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Dismissing Bhutto’s Legacy Is A Pastime For Political Non-Entities

It is that time of the year when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy again becomes hotly contested on social media. This kind of ideological contestation and debate is actually far better than the mindless lionization of ZAB that often takes place on mainstream media. On TV screens, he is often totally removed from his actual political context to turn him into a boilerplate nationalist leader whose image can then be appropriated by forces such as the current ruling party. But given the many facets of his politics and persona, it is not surprising that a wide variety of Pakistanis see their own political views reflected in the figure of ZAB.

It is important to understand that the inimitable and larger-than-life ZAB is a figure whose actual legacy is far more complicated than the usual socialist image given to him. He is just as relevant to the imagination of the statist-nationalist Right as he is for some in the traditional Left.

All of Pakistan’s political debates today are a series of foot-notes to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. This will be the case for the foreseeable future.

There are obvious reasons why he is a figure of great fascination to the Pakistani Left. His magnetism was such that he could harness much of the power of Pakistan’s own 1968 moment for his newly founded Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). That he was just emerging from the shadow of right-wing military dictator Ayub Khan does not seem to have limited his prospects for attracting stalwarts of the Pakistani left such as Mairaj Muhammad Khan, J. A. Rahim and so many others, including the recently departed Dr. Mubashir Hassan. Doubtless, Bhutto’s immense charisma would have helped a number of left-wing leaders lay aside any misgivings that they might have in favour of the prospects of mass political appeal and relevance in the PPP – especially in the heartland of West Pakistan.

Bhutto led his PPP to power at the moment when Pakistan was permanently maimed, physically and psychologically, by the 1971 war and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. He led the country down a path of extensive nationalization of industries – a kind of haphazard Third-World “socialism” being the globally preferred method in that era for furthering economic development and offering the masses a fairer deal. It was a nationalization process that remains open to the kind of criticism leveled at other such experiments in the world. It is possible to say that his nationalization policy had at least two positive effects.

The first was a forcible breaking of the economic dominance of a tiny elite (the famous “22 families”). To argue the opposite is difficult. Defending the concentration of industrial and financial power in such few hands is to make a case for oligarchy and misanthropy – better left to our traditional elites.

A second salutary effect of the nationalization process was the significant investment in capital goods and heavy industry, which paid off well after the 1970s. This is best described by economist Dr. Kaiser Bengali:
“[…] there were very large investments made during the Bhutto period that had long gestation periods. The Pakistan Steel Mills construction started in 1974, and it started commercial production in 1982. Similarly there were Heavy Mechanical Complex, Indus Highway, Heavy Electrical Complex, Port Qasim and Ittehad Chemicals (the chemical industry foundation was laid in 1970s and chemicals are a major input in a large number of consumer industries). So this investment in the 1970s began to fruit in the 1980s leading to large chunk of output increases.”

In foreign policy, we see not only his grand vision of the 1974 Islamic Summit Conference in Lahore, but also his general desire for a more independent foreign policy for Pakistan. In the Bhutto years, Pakistan mended its relationship with the Soviet Union and veered away from total reliance on the United States and its allies.

Above all, Bhutto’s foreign policy fostered a deep strategic partnership with the People’s Republic of China. It proved to be a friendship which continues to bear fruit even today. This extensive strategic cooperation allows Pakistan a much-needed lifeline and helping hand in some of its most difficult moments – such as our situation in recent years.

While it would be impossible to go into details of the many achievements of the Bhutto-led 1970s in this space, it would be necessary to mention the 1973 constitution at least in passing. Achieved through an impressive amount of consensus across the political spectrum, the document that was hammered out in ZAB’s era still remains – after some mutilation and editing – our country’s essential political document today.

However, there are many unsavoury aspects to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s political legacy – many of which are glossed over or poorly discussed. It is only natural that for such a larger-than-life figure as ZAB, his darker side would cast just as long a shadow on Pakistan today as his better side does.

What follows is not an indictment of ZAB, but more an explanation of why he appeals to fierce right-wing nationalists as much as he does to those who imagine a progressive or socialist path for Pakistan.

Without being very provocative, we can say that Bhutto was hostile to the kind of federalism that even today’s PPP leadership upholds. It is difficult to imagine him standing for the 18th constitutional amendment in any serious way if he were alive today. In fact, it is more likely that he might have chafed at the restraints that it puts on the power of the centre. On this issue, he might even have found much common ground with the wielders of true power in today’s Pakistan.

For evidence of Bhutto’s hostility to federalism as we today understand it, one needs to look only to his aggressive attitude towards the Awami League in East Pakistan. Bhutto was unwilling to offer many more concessions to the Eastern wing of the country than the military regime of Yahya Khan. It seems he shared the West Pakistani ruling elite’s fundamental disdain for the people of the Eastern wing – who were a majority of the country’s population. This attitude led to a total inability to distinguish right from wrong as the brutal crackdown in 1971 took the country down a tragic and entirely avoidable path of war and secession.

Far from having been cured by the horrific experience of 1971, he went on to utilize the good old tactics of brute force and malevolently questioning the patriotic credentials of opponents. In this context, we need only mention the thuggish treatment meted out to the left-federalist National Awami Party (NAP) and the manner by which its provincial government in Balochistan was broken. This led to perhaps the most fierce uprising in that province – whose tragic legacy continues to this day.

Second, Bhutto’s overall strategic instincts were strongly hawkish. Not only did he uphold the rhetoric of “1,000 years of war” with our overbearing eastern neighbour in India, he was also fully committed to retaliating to Afghanistan’s nationalist propaganda with active support for ultra-conservative Islamist elements in that country. It seems there was little room for a foreign policy of accommodation when it came to our two longest frontiers: with Afghanistan and India respectively.

Bhutto’s tit-for-tat revanchism continues to inspire today’s hawks. The grand-strategic consequences of this have been unfortunate for Pakistan. Even with a rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal – another phenomenon whose roots can be traced back to Bhutto’s aggressive nuclear weapons programme – Pakistan still finds itself in an almost existential strategic conundrum. There is a never-ending cycle of aggressive posturing, harmful cross-border meddling and mutual suspicion between Pakistan and its neighbours. And above all, there is a smouldering mutual resentment that prevents the broader region from fulfilling its economic, cultural and political potential through trade. Bhutto may not have started this cycle, but he seems to have been an enthusiastic player of that game.

Third, we must consider Bhutto’s characteristic unaccommodating and anti-democratic methods. He subjected his opponents to brutal treatment as a matter of policy – both of left and of right, within the PPP and in other parties. His mishandling of the situation in 1977 was only the culmination of a general policy of heavy-handedness and alienating opponents. As for his relationship with religious fundamentalism, it was not a simple story of secular socialism or progressive-modernist Islam versus religious reactionaries.

Bhutto was willing to play ball with some of the most fanatical religious forces in Pakistani society – in part to guard his right flank and in part due to his own vision of himself as the ultimate pan-Islamic leader. He acquiesced after much uproar to the demand for declaring the Ahmadiyya community to be non-Muslims. It was a fateful decision if there was ever one. And its consequences weigh heavily upon Pakistani society today: not least because it sets the precedent for majoritarian religious and sectarian fury to prevail over pluralism and coexistence. There is also the famous trope of a ZAB who is quite fond of his own drink but nevertheless acquiesces to the religious right’s demand for prohibition of alcohol in the country.

Tragically for Pakistan and for the path that Bhutto tried to lead it down, he alienated not just the traditional elites of the country but also the toiling masses and radical middle-class intelligentsia from whom he drew his strength.

He might have left a very different, less celebrated memory today. But through judicial murder, General Zia-ul-Haq’s brutal regime gave its most famous victim a seemingly eternal political and moral life.

So many of the questions that ZAB wrestled with remain painfully relevant today. His name is likely to retain its immense political potency and generate intense debate amongst Pakistanis for at least decades to come. It seems he embodied in his politics and personality so many of the fierce conflicts in Pakistan’s body politic.

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