Born to be Hanged: Political Biography of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto review: The politics of charisma

An insightful exploration into the life of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s undisputed leader till 1977

Last year saw a clustering of anniversaries in Pakistan almost as if to demonstrate that its past will always intrude into the present. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the founding by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party, the 40th of the military coup that toppled him and the 10th of the assassination of his daughter. Next year, 2019, will be the 40th of Bhutto’s execution as also of the Soviet invasion both of which reverberate to this day in their own right as also to the extent they changed Pakistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto embodied the hopes, contradictions and flaws of the Pakistan of his time, and his life naturally draws biographers. Two early works stand out — by a close political associate Rafi Raza, largely covering the period 1966-1977, and a biography by a follower Salman Taseer, who was assassinated in 2011, when he was Governor of Punjab. Both are written in awe but are not uncritical which make them relevant. Syeda Hameed in exploring his political life sees him as the protagonist of a Greek tragedy — cursed by the gods, his final destruction preordained. Hence the title of this biography, borrowed from the phrase in a British High Commissioner’s despatch — that he was ‘born to be hanged’.

Four phases

This book itself is the product of a two-decade-long interest and fascination of the author with Bhutto. This interest in Bhutto was sustained by Mubashir Hassan, a co-founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, Bhutto’s Finance Minister in the early years of his presidency, and for the past three decades at the vanguard of the exercise to forge a grassroots India-Pakistan peace movement. This association and Hassan’s reflections give the author a certain privileged access in studying Bhutto. Her book, therefore, is also based on primary material and the access she had into Bhutto’s private library in his Karachi home.

Bhutto’s political life falls into four clear phases. The first comprises his role in General Ayub Khan’s cabinet as Pakistan’s youngest ever minister (30 when he was appointed Commerce Minister in 1958 and 35 when he became Foreign Minister). These years marked him out as the rising star of Pakistan. The second phase is his role in opposition to Ayub Khan when he hitched himself to the anti-India wagon train, post the Tashkent Agreement. This was accompanied also by his transformation into a socialist and a democrat struggling against military rule. As he rose to the top of Pakistan’s political pile, his personal charisma and appeal as a socialist leader was aided enormously by his anti-Indianism to which he gave free flow. Post Bangladesh, the third phase comprises his time as Pakistan’s undisputed leader till 1977 when he was toppled by the chief of army staff, General Zia ul-Haq — an acolyte who became Bhutto’s nemesis. The fourth and shortest phase comprise the final years in prison till his execution by judicial decree.

Syeda Hameed’s treatment of Bhutto touches all these points if somewhat unevenly. Her narrative is most sure-footed in describing the third and fourth phases of Bhutto’s life.

His years in power from 1972 to 1977 fell clearly in two roughly equal parts, and the book describes well how comrades and followers of his opposition years guided his socialist programmes in the first part. Later they were one by one either discarded or moved away as Bhutto chose to rely on the bureaucracy, the intelligence agencies and finally the army to bolster his authority. In the process he distanced himself from his grassroot support and the descriptions of this in the book are its great strength.

Some omissions

Gaps of emphasis and striking omissions of detail, however, mar other parts. Syeda Hameed touches lightly on Bhutto’s role in 1965 in hardselling Operations Gibraltar and Grandslam to President Ayub. More seriously, she does not go into the issue of his role as Foreign Minister in suppressing the assessments of others that the adventurism in Kashmir would inevitably lead to India expanding the war into Pakistan. The possibility that an ambitious Bhutto foresaw a war, whatever its outcome, as being in his interest is a question that needed to be addressed. As it turned out, an inconclusive war was sufficient for Bhutto to condemn the peace that followed.

Bhutto’s histrionics in the United Nations in December 1971 as Dhaka fell are still recalled with pride by his admirers. But there is also a greater awareness of his role in the federal crisis that split Pakistan in two, more than the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan, which delivered its final coup de grace. The general election of 1970 saw Bhutto and the PPP emerge as the undisputed leader of West Pakistan but still dwarfed by Mujibur Rahman’s majority in the East and overall in Pakistan. Bhutto was little different from Yahya Khan, his generals and the entire West Pakistan elite in not honouring this result. “A majority alone does not count” or “Idhar Hum, Udhar Tum” are the sentiments he expressed then and remain associated with his role at that time. Syeda Hameed does not go into these issues much.

Both in 1965 and in 1971 how much Pakistan’s interests fell victim to Bhutto’s cynical powerplay must form part of any political analysis of the man.

While there are other absences in this otherwise useful and insightful work, a drawback also is the occasional hyperbole vis-a-vis her subject that borders on the sentimental. To describe him as the “tallest political figure of Pakistan” is possibly acceptable, but of the “Islamic World” is stretching it and “perhaps of South Asia” is stretching it too far.


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