ANALYSIS: The legacy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — Anwar Syed - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bhutto coveted power to remake society in his own image, not to enrich himself. Zardari does not believe in visions and he does not have any. He wants power to make money for himself and his friends and associates. Unlike Mr Bhutto, he is ready and willing to submit to American pressures

President Zardari, Prime Minister Gilani, and the PPP Secretary General Jehangir Badr and other party elders do not tire of claiming that they are the true bearers and preservers of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy. They imply that his legacy includes all that is good and desirable in politics and governance. This calculation on their part is erroneous. Mr Bhutto was right and praiseworthy in some of the positions and actions he took and wrong in others. His legacy bears scrutiny.

As a politician he was one of a kind. He worked hard to mobilise the people. He went to villages, sat down with the peasants, listened to their grievances, told them they were the source of all power and gave them a sense of political efficacy. He addressed huge crowds in towns and cities and told them that they were entitled to a comfortable living, and that they could be the masters of their destiny. He assured them that they were the real owners of the country’s resources and they had the right to determine the uses to which these resources would be put. Needless to say, the poor and deprived were pleased to hear these assurances and got behind the man who offered them.

Mr Bhutto was a charismatic leader and a great orator. The spoken word is a part of his legacy that anyone wishing to be a successful politician should study and try to follow. His legacy as a ruler is something else. It is a mixed bag. During the first few months after his assumption of office, he nationalised major industries, banks and educational institutions, including those that were funded and managed by foreign Christian missions (such as Forman Christian College in Lahore, Murray College in Sialkot, Gordon College in Rawalpindi and Edwards College in Peshawar). The economy and the system of higher education both degenerated as a result.

Mr Bhutto was not a liberal democrat believing in the presence of an organised opposition as an essential component of the system. His government placed virtually every known politician belonging to parties other than the PPP, and even some PPP dissidents, in prison for varying periods of time. Indiscriminate nationalisation of private corporations and persecution of opponents and dissidents are a part of his legacy, which deserve to be rejected.

On the positive side is first the fact that he supervised the framing of the 1973 constitution for which he obtained the approval of all political forces in the country. The National Assembly adopted it unanimously with only a few abstentions. In spite of a number of subsequent amendments, this constitution is held in high public esteem to the point of being considered sacrosanct.

In 1974 India tested a couple of nuclear ‘devices’, which showed that it had acquired the capability of building nuclear weapons. Mr Bhutto responded to this event by initiating Pakistan’s own nuclear development programme, much to the chagrin of the US and other western powers. Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state at the time urged him to step away from this programme. Prime Minister Bhutto rejected this advice, upon hearing which Mr Kissinger warned, “We will make an example of you.” But Mr Bhutto remained undaunted. He knew that it was going to be a very expensive venture but money must be found for it “even if we have to eat grass”. The programme went ahead. It is probable that by the early or mid-1990s Pakistan had accumulated a stockpile of nuclear weapons. In 1999, Mr Nawaz Sharif’s government tested nuclear devices in response to India’s tests a week or so earlier. Pakistan was recognised as a nuclear weapons state and became a member, even if unwelcome, of an exclusive nuclear powers’ club. The great majority of the people are probably pleased with their country’s status as a nuclear power. But a minority view regards it as having been a needless waste of money and a move that endangers peace in the region. I do not share this view. In my reckoning, it is weakness that invites aggression and the possession of nuclear weapons deters it. In sum, fearless assertion of the national interest and rejection of external pressures is also a part of Mr Bhutto’s legacy that does him honour and which the nation can cherish and keep.

Towards the end of December 1971, Mr Bhutto became president of a country that was emerging from a humiliating defeat in a war with India. India had taken not only territory in West Pakistan but also more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers and civilians as prisoners of war. Peace had to be made to get these men and territory back. Exercising marvellous perseverance and diplomatic skill in meetings with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at Simla, he paved the way for achieving both of these objectives.

Having set forth some important aspects of Mr Bhutto’s legacy, we may now ask to what extent Zardari and company are its bearers and preservers. He coveted power to remake society in his own image, not to enrich himself. Zardari does not believe in visions and he does not have any. He wants power to make money for himself and his friends and associates. Unlike Mr Bhutto, he is ready and willing to submit to American pressures.

Mr Bhutto was intellectually a socialist and initially some of his policies had that kind of a bias. Mr Zardari and Mr Gilani may not even know the meaning and import of socialism. They have denationalised state owned public corporations and handed them over to their favourites among private parties.

Mr Bhutto was a very hard-working man. I once had the occasion to read his files of memoranda addressed to ministers, high-ranking officials, and party functionaries. These documents showed that he had kept himself well informed about happenings in his government, various political parties, and society at large. One should not be surprised if it transpires that Mr Gilani, by contrast, does not know the happenings in the office next to his own. It is possible that he has ways of occupying himself but these may not have any bearing on his work as the country’s prime minister.

It may be said in conclusion that the present PPP elders’ claim that they are the bearers of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy is for the most part unfounded.

The writer, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics

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