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The Bhutto Years: A Conversation With Owen Bennett-Jones

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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and his daughter Benazir Bhutto (BB) governed Pakistan for a total of nearly ten years. Earlier, ZAB had served as a minister in the military government of Field Marshal Ayub Khan for nearly seven years.

I put a few questions about the Bhutto years to renowned Owen Bennett-Jones, author of “The Bhutto Dynasty.” I began with a question, if ZAB ever walked the talk about socialism by divesting his land holdings. He said, “There was a genuine divestment of some land – although, of course, the family also retained many lands.”

ZAB blundered not once but twice into war with India. The 1965 war did not yield Kashmir to Pakistan and the 1971 war broke up Pakistan. What do these blunders say about ZAB’s foreign policy expertise? Owen said, “ZAB was bold in foreign policy – he took big decisions – and he got some right and some wrong.”

On the plus side, when the world’s eyes were focused on the US and the USSR, “he was quick to spot China as a future global power.” On the negative side, he bore full responsibility for the 1965 war. He shared responsibility for the 1971 war with General Yahya, the military president, and Shaikh Mujib of the Awami League.

We talked about China, whose friendship ZAB had assiduously cultivated. Despite being Pakistan’s self-proclaimed “all-weather” friend, China did not aid Pakistan in either war, nor in the 1999 war in Kargil. What kind of “all-weather” friend leaves an ally stranded during critical times? Good relations do not always include a defense pact. True, but in the minds of millions of Pakistanis, China had created the impression that it would be a friend in need.

Bennett-Jones writes that ZAB regarded himself as the only “sacred cow” in the country and turned on anyone who opposed him, including his mentor J. A. Rahim. Was the PPP really a party of the people? I wondered. He said, “It was the Bhutto party from the outset.” At the founding conference, ZAB made it clear that he would make all party appointments. BB’s death provided “a chance to pass the leadership on to a non-family member – it didn’t happen.”

ZAB had famously warned that if he were assassinated, rivers of blood would flow from Peshawar to Karachi. Why did the rivers not flow? While Owen said that after ZAB’s death there was no PPP leadership to take on the military regime, in my mind, this was the unanticipated consequence of crystallizing the party around his personality.

He further explained that it took some time for the PPP to reconstitute itself. Thus, “while some people had even self-immolated themselves before his death; after his hanging, such acts seemed futile because there was no serious prospect of the PPP challenging General Zia’s regime.”

ZAB, true to his socialist rhetoric, nationalized just anything of significance. Did that benefit the common person? He destroyed the civil service and appointed his friends and cronies to key positions. Was that just? I asked if ZAB’s policies benefited the peasants whose cause he would champion day-in and day-out. He responded, ZAB “gave them hope and helped change the mentality that the existing situation in rural areas was set in stone, not insignificant developments.” In my view, all that did was raise expectations that were never fulfilled.

In 1973 the Bhutto regime declared kameez-shalwar as Pakistan’s ‘awami libas’ (peoples dress). 

In 1973 the Bhutto regime declared kameez-shalwar as Pakistan’s ‘awami libas’ (peoples dress).

Coming to the death of General Zia on the 17th of August 1988, I asked if he was assassinated, and if so, who the assassin was? He said, it was most likely an assassination and hoped that the truth will come out some day, perhaps “in a posthumous memoir or a deathbed confession. Pakistan should know who kills its leaders.”

Then I turned to BB. I asked why she dropped her father’s socialistic rhetoric and cultivated close ties with the US. He said, “She didn’t want to miss the contemporaneous trends in global politics which were moving away from socialism and towards market-based economics.” However, “she did echo his rhetoric on poverty and minority issues.”

PAKISTAN. Islamabad. 2008. After the assasination of Benazir BHUTTO in every city all over Pakistan people are gathering in rituals and demostrations. Benazir Bhutto was feted as a symbol of modernity and fought a long battle against corruption allegations. Memorial in the spot where she has been killed.

That brought us to the topic of her assassination. The Taliban had recruited a 15-year-old boy to kill BB. This is well documented in Bennett-Jones podcast, The Assassination. What did they have to gain by killing her? He said they wanted to remove a pro-American politician from the region. There was also a chance that “there were others who wanted to see her gone.” Who were these others? Would their identity ever be revealed? Were they connected to the establishment?

If Bilawal ever comes to power, would he follow his mother’s policies or his grandfather’s? He said, “He will follow them both – seeking power and, if he wins it, trying to hold onto it.” Sadly, he added, “It doesn’t leave much room for policy development.”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), waves to his supporters from the sunroof of a vehicle, during a campaign rally ahead of general election in the Lyari neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan July 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The conversation was illuminating in many ways, depressing in others. ZAB gave hope to a defeated and broken country. He brought home 93,000 prisoners-of-war. He gave the country a new constitution. He also held the first-ever Muslim summit in Pakistan and had the dubious honour of putting the country on the road to acquire an atomic bomb.

BB was the first female prime minister of a Muslim country. She gave hope to millions of women not just in the Muslim world but to women everywhere. She was elected not once but twice.

Yet ZAB and BB could have done so much more for Pakistan if they had been true to the promises they made to the ‘people of Pakistan’, also the name of the party. Despite their democratic credentials, they governed the country as if it was their fiefdom.

ZAB used the banner of socialism to be elected but never bothered to implement anything even remotely helpful to the poor. BB used her father’s name to be elected but did little to help the people whose name was enshrined in the name of the party. The economy fared poorly during the Bhutto years. There is little evidence that income inequalities were lessened.

In her first term, BB took on the establishment and sought to limit the powers of the military. In the second term, she accepted the role of the military as the ultimate arbiter of politics in Pakistan. We will never know what she would have done had she been elected for a third term.

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Naya Daur