishment man and obsequious minister to Ayub. After 1966, with a weakened Ayub, Bhutto sought power on a platform of democracy, socialism and an anti-army stance. Once firmly ensconced in power, Bhutto alternated as a champion of democracy and a civilian autocrat, continually oscillating between the left and the right in his political actions. These shifting stances led to charges that Bhutto was a political chameleon who could change colours when it suited his personal ambitions. Generally speaking, Bhutto did gravitate towards the more pragmatic rather than the inconvenient moral dimension of politics and impediments posed by the rule of law.
Nevertheless, the Bhutto era had a profound impact on Pakistani politics. First, it revealed the inadequacy of military rule and military hegemony as a stable basis of Pakistani political life. Secondly, in foreign affairs, Bhutto realised that parity with India in diplomatic and military affairs was no longer a realistic goal. He committed Pakistan to the path of peaceful (non-military) or competitive coexistence and bilateralism. The Kashmir issue was put on the backburner and the Simla Accord was signed in 1972. Thirdly, Bhutto sought and gained a new consensus on constitutional issues. In 1973, a new Constitution was adopted. The principle of power sharing between the federal government and the provinces was recognised. Lastly, it revealed the inadequacy of populist authoritarianism as a stable basis on which to organise Pakistani affairs. Ironically, this realisation came from Bhutto’s own failure to organise a broad-based Pakistani political coalition. The lesson about the utility of power sharing was slowly grasped by Pakistani elites in the post-Bhutto era, albeit in a limited and tentative way.
Bhutto forever changed Pakistani politics, which too often veered too far in the direction of mere sloganeering over substance. All the while, as a minority Sindhi, Bhutto had to be wary of the dangers of overstepping in Pakistan’s minefield of the majority Punjabi-led power politics, shadow of coup d’états, ideological divisions and active secessionist movements. Bhutto came to power on the strength of one new factor in Pakistan politics: he had aroused the political consciousness of the masses and he had created an atmosphere for the masses to engage in mass politics. By developing the PPP as an institutional force in Pakistani politics he created a new and powerful institutional participant in the search to redefine the basis of Pakistani politics. However, the PPP’s organisation and decision making was not democratic, which had lasting consequences for the party and the country.
The other major critique of Bhutto is his failure to grasp the power and the opportunity he had to mobilise Pakistanis to his causes and that as a consequence of his policies and authoritarian manner he reinforced the system’s constraints instead of reducing them by creative political action. Bhutto ignored long-term restructuring of Pakistan’s political system for short-term gain. He failed to understand that in a society where political and economic power is divided, entrenched and polarised, it is necessary to develop political mechanisms to accommodate competing interests: by developing transactional (exchange) relationships, by inducing a rethinking of competitive group interests and generally by sharing power and developing coalition politics. Bhutto also abandoned the socialism that had helped catapult him to power. As a result of his massive and public turn against the Pakistani left, Bhutto alienated his mass constituency.
In the end, Bhutto did not achieve a stable Pakistan and fell into the quicksand of radicalised and polarised Pakistani politics and society. However, he did develop inputs into Pakistani political life that political choices are legitimate if they reflect the will of the people, which have outlasted his period of ascendancy. Furthermore, Bhutto was one from that rare breed of politicians who could lead effectively in extraordinary times. One could have hoped that his first commitment would have been to common decency and the common good, not to holding power. Even so, if Pakistan is to make it through its various crises successfully, parts of his important legacy must remain alive.