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Remembering Zulfikar Ali Bhutto And His Controversial Legacy

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Every January, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto comes to the minds of many people. He was born in January 1928. Bhutto was a God-gifted orator who fascinated millions, an avid reader, and a phenomenal writer. He remains the most polarizing figure in Pakistani history. The scion of an aristocratic family in rural Sindh, he studied at UC Berkeley and Oxford. On his return, he made quite an impact on President Iskander Mirza, who included him in his cabinet. At the age of 31, he became President Ayub’s foreign minister.

Differences of opinions between Bhutto and Ayub emerged after the inconclusive 1965 war with India. They became irreconcilable after the Tashkent Agreement in January 1966. In 1967, he created the PPP to bring “Islamic Socialism” to Pakistan. At political rallies, Bhutto said he would “let the cat out of the bag,” alleging there were secret clauses in the Tashkent agreement. As the law and order deteriorated in the streets, Ayub threatened the PPP and its followers that if they persisted with their unruly behavior, he would resort to using the “language of weapons.” He upbraided Ayub that a political leader should be using the “weapon of language,” and not the language of weapons, to communicate with the people.

In the 1970 elections, held by General Yahya who succeeded Ayub after the masses revolted, the PPP secured 81 of the 138 seats in West Pakistan but none in East Pakistan. Bhutto, unwilling to let the Awami League to form the federal government, proposed that the country should have two prime ministers. The army proceeded to suppress the Awami League, triggering events that culminated in the secession of East Pakistan. Bhutto’s credibility took a big dip. I began to doubt his sincerity toward socialism. I wrote to him, asked a few questions, and requested a meeting. His scornful reply implied that he was destined to greatness. He wrote, “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.”

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In December 1971, aged 43, he was sworn in as the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator in Pakistan. He began by nationalizing all major institutions. Corruption was a mechanism through which resources were being transferred from public 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.

All economic indicators turned downward on Bhutto’s watch. While some of the difficulties were external to Pakistan, most of the problems were due to economic mismanagement. Foreign debt rose to $7 billion, equivalent to nearly 6 percent of national wealth. The rate of growth of the economy deteriorated sharply after 1974. During the 1974-77 period, the economy grew at a rate of only 2.7% or 3% less than the rate of population growth, per capita income had also declined. Despite his socialist rhetoric, income distribution had worsened.

On the political front, anxious to assert his personal power at the expense of democratic institutions, Bhutto dismissed the provincial government in Balochistan. This led to a large-scale insurrection in 1973, that was quelled by brutal army action in 1976, in which the army suffered 3000-6000 casualties.

To counter the threat posed to Pakistan’s integrity by India, he initiated Pakistan’s nuclear bomb program in 1972, stating that Pakistanis would make an “Islamic Bomb” even if they had to “eat grass.” It is believed that Bhutto rigged the national elections in 1977. Four months of rioting followed, in which 350 people were killed. The opposition parties asked for his resignation. Reluctantly, Bhutto declared martial law in large urban centers. He tried to convince the leader of the opposition, Mufti Mahmood, to drop his demand for his resignation by showing him evidence that Pakistan was about to be invaded simultaneously by India, Afghanistan, and Iran. The wily Mufti was not to be persuaded.

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It was generally expected that Bhutto would deploy the army and the 10,000-member Federal Security Force, a paramilitary unit that functioned as a Praetorian Guard, to put down the rioting. To prevent a showdown on the streets, the army deposed Bhutto. This was the third coup in Pakistani history.

Bhutto had brought this event upon himself by a series of wrong political decisions. Ironically, six years earlier, in a scathing review of Ayub Khan’s policies, he had quoted Machiavelli: “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.”

It is tragic that a man so talented, so articulate, and so well known on the global stage has left behind such a controversial legacy.


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Naya Daur