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The polarised figure of ZAB

And the age of strong leaders

The polarised figure of ZAB

The mercurial figure of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928-1979) and his role in Pakistan’s history are still the subjects of intense debate even after 36 years of his demise. Along with his many admirers, Bhutto had his detractors too.

People from either side of this acerbic divide express their sentiments vociferously. Smitten by his charisma, Bhutto’s admirers do not tire of listing his services for Pakistan: the atomic bomb, a consensual constitution, the Islamic summit conference, a new direction for the country’s foreign policy etc. His detractors, on the other hand, leave no stone unturned in making him out to be a demon. His collusion with the likes of Iskandar Mirza and Gen. Ayub Khan, his role regarding the secession of East Pakistan, amendments to the constitution, his atrocious attitude towards some journalists, the rigged election of 1977, the stage-managing of a few murders and the list of his ‘crimes’ goes on including military action in Balochistan.

Completely devoid of good intentions, Bhutto, according to many, was demagogy and arrogance incarnate. He did not believe in whatever he said. Most of these incriminations were levelled against him when he was deposed in 1977 and, at the behest of the Zia ul Haq regime, a relentless campaign of demonisation was unleashed. For eleven long years, he was mentioned only in absolutely negative terms.

Hence more than three and a half decades after his death, his deification hangs in perfect balance with his demonisation. It is mind-boggling how the political opinion is still divided so sharply. In some cases he is criticised by those on both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. It is almost impossible to hear a neutral analysis of his time in power.

Bizarrely, however, the very criteria deployed for assessing his role and the style of politics he came to adopt is a bit too utopian. More so, such assessment of Bhutto amply testifies to the inability of analysts from either side to historicise the phenomenon that Bhutto represented. With utter disregard for the oligarchic past and extremely uncertain present that Pakistan was beset with at the time, his critics excoriate Bhutto for not conjuring up a perfect system in which all norms of democracy and egalitarianism could be observed in true letter and spirit.

In all fairness, this is asking for too much. One must bear in mind that, exactly like any organic entity, a political system is not conjured out of nothing; rather it passes through stages of evolution. After a certain period the system, if allowed to continue on its course, it attains a measure of maturity and acquires some sort of egalitarian spirit. It should not be presented as the handiwork of a conjurer.

All said and done, opinion is far too polarised on Bhutto and his role in Pakistan’s history and politics. Unfortunately, the reflection of that polarisation comes out explicitly in biographical accounts too. A well-calibrated, analytical account of Bhutto is yet to be written. Whatever has come out about him in print suggests that his childhood and particularly subaltern status of his mother in the Bhutto-household obviously caused a visible split in his personality and comportment. The rub of those childhood influences inculcated in him a fascination for larger than life figures — Napoleon Bonaparte among them. Such influences that cast an indelible imprint on Bhutto’s personality may help us to untie a few knots in Bhutto’s complex personality.

The political figure of Bhutto was nurtured in a peculiar post-colonial situation when it seems that the political culture was defined largely by the dynamism of strong personalities. Of course that era had witnessed the catastrophic legacy of Second World War, in the wake of which personalities such as Gamal Abdul Nasser, Ahmed Sokarno, Jawaharlal Nehru, Tinko Abdul Rehman and Kwame Nkrumah were busy making their mark on the political map of the world. Even celebrated leaders like Mahathir Muhammad and Lee Kuan Yew resonated with the same impulse.

All of them demonstrated their penchant for the non-aligned status of their respective countries and opted to tread an absolutist path as political leaders. Democracy was the least of their concerns. Even Nehru, with his much acclaimed credentials as a democrat, exercised unbridled power during his 17 years long reign so that he could promulgate the centralised socialist agenda on the whole of India.

The post-colonial world of the 1950s and 1960s epitomised some fancy but contradictory political trends where socialism, entwined with the western notion of individual freedom, found traction with the political elite in most post-colonial countries.

The post-colonial narrative revolved around the idea of a strong and sustainable state with overall development as its agenda, which needed a strong charismatic leader. Effective leadership instead of state institutions was considered as the sine qua non for development which was thought mostly to be a state driven initiative. This was seen to be the case because centralised economic planning was producing quick results in terms of growth and social amelioration in many societies. Democratic norms, human rights and freedom of speech of course existed but on the peripheries.

It was only in the 1990s that these discourses found universal currency. While talking about leaders, even in the developed world, we had an assortment of strongmen like Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Charles de Gaulle.

Any serious student of history can very well imagine Bhutto having learnt a great deal in the art of governance from them. The inability to share power was a chink in Bhutto’s armour for which he has been heavily criticised. But then, who shared power in those times? Similarly, the suspension of human rights under Bhutto’s rule is highly regrettable but then who else cared for human rights in the world that we are talking about. Bhutto at best was the reflection of the age when the idea of a strong leader was in vogue and he was clearly no exception.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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