Zulfikar Ali Bhutto fell from power forty years ago on 5 July 1977. When he lived, he was a complex figure for those who observed his rise and fall. Long after 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, 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. And yet, when only days later, Mirza was sent packing by General Ayub Khan, Bhutto swiftly transferred his loyalties to the new honcho in town. It is a picture that you come by in the excellent biography of Mirza by his son Humayun Mirza quite some 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, upon 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 Lal Bahadur Shastri 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 he 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 Mujib, 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 Mujib 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.’
And then there is Rafi Raza, who speaks of course of no nightingale. As a political ally of the eventually executed politician, Raza was witness to the eventful ten years that were to mark Bhuto’s rise and fall (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan: 1967-1977). Naturally, therefore, the book begins with 1967, when Bhutto linked up with Raza, Mubashir Hasan, J.A. Rahim, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada and others to give shape to the Pakistan People’s Party. The month was November; and Bhutto had been out of public office for over a year since he had been forced to quit by a disappointed Ayub Khan. Between July 1966 and November 1967, therefore, it was an apprehensive, almost fearful Bhutto who pondered his future. For all his criticism of the field marshal over the Tashkent Declaration — Bhutto had been harping on, without anything to show for it, about a secret clause in the declaration he said proved Ayub’s treachery to Pakistan — he had not expected to be given the sack. But he was. After July 1966, he was a frightened man. Ayub yet wielded unchallenged authority and had over the years jailed political rivals relentlessly. He might do a similar thing in Bhutto’s case.
President Ayub Khan eventually did send Bhutto to prison, but that was in November 1968, a full year after the PPP had been formed. And then, Bhutto was to be freed within three months as the regime began to totter in the face of growing popular discontent in both East and West Pakistan. In terms of history, though, 1967 remains a defining moment for Pakistan obviously because of the arrival of the Pakistan People’s Party. For the first time in the history of the largely feudal region that was West Pakistan, a party had come forth with patently populist slogans. Bhutto promised a curious mixture of Islam, democracy and socialism to Pakistanis, not offering, of course, to explain how he would go about achieving that goal. What mattered was how the people received his mantra. And they did receive it well. He was mobbed everywhere he went; huge crowds blocked railway stations and roads to see him pass and hear him speak. Never in the history of West Pakistan had a politician so swiftly transformed himself into a popular hero. And it was happening at the same time as the Bengalis of distant East Pakistan were finding their voice in one of their own, the more substantive Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Obviously, Rafi Raza’s work is of an adulatory nature. And yet there are the instances where he cites his differences with Bhutto. For all that, though, it is a fact that Raza is one man who did not end up earning Bhutto’s wrath (and Pakistan’s first elected leader began to demonstrate the arrogance of power soon after taking over from a humiliated Yahya Khan in December 1971) as many others did. Bhutto’s goons would leave J.A. Rahim and Mairaj Mohammad Khan beaten black and blue for the audacity of questioning the wisdom of the supreme leader. But that was in the days when Bhutto was first president and then prime minister. Prior to that, it was a team of idealistic men who saw as their mission a transformation of Pakistan’s politics through the PPP vehicle. The dream would expand and would translate into electoral triumph for the party in West Pakistan in late 1970. There was a slight problem, however. Bhutto and his party soon realized that their moment of glory had been a brief moment in the sun, for the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had beaten everyone else to emerge as the majority party on an all-Pakistan basis.
The rest of the story is now part of the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rafi Raza, in manner typical of others in the PPP at the time, carefully glosses over his party’s refusal to accept the results of the elections but does acknowledge the complications that arose over the subsequent weeks and months. Raza counts himself among the few moderates in the PPP when he states that at a meeting of party leaders on 23 March 1971 in Dhaka (and that was the day which Bengalis refused to celebrate as Pakistan Day and instead hoisted Bangladesh flags on rooftops all over the city), almost everyone present advocated military action against the Awami League by the Yahya Khan regime. J.A. Rahim, himself a Bengali, loudly denounced Mujib as a fascist who could only be countered by the army. And military action was not long in coming. When the army went into action late on 25 March, it was the state of Pakistan that lay grievously wounded.
Raza’s ultimate focus is on the years of the Bhutto government from late 1971 to mid 1977. He duly notes the achievements of the government despite the various constraints it operated under. He records as well the deep flaws in the Bhutto character, those that would take him to his doom. In Raza’s words, ‘If (the people) had short memories, so did ZAB who, within a few years of assuming office, forgot the power of the people which the PPP had helped to galvanize — his only real source of power.’
Clearly the part that grips your attention in If I Am Assassinated is the introduction by the Indian journalist Pran Chopra. Acknowledging the reality of the work being Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s own, he writes:
‘He is speaking to history from the platform of his own brilliant mind and his unique experience of one of the most interesting countries of the developing world.’
It has been given out that Bhutto composed the work in his final days as a prisoner condemned to death in a disputed murder case. In a sense, it is a mea culpa, an enumeration of his thoughts over his role in Pakistan’s modern history. Racy and brimming over with ideas, it is vintage Bhutto at his best. He examines the role of the army in Pakistan’s politics, including the break-up of the country in 1971 (though he says nothing about his own contribution to the disaster). He dwells on the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report. And he provides readers with his assessment of his own administration and the pressures, local as well as foreign, it worked under.
If I Am Assassinated will make you, all these decades after Bhutto penned it, appreciate the huge possibilities he symbolized for his country. In similar manner, it also gives you reason to understand why he fell so hard and so fast.
Bhutto’s tragedy was and remains unique: it was the Pakistan army that raised him to prominence — and it was the Pakistan army that destroyed him. Along the way, he showed promise but then dwindled into being a Machiavellian soul. His shrewdness gave him glory. His cunning caused the death of millions in what would one day be Bangladesh.