Bhutto’s legacy


Forty years on


To glorify and fondly remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto has been fashionable for many years now, especially on and around his birth and death anniversaries. It is customary, on such occasions, to pay rich tributes to him and his contribution to the democratic cause. After reading most of the stuff being written on him now, one might be forgiven for thinking that he was an angel who could do no wrong. Of course, there are those who thought (and still think) of him as the devil incarnate, but their voices have grown more and more feeble with each passing year. Even those who resolutely belonged to the anti-Bhutto camp now feel obliged to either sing his praises or keep their mouths shut. A glaring example is furnished by the Sharifs and other hawkish PML-N politicians who, it appears, have suddenly been won over by Bhutto’s invaluable service to democracy.

Of course, the politicians can be expected to do any number of things in the interest of political expediency. But the other sections of society are equally prone to this sort of thing, and for reasons that make a lot of sense. Journalists who have taken what they like to call the ‘anti-establishment’ position in the current political atmosphere, don’t want to appear to be ‘anti-democracy’ by being anything but totally pro-Bhutto. They are therefore much more enthusiastic in their praises than they would otherwise be. And then there is the Zia factor: there is a genuine fear among many that by being nuanced about Bhutto, they may be considered to belong to the Zia-ul-Haq camp (even if, in the past, they could be found in that very camp). That’s how low the Zia stock is trading. Justifiably so, considering the unmitigated disaster that he was.

If somebody is sceptical about the law of the diminishing returns, let him compare Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Bilawal Bhutto

People are much more open about Bhutto in off-the-record conversations, or on the social media. Bhutto didn’t take criticism very well; and was not above persecuting and incarcerating his political adversaries and sometimes even his own party members, it is pointed out. This is true. That he flourished under Ayyub Khan’s military rule is also true. The creation of Bangladesh is also raised, with the blame being placed at Bhutto’s feet, citing his insatiable hunger for power. Bhutto certainly behaved like a sore loser after the 1970 elections, but Bangladesh is a chapter that was written by multiple authors over two decades; and by the time the 1960s ended, Bhutto was in no position to either cause or prevent the Fall of Dhaka, even if he tried his best.

It’s true that like all politicians, he was power-hungry to the core. (If any politician tells you he isn’t, he is either lying or doesn’t know what he is talking about.) He had other vices too: in his own words, he imbibed ‘a little’. By all accounts he had a weakness for beauty as well. Despite his many failings however, he remains the second-most notable politician in the country’s history after Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Bhutto was a fashion icon who could make the ordinary shalwar-qameez look like designer clothing. He used to educate his ministers about which kinds of shoes were a definite no-no with which sets of clothes. Oscar Wilde famously quipped that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity could pay to greatness. So it is that all politicians after Bhutto– even those who couldn’t find it in their hearts to acknowledge him as their inspiration– have tried their hands at imitating him with differing degrees of success (read laughter evoked). The latest to do so in the long series is his own grandson.

Whether he did it for democracy or for the sake of his own ego (which was considerable) is a debatable proposition, but the way in which he faced the gallows was nothing short of heroic. He was extraordinarily charismatic, eloquent, well-read, and (what is rare for the Pakistani landscape) if he had an iota of inferiority complex while dealing with leaders of the more powerful nations, he never betrayed it.

History has generally been kind to Bhutto’s legacy, in that his stature has grown with time. Is he still ‘alive’, as the PPP sympathisers like to claim? It appears that he is, with disastrous consequences for people in the interior regions of Sindh (for which he is certainly not to blame). Barring lip service paid to his memory, much of the rest of the country has moved on however; and this is not due to his detractors, but because of the very people who claimed his legacy. Benazir Bhutto was the first to resort to the victim card, and since 1990 (at least) the PPP has stood for little more than verbally asserting how Bhutto and his party are synonymous with democracy and sacrifice.

At the same time, the family wealth has kept growing at an unbelievable rate. Whatever else could be said about Bhutto’s weaknesses (and they were many), he wasn’t much interested in multiplying his wealth. If somebody is sceptical about the law of the diminishing returns, let him compare Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. One shudders to imagine what the next generation of Bhuttos may yield.