Living with Bhutto’s ghost – by Irfan Husain

Saturday, 04 Apr, 2009

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his family pose for a photograph – AP/File photo.

EXACTLY 30 years ago today, I was driving back with friends from a weeklong fishing trip in Azad Kashmir.

We did not have much luck with the fish: locals told us army officers had decimated entire streams by using explosives to stun all aquatic life, and scooping up the fish that floated to the top. But we had a lot of fun exploring the upper reaches of Neelum Valley with its fast-flowing river, and its snow-covered peaks.

That afternoon, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant and learned that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, ex-prime minister of Pakistan, had been hanged in the dead of night by Gen Zia and his henchmen. A pall of gloom descended on our small party, and the drive back to Lahore was very subdued. The next morning, I was back at work, and was appalled and furious when a colleague offered me mithai to celebrate Bhutto’s judicial murder. In my anger, I almost bit his head off.

Looking back, I can see that many others shared, and continue to share, his hatred of Bhutto. Indeed, the degree of personal antipathy towards the dead politician can be directly correlated to a person’s wealth: the rich can be heard running Bhutto down for his real and perceived flaws three decades after his death. But for millions of poor Pakistanis, his name still evokes hope, and above all, an abiding devotion.

The Urdu word ‘jiyala’ does not translate easily into English. It has connotations of spiritual ecstasy and passion bordering on madness. Ever since its foundation in 1969, the term has come to be applied to younger members of the Pakistan People’s Party. In particular, it applies to the followers of the Bhuttos, the founders and hereditary leaders of the party. These jiyalas tend to be youthful, enthusiastic and totally committed. Mostly they live in the villages and slums of Sindh and southern Punjab, and look to the PPP to lift them out of their poverty and give them some self-respect. This is the party’s core constituency and the vote-bank the Bhuttos have relied on to bring them to power.

When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was elected in a landslide on a socialist manifesto in 1970, he ushered in a wave of nationalisation that transformed Pakistan’s economic scenario overnight. Scores of factories and banks were taken over and many powerful business families found themselves suddenly marginalised. A succession of pro-worker laws empowered and emboldened industrial labour and peasant farmers, leading to a series of strikes and lockouts. Simultaneously, Bhutto fired hundreds of civil servants on charges of corruption and inefficiency.

Opposition politicians and journalists were often targets of his ire, and he soon became a hate figure for large swathes of Pakistani society. Accused of employing fascistic methods, Bhutto made many enemies during his term, especially among the well-to-do. But the poor of Pakistan revered him for his employment-generation projects and his pro-labour policies and rhetoric.

When he was toppled in an army coup in July 1977, thousands of rich and middle-class Pakistanis cheered, and many were delighted when he was hanged after a farcical murder trial in 1979. Over the next decade, the army and bureaucracy proceeded to erase all vestiges of his legacy.

Strikes were brutally put down and the PPP’s progressive policies rolled back. A secular curriculum was replaced with an Islamic one. The army, earlier chastened by its defeat at India’s hands in 1971, now blamed Bhutto for its humiliation, even though Gen Yahya Khan was president then, and the country was under martial law. Two generations of students and military cadets have grown up on this self-serving myth.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had infuriated his class because he threatened to make a fundamental change in the status quo. By weakening the business and bureaucratic elites and empowering workers and peasants, it seemed he might overturn the natural order of things, leading Pakistan to a social revolution. And nobody can be as ferocious as a bourgeois whose sense of privilege and position in society is imperilled. Members of the social elite closed ranks against Bhutto and made common cause with the army. Opposition politicians begged the generals to take over. Finally, Bhutto was brought down and killed.

There are today in Pakistan a large number of educated, middle-class people who support the status quo and are comfortable with their privileged place in society. They educate their children privately in Pakistan and abroad, receive medical attention in excellent private hospitals and own generators to be independent of a ramshackle public power grid.

For these people, life is good, and they do not want their comfortable boat to be rocked. But for the vast majority of Pakistanis, life is hard and getting harder all the time. The state educational system is terrible and millions of children are denied a meaningful education. Most people do not have access to clean drinking water, electricity and paved roads. Government hospitals are grossly under-funded, and medical care is a privilege few can afford.

This is the Pakistan Bhutto wanted to transform. And while most Pakistani politicians talk of wanting change, they are basically conservatives who want to improve the economy without wishing to transform society. For them, the role model is Saudi Arabia, a rich country where an anachronistic social order is still in place. Bhutto, on the other hand, stood for fundamental social change based on secularism and equality. This was — and is — anathema to the establishment, as well as to much of the rising middle class. And to prevent such a social order from coming into being, they are prepared to go to any length.

Who today remembers Shaukat Aziz, our prime minister only two years ago? Bhutto was in power for just over five years three decades ago. Yet his name continues to resonate in Pakistan’s collective memory. A hate figure for the elite, he has entered popular folklore as a symbol of hope. Long after lesser figures who followed him have been consigned to the dustbin of history, Bhutto will continue to define the battle lines between the haves and the have-nots. (Dawn)