Yesterday was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s (ZAB’s) 33rd death anniversary. While the PPP was paying its respects and rallying in Garhi Khuda Bux, what was the rest of the country thinking? One thing is clear. Love him or hate him, it is impossible to ignore ZAB. In our culture it is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead. But given the circumstances of his death we have tended over the years to lapse into merely laudatory elegies to the dear departed, particularly from leaders and workers of his party. We are not a people given to deep introspection by and large. Part of the reason for this failing is perhaps the cowardice of our intelligentsia to have the courage of its convictions in order to engage in the public space in objective analyses without shrinking from pointing out weaknesses or flaws in our leaders. Had ZAB’s own party and followers engaged in a summing up of ZAB’s legacy, warts and all, perhaps valuable lessons could have been drawn from his turbulent rise and fall for posterity. So, what is ZAB’s legacy?
The facts of ZAB’s political career are fairly well known. However, for the benefit of jogging the memories of those familiar, and also informing those not so familiar with the main nodal points of ZAB’s career, a brief recapitulation may be in order. ZAB began his politics under the patronage of a military dictator, Ayub Khan, but fell out with him in the aftermath of the 1965 war over the Tashkent Declaration signed under Soviet tutelage by Pakistan and India, which ZAB condemned as a sell-out of the Kashmir cause. This earned him the ire of his former mentor and resulted in his departure from that government. A year later, ZAB bounced back by forming the PPP with the help of some leftist intellectuals. The PPP’s manifesto was left leaning, but stopped short in practice of following through on the logic of its Islamic Socialism proclamation. The 1968-69 movement against Ayub’s government brought ZAB into prominence once again. With the unfortunate episode of the separation of East Pakistan a reality, an episode in which, although General Yahya Khan must bear the main brunt of responsibility for the breakup of the country, ZAB’s role has not been free of controversy to this day. The broken Pakistan was now handed over to ZAB as the most popular leader of what was West Pakistan, with his party having garnered a majority of the seats in this wing in the 1970 elections. The ‘New Pakistan’ ZAB now sought to construct from the ashes of defeat initially attracted all political forces, including the opposition NAP and JUI because ZAB sought to pick up the broken pieces by accommodating the opposition and allowing them to form the provincial governments in what was then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Balochistan. However, this ‘accommodative’ phase soon unravelled, culminating in the dismissal of Sardar Ataullah Mengal’s ministry in Balochistan on February 15, 1973, and the subsequent launching of a military operation in that province. Mufti Mahmud’s government in NWFP resigned in protest and that province too became embroiled in resistance activities. Meanwhile the left leaning stance of the PPP was compromised vis-à-vis the working class when ZAB ordered the police to take back the factories the workers had taken over in SITE, Karachi, under the illusion that the PPP’s agitational and election slogan of ‘the factories to the workers’ and ‘land to the tiller’ could be literally translated into facts on the ground. The police shot the occupying workers in SITE, took back the factories, but in the process marked the end of the ‘socialist’ honeymoon of the PPP. Land reform yielded some redistribution of holdings, particularly in Punjab, but that too fell into reverse once the doors of the PPP were opened to the landowners from 1975 onwards. These landowners connived with the local administration and police in recovering, often by force, the redistributed lands. It is no accident therefore that by 1977, the draconian treatment of the opposition and even dissidents inside the PPP had left ZAB with the appearance of power, which actually had been hollowed out by opportunists occupying the top leadership positions of the party and government. These elements failed to come to ZAB’s rescue, either through the PNA agitation against rigging in the 1977 elections or the subsequent incarceration, murder trial and eventual execution of ZAB through a manipulated judicial process that resembled due process only in the breach.
Post-ZAB the PPP veered toward accepting the fashionable neo-liberal paradigm under his daughter Benazir Bhutto, a ‘philosophy’ it still adheres to. In the process, the demoralisation of the jialas (militant workers) of the PPP has left it able to garner pluralities through parliamentary elections (implying coalition governments) but unable to arouse the enthusiasm of its faithful workers and supporters because of the abandonment of its original leftist élan or worldview. What the future holds for ZAB’s legacy may be too premature to pronounce on, but without serious critical introspection, the fortunes of the PPP, already on the decline, may suffer a precipitous collapse. The leadership of the PPP needs to wake up and smell the coffee.