‘Brilliant, arrogant, autocratic, opportunist’ – these are only a few of the words that have been used to describe the ‘father of popular politics’ in Pakistan. A staunch nationalist and the hero of the suppressed for his local supporters, a naive leftist for his foreign detractors, the man who restored Pakistan’s pride before his foreign supporters and an alcohol consuming corrupt statesman for his local critics.
Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore it. Today on April 4, 2014 it has been 35 years since he was hanged following a politically motivated sham trial in 1979.
Nevertheless, some facts need to be put right; Bhutto was not a common man. He didn’t come from a common family and nor did he have common upbringing. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and hailed from a prominent political family with his father being the last diwan (prime minister) of the state of Junagadh, India. He was not anti-establishment and his political career began under the wing of General Ayub Khan who was then president of Pakistan and a top-ranked military man.
It was this association with Ayub that led to Bhutto’s rise as a champion of democracy. Using the popular sentiment in Pakistan against the Tashkent Declaration and Ayub Khan, Bhutto formed the Pakistan People’s Party in 1967 which to this day, is the largest political entity in the country.
Moreover, Bhutto’s role in the independence of East Pakistan in 1971 continues to be an ardently debated topic. There are those who put the blame on him for everything that transpired that year. They argue that had he been more flexible and let Mujibur Rahman form the government, East Pakistan would have still been a part of the country. What is ignored is the simple fact that East Pakistan was in tatters even before Bhutto came along.
The seeds of hatred had been sowed much before Bhutto’s rise to power and it was literally a time bomb waiting to go off – Bhutto or no Bhutto. However, this theory has gained weight over the years primarily because of the propaganda fed to the country during Ziaul Haq’s regime. Among other things, what has been dragged into the background is the fact that Bhutto and Mujib had developed an understanding to form a coalition government with Mujib as the prime minister and Bhutto as the president and it was Pakistan’s then President Yahya Khan who postponed the inaugural session of the National Assembly and ordered a military crackdown in East Pakistan after his own talks with Mujib failed, completely unaware of the fact that Bhutto and Mujib had agreed upon a coalition.
Despite the trauma of 1971, Bhutto managed to lift the country up from rock bottom once he took control. Drafting the constitution of 1971, getting 93,000 prisoners of war released from India, introducing sweeping land reforms, kick-starting the country’s nuclear programme and strengthening ties with China remain some of his most prominent achievements.
However, keeping these milestones aside, Bhutto’s impact was larger than facts and figures alone. Never before in Pakistan’s history did a man gather such massive rallies; never before did a man generate such passionate support and never before was the rural class mobilised in such a sweeping manner.
And yet, despite his massive potential and promise, Bhutto was undone by some grave errors on his part.
Although a secular and liberal himself, Bhutto faced stagnant economic growth and an uprising by the influential religious parties who blamed the country’s slow economic growth on Bhutto’s ‘un-Islamic’ lifestyle and his ‘un-Islamic’ policies. Coming under their pressure, Bhutto caved in to their whims after the anti-Ahmadi riots in 1974 and declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, adding further fuel to the already strong anti-Ahmadi sentiment in the country. A year before this, in 1973, he ordered a military crackdown in Balochistan to curb an uprising and dismissed the provincial government.
These two errors made the cracks in Bhutto’s armour very visible. These two blunders, followed by the allegations of electoral rigging in 1977 and the murder of Ahmed Raza Kasuri’s father, set the foundations for Ziaul Haq’s coup in 1977.
What transpired next was the most high profile case in Pakistan’s history – a politically motivated affair orchestrated personally by Zia, which ended with Bhutto’s hanging in 1979 after a shambolic trial. This was an irony of the bloodiest manner; a brutal, tragic end chalked out by an insecure dictator who had been handpicked by Bhutto as the chief of army himself.
In spite of this tragic sham and the fact that 35 long years have gone by, Bhutto’s cult following has not waned one bit. There is no leader – not even his charismatic daughter – who can hold a candle to the sheer impact the man carries to this day.
In spite of all his follies, when all is said and done, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the greatest leader Pakistan ever saw.
Back in the day they shouted,
“Amreeka ne kutta paala, wardi wala wardi wala!”
(America bred a dog… in uniform, in uniform!)
And they were right.
This post originally appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs on 4 April, 2014.