Bhutto: a controversial legacy

April 4, 2010, marks 31 years to the day when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged at the behest of a military dictator. Bhutto founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967. The party’s doctrine to date is: “Islam is our faith; democracy is our politics; socialism is our economy; all power to the people.” ZA Bhutto will be remembered for giving a new direction to Pakistani politics by adopting a pro-people discourse of roti, kapra aur makan. This slogan touched a chord with the masses and still reverberates, albeit much more feebly, across the country. The PPP started as a left-leaning political party but somewhere along the line the party lost its way. Whether it can go back to its roots is a question that remains unanswered.

ZA Bhutto has left a controversial legacy. That he was one of the most charismatic and popular leaders of Pakistan cannot be denied. His popularity came about because he gave voice to the masses’ aspirations. Bhutto made the public aware of their rights; with the exception of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, this was something that no other Pakistani leader has done. With a radical pro-working class, pro-peasantry programme, the PPP presented an alternative to the people after years of dictatorial rule by Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Bhutto’s politics gained momentum in the 1968-69 movement against Ayub, which consequently translated into victory in West Pakistan in the 1970 elections. Bhutto had a controversial role in the East Pakistan debacle. His critics say that had he accepted Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s mandate back then and not been in a hurry to come to power, the breakup of Pakistan could have been averted. Maybe in hindsight this still has merit, but the role the military dictatorship of General Yahya played in the crisis cannot be overlooked.

ZA Bhutto’s rule is marked by many discrepancies. In the early years after coming to power, the PPP’s radical programme remained relatively intact. But he soon succumbed to vested interests and opened the door to the privileged classes and feudals in his party to rise to powerful positions. The Labour Policy prepared in 1972 by the PPP government gave workers many rights but as soon as Mr Bhutto turned on the leftists in his party, the thrust of that policy was reversed. Bhutto’s ‘mixed economy’ paradigm, which sought the commanding heights of the economy to be in the state’s hands, eventually foundered due to a mixture of political and management failures. Despite flawed land reforms, the peasantry too began to feel increasingly helpless in the face of the feudal component inside the PPP.

Bhutto was the first one to give Pakistan a largely consensus document in the form of the 1973 Constitution (Balochistan being the exception). Many promises made in the constitution could not be translated into reality partly because of Bhutto’s reversal of policies and partly due to circumstances. It must be noted that the military operation launched against the Baloch people in Bhutto’s era is a black mark on his socialist policies. His support outside the party and courage inside the party wavered as the cumulative effect of authoritarian attitudes and compromises with the right-wing forces kicked in, which ultimately made Bhutto fall prey to a dictator’s brutality. The judiciary collaborated with General Zia in this controversial case, which remains a blot on the judicial history of Pakistan. Now that the PPP is in power and there is talk of reopening the ZA Bhutto case, caution must be exercised. No doubt this would give satisfaction to Bhutto’s family and his supporters but it might also open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences, given the tense relations between the PPP government and the judiciary presently.

Today, the PPP is unrecognisable as the party that came into being in 1967 amidst high hopes and has turned into another middle-of-the-road, liberal paradigm entity. Granted that it remains the most popular mainstream political party today, yet it needs to regain its lost glory by going back to its roots, moorings, and left-wing culture.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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