Machiavellian politics … and history

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ZA & Benazir Bhutto with Indian PM Indira Gandhi at the signing of the Simla Agreement in 1972 (Internet)

(On 5 July 1977, the government of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by his hand-picked chief of army staff. Reading through a biography of Bhutto --- ‘Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times’, by Stanley Wolpert --- yours truly assesses the man and his politics).

When he lived, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a complex figure for those who observed his rise and fall. Thirty nine years after his execution by a military regime, he remains that way. There are his fans, largely within Pakistan, who have consistently believed that he is a shaheed, a martyr, in the defence of democracy. And then there are those who remain convinced that having ridden to power on the slogan of democracy, he did everything he could to bury it under his civilian dictatorship.

A fairly large number of books on Bhutto’s life and career have appeared across the years, with the promise of more to appear in the times ahead. And especially since the assassination of his daughter Benazir in December 2007, the Bhutto myth has taken on a new and expanded dimension. And do remember that we are speaking of the man who almost behaved like a maniac when he spoke to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in the early 1970s. Megalomaniac he surely was before her, but the extent to which certain streaks of madness manifested themselves in him left even the shock-proof journalist surprised. Bhutto’s aspersions on Indira Gandhi, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and nearly everyone else were too outrageous for polite ears. And even he realized that, subsequently, which is when he sent Pakistan’s diplomats in Italy scouring for Fallaci, to ask her to withdraw the interview or to ‘admit’ that she had made it all up!

What appears in the Fallaci interview is what the essential Bhutto was. And that is the point which comes through in Stanley Wolpert’s Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan. Wolpert, the American academic celebrated for such seminal works as Gandhi and Jinnah of Pakistan, was provided with all manner of facilities, including access to Bhutto’s library and papers, by the Bhutto family. That being the basis of the study, it follows that Wolpert’s analysis of the Bhutto character is by and large a sympathetic study of a man who could have done much better as a politician than what he actually did.

The author traces the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, essentially after his return to Pakistan following higher studies abroad, and the many factors that went into facilitating it. He was a bright young law professor in the early 1950s. By 1958, he was a cabinet minister, happy to be under the tutelage of General Iskandar Mirza, a man not too well-disposed toward democracy. But when, only days later, Mirza was sent packing by General Ayub Khan, Bhutto swiftly transferred his loyalties to the new big man in town. It is a picture that you come by in the excellent biography of Mirza by his son Humayun Mirza a few years ago. Bhutto, recalls the young Mirza, earned General Mirza’s admiration at the very first meeting he had with the president, so much so that Mirza found a spot for the young lawyer in Pakistan’s central cabinet.

And Bhutto was keen to demonstrate his gratitude to Mirza in return. He fired off a fawning missive to the president, informing him in unabashed fashion that history would record that Iskandar Mirza was the greatest man Pakistan had produced, greater than the founder of the state, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. By late October 1958, with Mirza and his wife Naheed on their way to unending exile in Britain, Bhutto made sure that Ayub Khan kept him on. For the subsequent eight years, he was never to look back. He was minister for commerce, for industries and natural resources. In 1960, he worked out a deal on energy with the Soviet Union, impressing almost everyone in Pakistan and outside.

By early 1963, on the death of Mohammad Ali Bogra, he was foreign minister in the Ayub regime. Added to that position was the job of general secretary of the Convention Muslim League, the clutch of pro-Ayub politicians propping up the dictatorship. It was Bhutto’s finest hour, from the point of view of genuflection. He proposed that Ayub Khan, already in occupancy of the presidency, remain in power for the rest of his life. It was thus also a moment that made others mock him.

And yet, as the Wolpert book makes clear, a moment would come when Bhutto, grown ambitious and decidedly hubristic, would begin to mock Ayub himself. Informed by foreign secretary Aziz Ahmed late on a January 1966 night in Tashkent that ‘the bastard is dead’, Bhutto asked, ‘Which one?’ That was one of the many indications of the disdain, even hate, in which he viewed not just his mentor but Indian politicians as well. But Wolpert notes too the confidence Bhutto brought back to a post-1971 Pakistan, a time when the emergence of Bangladesh and the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers had left his people traumatized. He understood the grave nature of the situation, of the realities that stared him in the face.

One needed little persuasion to understand that Bhutto had been one of the principal elements responsible for the disaster that had befallen Pakistan, but it was one thought Bhutto was unwilling to accept. He blamed everyone else, including Bangabandhu, for the country’s break-up, but he would not bring himself to acknowledge his own guilt in the genocide that led to the Bengali armed struggle for freedom. But he did eat humble pie in the end. He freed the incarcerated Father of the Bengali nation and saw him off at Chaklala airport. As the Bengali leader flew off into the night sky, Bhutto murmured, to no one in particular, ‘The nightingale has flown.’

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