Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan

By Raza Habib Raja 

Tracing Bhutto’s impact on the Pakistani Political, Social and Economic Landscape

I remember going through Stanley Wolpert’s very good book on this enigmatic politician. The first sentence more or less defines Bhutto’s legacy. Wolpert while researching his book on Jinnah wrote that during his stay in Pakistan, he found out that people either hated or loved Bhutto. He also wondered about the amazing contradictions in the personality of this amazing politician. Today, as we stand in 2010, and look back into the strange chequered history of this country, no discussion on politics, culture, economic and social ideology, military and its role in politics, and politicization of masses cannot even begin without ZAB. His contribution and impact has been tremendous. A few may object: why not move on? The world has moved on after all. Why are we time frozen in 1970s? Why cannot we let go of our obsession with Bhutto? This is 2010 after all and we are confronted by so many problems.

Well history in my opinion reveals collective psychology of nations and no discourse on history is ever enough. Whatever we see in our political and social fabric today was sown in the past and understanding of past is a prerequisite for understanding present. And past cannot be understood without discussing Bhutto.  Plus in my opinion, he has to be demystified and right balance has to be found in our judgment of him. Frankly he was neither a total villain nor a complete Messiah and this recognition is important both for much needed de-Bhuttofication of PPP and also to pacify needless and often exaggerated opposition against him.

 This article does not try to tread the familiar theme of praising or lamenting Bhutto, but tries to evaluate his impact whether positive of negative( depending how positives or negatives are interpreted by the reader) on the course of history in Pakistan. Impact, can be intended or unintended and can be in line with the objective of a particular policy or can at times lead to completely different outcomes. Impact by no means is the sole contributor or the sole causal factor. Impact is the influence of a particular person, policy or action over subsequent events.

So how do we evaluate his influence and impact?

First, Bhutto can rightly be credited with actually creating a mass oriented populist politics in Pakistan. Most important contribution was arousing a collective feeling in the masses that they were definitely a factor to reckon with.  He was able to galvanize support and induce street politics and made masses a stakeholder as well as factor to definitely reckon with. His contribution in introducing street politics even transcends his contribution towards formulation of the liberal left. Politics of protest, using people as an effective force to reach to the ultimate objective, effectively started with Bhutto. This kind of politics was subsequently adopted by his opponents and over the years by various parties. Moreover, his styles of oratory and engagement tactics were also aped by various parties and their leaders.

Second, Bhutto is credited for popularizing and in fact assembling left leaning political spectrum into a cohesive electable mass. There is also substantial merit in this assertion although frankly he by no means was an indoctrinated socialist. He was basically a populist who was able to gauge correctly the despair caused by the rising inequalities of the Ayub era and used it to his political advantage. While this had a definite advantage for the genuine socialists initially, as socialism got popular due to him, but subsequently this also became a hindrance. Mindsets generally are the product of the class you belong to. And Bhutto was no exception. Feudal mindset went hand in hand the political acumen and sensitivity. This mindset, despite his adopted ideology, could not change and hindered socialist cause after providing it a break through. The composition of PPP candidates started to reflect increased feudal component over the years and left wing stalwarts like J A Rahim were thrown out and some of the others simply went into oblivion. Bhutto thus contributed towards socialism initially but his feudal background gave rise to conflict of interest. This conflict of interest partly explains as to why land reforms were not effectively carried out while nationalization of industries went overboard. Thus despite conducive environment for land reforms, the landed aristocracy not only survived but subsequently even thrived. Moreover, PPP’s steady descent from originally social democratic party into a strange ragtag of liberal cum feudal ideologies owes a lot to Bhuto’s own background and the way he conducted himself.

But how could he alone contribute, launch and then thwart socialist version of left politics? This actually brings us to the third undoubtedly important impact of Bhutto and that was personality politics. Personality politics is often the characteristic of many developing countries. Here often electorate starts equating a party with a charismatic individual who is generally also responsible for founding or popularizing the party.  In some parties, after the initial phase, the individual though remaining powerful fades into background and allows the party to become more dominant.  However, in some cases individual becomes more and more powerful and cult of personality forms. This cult of personality often sets the basis for subsequent formulation of dynasty politics as well. Cult of personality if successfully formed gives the individual unusual power over both the electorate and party members. In Pakistan, Bhutto was a charismatic person who developed a cult like following. By no means is he the creator of this concept as this has been witnessed in many other parts of the world also but in Pakistan it initiated with him and gathered pace subsequently. Apart from PPP, this also had significant impact on the course of development of other parties. The “success” of Bhutto in this respect also paved the way for the other parties to follow suit whether deliberately or because this was what seemed to work. Today, MQM, PML (N) and PTI, all are modeled on same personality template. On PPP this had a regressive impact as it gave Bhutto an unaccountable power over the party affairs and virtually insulated him from all the criticism. Moreover, it extended even after his death to such an extent that once Benazir was accepted as an heir to his legacy she was able to whip the party to her own desires. Unfortunately PPP in order to remain “in” had to constantly whip Bhutto mania and this in the longer run has proven to be catastrophic. In fact during the life of Benazir, there were calls for de-Bhuttofication of PPP by liberal intelligentsia which were thwarted by the party itself knowing that by now party and Bhutto name were one and the same thing.

Fourth influence is regarding the use of nationalism as a potent force in the urban areas. It is true that PPP came into power on a left leaning manifesto but let’s not forget that Bhutto’s own rise was more an outcome of the 1965 war and the strong romantic nationalist fervor emanating out of it. Bhutto initially sky rocked to fame due to whipping up of nationalism and by capitalizing on the impression that Pakistan had thrown the victory in the war away on the negotiation table. That nationalism became a part and parcel of the Pakistani politics afterwards. Primarily that brand of nationalism was anti India and anti United States. Even in the late 1970 when Nizam e Mustafa movement was cornering Bhutto, he was pointing fingers at United States. Lately these brand of nationalism which was helped by Bhutto became counterproductive to PPP as the change in the international conditions has forced PPP to have an accommodative stance with the US.  This stance, despite being correct, is at odds with the already developed concept of nationalism and thus hurting its position in the urban areas.

Fifth and an extremely important aspect which is sometimes overlooked due to “liberal” credentials of Bhutto and his tragic end at the hands of far more hardline Zia, is the strategic use of political Islam. ZAB tried to use Islam for “pragmatic” purposes such as appeasing Islamic hardliners to soften  their opposition to his rule and also as a rallying and uniting point in the post East Pakistan debacle scenario. His role in second amendment and his efforts to elevate Pakistan in a prominent role in the Islamic world could be construed as efforts to use religion for strategic purposes. He combined selective Isalmization with purging of extreme left in his party. That was actually a secular blunder with devastating aftermaths. Appeasement did not soften the hardliners, it merely made them stronger and pushed Bhutto to the wall in 1977. More importantly it effectively began a trend where Government would bow to the wishes of the hardliners and paved the way for the subsequent Islamization of the country.

Sixth significant influence of Bhutto is on shaping of his opposition. In a strange way, Bhutto, besides his impact on left wing political landscape, also had significant influence on the formation of conservative opposition in Pakistan. There are two phases in which his influence was enacted. First was during his rule when his policies really started to alienate conservative middle class and allowed their parties to successfully come under the same platform. This is a significant but sometimes overlooked phenomenon. Bhutto once he came into power involuntarily hit urban middle class too much. The brunt of his policies hit the industrialists and the urban middle class which started becoming more conservative and started to unite. At that time there was not any mainstream conservative democratic party like PML (N) today, therefore consequently JUI, Jamat-i-Islami became the torch bearers of Bhutto’s opposition.  However, the major problem was that these parties were primarily religious and though had proximity to conservative values did not represent them completely. So second influence was after his death when Zia realized the anti Bhutto sentiment prevalent in middle class and knowing that religious parties did not have potentially that kind of mass appeal which a conservative democratic party would have, created a Muslim League. This Muslim League subsequently became a successful and mainstream party in its own right.  And ironically its leader Nawaz Sharif’s own rise (though frankly intellectual level of both is way apart!!!!) is quite similar to Bhutto’s and initially he even imitated Bhutto’s style of mass engagement though Mao cap was replaced with a P cap!!!! Initially Nawaz Sharif positioned himself as an alternate to Bhutto’s ideals. In fact I remember in the run up to 1988 elections, an advertisement campaign was launched on print media reminding all the readers of all the “excesses” of Bhutto’s rule in 1970s. Once in power Nawaz Sharif started rolling back aggressively the economic steps Bhutto had taken. While Zia had focused primarily on instilling religiosity as a backlash to Bhutto’s religious “moderation” and general freedom, Nawaz Sharif’s focus was more on the economic front.

Seventh big impact was on the economic front. The economic reforms by Bhutto were heavily influenced by outcome of Ayub’s policies particularly doctrine of functional inequality and industrialization process which was conducted by transferring of resources from agriculture to large scale manufacturing. Bhutto in sync with the grievances caused by Ayub’s reforms both in the working class as well as the landed aristocracy went for nationalization of industries, the banking sector and even the educational institutions. In the hindsight, it may seem like a wrong decision but at that time nationalization was in vogue. 1970s was a decade of “anti materialism” and great leaps were being taken to project collective interest over individual “greed”. What Bhutto did was perfectly in tune with the global mood at that moment. However, the way nationalization was carried out without concomitant effective land reforms did have an over all regressive impact. It hit industrialists and middle class too much while tilting the balance in favor of the landed aristocracy. To some extent what followed later was the outcome of Bhutto’s policies. The economic reforms of 1990’s under various structural adjustment programs were primarily focused at undoing Bhutto’s economic steps. The losses made by state enterprises cast a shadow over the role of public sector in management of such enterprises and forced a change of position even in PPP regarding the role of public sector in economic management.

Thirty one years have passed since Bhutto’s death but his legacy is still strong. In my mind he was by far the most influential individual in the history of Pakistan and our judgment in the end has to be based on his influence over the course of history. Some of his negative influences were purely unintended but nevertheless emanated from him. It is very difficult to see what would have been the political landscape if he was not executed. But most probably we would have been better off. Bhutto was an extraordinary intelligent person who would have eventually moved towards centre-left rather than staying on a confrontational left position. In some ways his death unfortunately triggered many subsequent events which have proven disastrous for Pakistan chiefly being Pakistan’s move towards state sponsored religious right side of the political spectrum. . Personally in my opinion his ability to engage masses and instilling a belief that they mattered is stronger than all the negative impacts. A big negative impact has been on subsequent development of PPP which has become totally subservient to Bhutto clan. The need to end the misuse of his name is the need of the hour.



Filed under Economy, Islam, Pakistan, Religion

19 responses to “Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan

  1. By and large seems to be an objective assessment.

    ZAB has been the one to usher in public participation in Pakistan,till then being gagged by dictators,though by promoting his personality cult and sycophancy(of course this process is unique to subcontinent where personal ambitions coalesce into national objectives.)

    He rallied towards the left not because of his convictions but because of necessity to minimize the effect the USSR card of India.
    Dictators till ZAB came along, were handpicking and manipulative of civilians,he changed the trend, by picking up Generals – he paid with his life .

    Article is silent on his external policy which is largely good for Pakistan,but failed utilize the opportunity to cement relations with India.If anybody on the Pakistan side could have improved relations with India, it was ZAB

  2. Talha

    Bhutto was the beginning of our misery, that is all.

    Him and Zia deserved their death.

  3. Raza Raja


    That is some what too harsh! Bhutto can not and should not be bracketed with Zia

  4. navanavonmilita

    Salam Aleykum

    Zulfikar Ali Bhutto an Enigma: Sid Harth


    …and I am Sid Harth

  5. Naeem Sahibzada

    An good and objective analysis.
    No matter who says what and not withstanding his faults. Bhutto certainly gave dignity to this country and the nation when it was at its lowest ebb.
    With him at the helm, You felt proud as a Pakistani when he represented our country. He certainly was also a giant in the global political arena of that era whether we liked him or not and left a legacy and mark in history.
    Bracketing him with the likes of Zia, Nawaz or even Musharraf is being very unfair. He was a leader in his own right.

  6. tilsim1

    I have read of the role ZAB played as the architect of the disastrous 1965 war. The war was a disastrous miscalculation as it derailed Pakistan’s economic progress and incensed India who of course then took advantage of the East Pakistan debacle. General Malik’s letter to his brother in Ankara in 1966 talks to this (source: Columbia Prof: Hassan Abbas’s book,’Pakistan’s drift into extremism’).

    ZAB’s nationalisation policy speaks for itself. He played to the lowest common denominator, taking a populist stance. This set back Pakistan’s economic progress such that it never recovered.

    ZAB also played the religious and pan-islamism card and a lot of the legislation that rolled back civil liberties was ushered in his era.

    That said, his setting up a more secular minded political force in Pakistan was an enduring achievement. It has bought important balance to the politics of the country.

    The 1973 constitution was also a remarkeable achievement but on the back of the loss of a more tolerant and secular East Pakistan.

    So as the author says it is a mixed legacy.

  7. Mnoor

    I only agree partly with the assessment of Bhutto. His impact on personality politics and selective use of political Islam was definietly palpable. With regard to his leftist credentials, there is a big question mark. I would say he was a great opportunist, and was able to spin whatever popular doctrine that was in vogue. The leftist politics was quite “in” around the late 60s and most of 70s across the world. That was the prime of the soviet union, and domestically the socialist slogans were much in demand in the face of feudalism. Bhutto used all this to his advantage, but in reality was unable to bring any fundamental change in the society. He remained a feudal until the end, and continued to support feudalism at crucial decision times. What ever mass support he garnered (and he indeed was able to get that alot) was not used to uplift the masses truly. Just examine the history of PPP over the years, yes it has the masses in it, but only at the jiyala level, the workers easy to dispose off and to shove in front of establishment attacks, but all leaders and decision makers of the party remained from the rich. Very few (at least I cannot recall any name) have managed to climbed out of their humble origins and made it to any significant position in the party, and forget about that in its government altogether.

    It is quite fashionable to eulogise Bhutto now, but the only reason he appears to be so great is in comparison to what incompetent stuff we have presently.

  8. Bin Ismail

    In my opinion, while Bhutto was quick to expropriate an opportunity , it was often at the cost of failing to anticipate the impending outcome.

    He leapt for power after emerging as victor in West Pakistan, but at the cost of East Pakistan. He went for greater control through a nationalization spree, but at the cost of the country’s health, education, banking and agriculture sectors. He was able to woo the Saudis and their riyals, without preempting an eventual surge in Wahhabi extremism in Pakistan. He engineered the second amendment to please the mullah, without anticipating that the same mullah would bring about his downfall. He handpicked a sycophant to head the army, unable to calculate that this sycophant would one day hang him.

    Sad indeed.

  9. Anwar

    A Machiavellian construct does not deserve the praise heaped on him… Even Fatima Bhutto has less than candid opinion of her clan…

  10. Zainab Ali

    Bhutto certainly made a positive contribution for the cause of democracy. The constitution that is the backbone of our politics today was enacted and implemented by Mr. Bhutto.

  11. nasir jan

    Guys I agree with Tahla – i know it sounds harsh but both ZAB and Zia slept in the same bed as the Mullahs – and both of them ended up with the same fate

  12. Maryanne Khan

    Governing Pakistan requires dealing with the religious element of society who wield more power in that country than most other religious in most other countries. Pakistan’s dilemma is its inabililty to assign the religious a clear role in society that does not include secular power. ‘Church’ and State, religion and politics, cannot be joint rulers. Religion is accountable to God, and the State is accountable to its citizens. One is founded on faith and the other on economies, education, security etc.

    As Raza Raja has pointed out, this bedevilled almost all political leaders who have used the power of religion in Pakistan to their own ends, only to ultimately come to grief when the religious demanded yet more power and complete control. No secular leader can do his job in that scenario.

  13. Maryanne Khan

    Zia, by the way, was never elected. He never had to present himself to the so-called masses for support to gain access to power. He usurped it. You can’t compare his motivations or methods with those of an elected official. Bhutto had to work mighty hard to get the top job, Zia aimed a gun. (A lot of them, actually.)

    Read Mohammed Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ a hilarious whodunnit, in which the author paints a mighty amusing picture of Ul Haq. Can’t imagine anyone writing a similar book about Bhutto.

  14. Midfield Dynamo

    Bhutto an opportunist made the most of what came his way, like any other Pakistani, self interest was the only motive albeit myopic which led to his premature demise.

    He was a despotic feudal who treated his fellow politicians and other Pakistanis with the same disdain that landlords in rural Sindh have for their poor peasants.

    The pan Islamic furor created by him was an excellant strategy at the time, it could have had dividends for Pakistan if the world was just standing by and watching, but naturally extortion of power was at play as it is now and thus was too ambitious a plan. Now of course the Arabs are smart in their own right and don’t need a Bhutto to tell them how it is done. They have many Bhuttos on their payroll…..

  15. Talha

    @ Raza

    It might be harsh for me to state what I did but the fact remains that Bhutto was a greedy and self centred opportunist.

    His role is prominent in many of the blunders in our history, he clearly did not serve the people but rather himself until he was betrayed by his favourite general.

    He is the beggining of our nations undoing.

  16. Tilsim

    @ Maryanne Khan
    “Religion is accountable to God, and the State is accountable to its citizens. One is founded on faith and the other on economies, education, security etc.”

    Very eloquent and correct.

  17. Maryanne Khan

    Thank you Tilsim

  18. Bin Ismail

    @ Maryanne Khan (July 26, 2010 at 10:04 am)

    “…..‘Church’ and State, religion and politics, cannot be joint rulers…..”

    Very well said.

  19. Dastagir

    I have read most of ZAB’s books / writings. I must admit he had intellectual fire… but too much of talking with too little concrete work on the ground, exposed him. I have not met a single pakistani who spoke highly of him. Zia ul Haq caused Pakistan great harm. He destroyed what little of beauty that was left in Pakistan.

    As regards ZAB, he was a talk-shop with no ground work. Barbs / Insults / tongue-lashings / turn of phrase., he spent all of his time in this. He was not a nation-builder.

    His worldview (Pan Islam) was too romantic and idealistic and impractical for reasons of practicality. Jamaluddin Afghani and even Iqbal had sung about “Pan Islam”., but i am sorry to say that Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani’s analysis of what constitutes (or does not constitute) a nation was absolutely correct and on target. Iqbal replied to it in his famous quartet in his very last days… and won the point / argument., but the past 70 years have proved Madani’s argument to be correct (at the bar of history and human behavior).

    ZAB was made in the mould, could have been successful had he been in Indian Politics (either in a United India)., or even in the Republic of India. He had buildings in Bombay (Mumbai) declared evacue property… In short, inspite of great talent (intellectual and otherwise); he could not do anything for his nation., anything positive i.e. Just talk and talk and talk., and phrases and idioms., and gestures ! No solid work. Just a talkshop.