Another Bhutto moment in our tormented history - Ayaz Amir - Friday, January 28, 2011

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By 1966-67, after nine years in power, the Ayub regime was exhausted, having run out of ideas and with not a clue in the mind of its leading minions about the future. The 1965 war into which our self-appointed Field Marshal had stumbled – or should we say sleep-walked? – with no little help from Pakistan’s then Talleyrand, the mercurial and brilliant Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had sapped the regime’s morale. The Field Marshal was a broken man, in spirit and soon enough in body when struck by an attack of paralysis in the beginning of 1968.

Bhutto was a creature of that regime, indeed its brightest star. And, as noted above, he had contributed in no small measure to the disaster of 1965, even if the ultimate responsibility for war and peace lay not with him but with our impressive Field Marshal, the first of our impressive-looking men – the lineage stretching from Ayub to Musharraf and including those other two titans, Yahya and Zia – who were really men of straw and tinplate armour.

But Bhutto was more than just Ayub’s creature. Bright and restless and with some claim to having a sense of history – he had read Napoleon and Hitler but there is nothing to suggest that the history of the sub-continent was ever his forte – his was an ambition waiting for its moment. When President Lyndon Johnson did Bhutto the favour (which of course did not seem much of a favour at the time) of asking Ayub to sack him and Ayub, who had his own reasons to see the last of Bhutto, obliged him, and Bhutto found himself in the political wilderness, and the National Awami Party which he wanted to join wouldn’t take him, he set off on his own and with the help of a small but starry-eyed band of committed leftists founded the Pakistan Peoples Party

Leaving East Pakistan out of the political calculus, this part of Pakistan – which we have inherited and are making a royal mess of – had known only three kinds of parties: deadwood permutations of the Muslim League, Pakistan’s founding party a willing Marie Walewska pandering to the pleasures of a succession of authoritarian leaders; religious or quasi-religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, Chaudry Muhammad Ali’s Nizam-e-Islam Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, now led by Pakistan’s pre-eminent political gymnast, Maulana Fazlur Rehman; and the anti-establishment Awami National Party, dubbed anti-national because of its ineffectual efforts to inject a measure of rationality in Pakistan’s political discourse.

Rationality and what passes for the Pakistani establishment are incompatible propositions, the paths of reason ending where the high walls of the establishment begin. Fortress of Islam or citadel of folly?

The PPP was a departure from the texture and form of the old parties. Its founding slogans – Islam, democracy, socialism – resonated with the youth, intelligentsia and the working classes, peasants and workers, of Punjab. Its tricolour flag – red, green and black – was a work of art. And then the most vital factor of all: Bhutto’s charisma and personality which was a change from the drab political leadership Pakistan had hitherto known.

By the time of the 1970 elections Bhutto had taken Punjab if not the country by storm. He attracted feudal support in interior Sindh and pockets of south Punjab but his real strength came from the Punjabi masses.

Immortal land of the five rivers – Beas and Sutlej dead for any good they can do Pakistan and the Ravi a far cry from the river of love and longing about which the young Master Madan sang (there is a haunting song by him, Ravi de uss paar mitra...beyond the Ravi my beloved) – what strange paradoxes have arisen from thy hallowed soil? You made Bhutto a national leader and now, in a strange transformation, are breastfeeding varieties of religious fanaticism alien to sub-continental Islam.

When the definitive history of Pakistan is written, the holy nexus of Punjab and the Pakistani establishment will have much to answer for.

There is much in common between Pakistan 2011 and as it is likely to be in 2012, and Pakistan as it was on the cusp of emerging disorder in 1966-67. The old lies exhausted and the new, if only the gods of luck treat us kindly, is waiting to be born.

Bhutto ultimately was a failure, his tragedy consisting in the fact that instead of buttressing the regime of reason and democracy, which was the challenge presented to him by history, his despotic rule paved the way for the very opposite: the wave of reaction which came in the form of the Nizam-e-Mustafa movement of 1977 and Zia’s coup which followed soon thereafter. Pakistan is still reaping the harvest of that summer of evil memory. But as head of the newly-founded PPP he was a knight in shining armour, for many the messiah that Pakistan had long awaited.

Pakistan is at a similar turning point today. Fixing the economy, one part of the crisis facing the country, requires bold leadership –- this from a governing dispensation whose chief characteristics, by universal acclaim, are corruption and incompetence. The nation has just been treated to this dispensation’s idea of radicalism: a judicial commission to investigate the rise in sugar prices, which must be the joke of the century. The ruling dispensation will do nothing to break the sugar cartel for that would be to step on powerful political toes. But it will not desist from throwing more dust into the eyes of the Pakistani masses. Lenin roll over.

But beyond economics, if Pakistan is to be saved – that is, if we are still interested in anything of the kind – of foremost importance is to roll back the tide of reaction flowing from 1977 onwards which has turned Pakistan into what it is today: an abnormal country preoccupied by strange theories of strategic depth and security. The army’s mindset is inoculated with concepts and theories that would have Clausewitz running for cover. So it is not an easy task changing this mindset.

But if the tormented soul of Pakistan is to know any rest, if the demons and nightmares haunting its existence have to be exorcised, then sooner or later this task has to be undertaken. Or we will continue down the paths we are currently on, hostage not so much to Indian or Zionist or indeed extra-terrestrial designs as to Frankensteins manufactured in our own strategic laboratories.

And not to put too fine a point on it, only a Kemalist army, and not an army high command wedded to fortress-of-Islam myths, can take Pakistan out of these woods. But not to get too far ahead of reality, between the armies commanded by Mustafa Kemal and those which guard our ideological frontiers – never mind the inconveniences of geography – the distance is as vast as between the mountains and the seas. For Pakistan’s purposes let it suffice that the jihadi baggage taken on board during the Zia years is discarded. Even that is no easy undertaking.

Do we have the imagination to realise that the only way to give fresh impetus to the Kashmir cause is to scrupulously follow a policy of non-interference? Left to themselves, the people of Kashmir may achieve something. As the past has shown, any venture in which Inter-Services Intelligence is involved is doomed to failure.

This was just an aside. To return to our main theme, the challenge now, just as in 1966-67, is to sense the hot winds blowing and fill with something new, some colour and poetry, the barren desert of ideas which is the national political stage.

This government is not going. But in the larger scheme of things its fate and that of the knaves and jokers who form its battalions, and are presently on parade, is hardly of any consequence. In the scales of history something more momentous is taking place: the ideas which have sustained Pakistan these last 30 years, and given it a permanent headache, are collapsing.

Those ideas are still around but they have degenerated to the point where, for large numbers of Pakistanis, an assassin is a national hero. This is a metaphor for our times. Pakistan needs a makeover, a turning away from the past and a reinvention of the very idea of Pakistan. Is there any artist out there who can fulfil this historic task?


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