Volume 25 - Issue 01 :: Jan. 05-18, 2008INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINEfrom the publishers of THE HINDU
COVER STORYBhutto legacy
If Z.A. Bhutto stood against a tyrant and did not bow, Benazir will go down in history as one who refused to be intimidated by Islamist militants.
ZAHID HUSSEIN/AP Benazir at a news conference in Karachi on November 17, 1988, a day after her party’s victory in Pakistan’s first free elections in 11 years.
MY country’s polity, since the time I started to take interest in politics, has been dominated by the Bhutto family. Field Marshall Ayub Khan chose Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for his Cabinet in the year of my birth, 1958; Bhutto was then in his mid-twenties. People started to notice him when he took credit for negotiating a border accord with China. And West Pakistan, which is the present Pakistan, started to admire him when he resigned from the Cabinet after Ayub Khan signed a peace accord with India’s Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent in January 1966. There has been no turning back for the Bhutto family since then.
In November 1967, Z.A. Bhutto formed the People’s Party at my uncle’s residence in Lahore. Few prominent politicians and intellectuals attended the founding convention; there was a general unwillingness to take the risk as Ayub had remained in power for the previous nine years and appeared well entrenched. However, Bhutto launched an agitation against the government within a year, with the support of students and the labour, and it led to the toppling of the Ayub regime within a short time.
The People’s Party won overwhelmingly in West Pakistan in the 1970 elections and the Awami League swamped East Pakistan. This clear split in the electoral verdict created an impasse, which resulted in a military clampdown and eventually led to the formation of Bangladesh. Bhutto assumed the premiership of the remaining Pakistan and initiated innumerable populist moves that had never been heard or talked about in the country prior to that era. This changed the political culture of the country forever and accounts for the continuing support and popularity of his party.
Many people simply give Bhutto the credit for giving voice to the oppressed who never voted in the country prior to 1970. The exploited common man did not have the courage to sit along with his feudal or industrialist master. Bhutto got him the courage to vote and gave him the support to shake hands with and look into the eyes of his master with confidence.
However, Bhutto was toppled by General Zia-ul-Haq in July 1977 and the subsequent 11 years have been one of the worst in the country’s history. Bhutto remained in jail in miserable conditions until the time he was hanged in April 1979 on dubious charges. His wife, Nusrat, and daughter, Benazir, remained under arrest either in jails or at their homes for a number of years. No one had heard of Benazir until then, but she soon emerged as a symbol for the youth and then virtually dominated the polity of Pakistan for three decades until her death.
I met her for the first time in July 1977 when I was still a student at the university. She asked us to campaign for the People’s Party. I told her, how could General Zia hold elections when he had abrogated the Constitution and the offence was punishable with death under the same document? She said we would have to trust his word and hope for the best but complimented me for posing this intelligent question. My friends teased me as I had been complimented by none other than Benazir. Unprecedented welcome
I started going every day to the place where she stayed, hoping to meet her again. I did not see her again until April 1986 when she returned from exile and more than a million people came to greet her. The welcome was unprecedented and nobody who took part in that event can ever forget the day.
Benazir was riding a truck and waved continuously to the crowd for more than 12 hours until she addressed one of the largest public meetings in Pakistan’s history. The whole event, despite its magnitude, now appears so innocent and non-violent when compared with the current situation in Pakistan when one cannot think of attending even a small political gathering without being blown away by a bomb.
There was little doubt after this that Benazir would sweep the polls. I met her at a fellow journalist’s house and we became good friends, if one can call association with Benazir as a friendship at any stage. It goes without saying that she always remained the boss. But in the course of time there were occasions when she would call me from Karachi to fix an appointment and see me as the first person among the many she met while in the capital.
However, I made the fatal mistake of criticising her in my articles, which she did not like. She warned me a couple of times, and once she even showed me a copy of my article in which she had underlined with red ink the points on which she disagreed.
One may ask why she was giving my articles so much importance. Actually, my association with her started on the basis of my articles. She had been reading them even before we met and appreciated my pro-Bhutto tilt that few at that time had the nerve to show.
More importantly, it also went to show that this politician of Pakistan, who later twice became Prime Minister, was in the habit of reading; she mentioned a number of times, in various interviews, that she wanted to be a journalist and a columnist, and also wrote several columns just a few weeks before she died. She was intelligent and charming but also courteous. She had a sense of humour and was quick to pick up any issue.
Her decline basically began when she started to surround herself with ‘yes-men’. A coterie of people who did not have the nerve to disagree with her gradually surrounded her and made money whenever she came into power: they had a financial gain at stake and everything else was secondary. The ideological battle was nowhere to be seen, what to talk of it receding into the background, by the late 1980s. This was extremely distressing to her ideologically oriented followers as there was, except for the differences in the style of leadership, nothing to distinguish her party from the other major political parties. Once I politely asked her to say a few things to please her ideological party workers: she looked into my eyes and asked me if Bhutto was her father or mine. I was speechless.
She remained popular despite her mistakes and shifts in policies. She won the elections in 1988 and became the Prime Minister. She was dismissed on corruption charges in 1990 and lost the elections to Nawaz Sharif. However, she won again in 1993 but was dismissed in 1997 by one of her closest friends, Farooq Laghari, whom she had appointed President. Since then she fought a never-ending battle against corruption charges until her death. She has suddenly become an icon and it will not be possible and easy to criticise her now at any stage, unlike her father who is criticised openly by many.
Benazir was first and foremost an astute politician; she always had an eye on Sindh, which regarded her as their pride just as a village takes importance from someone from amongst them who has made it big in a town. The people of Sindh not only watched her in awe but genuinely respected her. It is for this reason that many Sindhi nationalists and the leftist forces in Sindh are many a time seen to be criticising the Bhutto family as it acts as a bulwark against their anarchist policies.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stood against a tyrant and did not bow. Now his daughter Benazir will go down in history as an icon of courage who refused to be intimidated by Islamist militants. The Bhutto legacy will continue to live on.
Anees Jillani is a lawyer of the Pakistan Supreme Court based in Islamabad.