Bhutto – A Danger Impossible to Eliminate


He was a crook and an impostor. He was a visionary and a revolutionary. He was a fascist. He was a social democrat. He was nothing but a Sindhi wadera. He was a murderer. He is a martyr. He was too many things to too many men. Whatever he was, he was a bit too much for the military, the bureaucracy and a large section of the urban middle class. He had to be gotten rid of. He was gotten rid of.

If he was a political impostor, then no such character ever united the state, the government, the politicians, the army, the judiciary etc in a common thirst for his blood. No such character ever divided, in his life and after his death, a country’s polity the way he did and for so long. The Bhutto phobia that led the secular Wali Khan, the liberal Asghar Khan, the Islamic Noorani, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami etc to play ‘accountability before democracy’ signifies that their victim was something much more than a mere political weathercock.

Their phobia was matched by a popular Bhutto mania and did not survive the universal affection shown to the wadera Bhutto by the downtrodden across the political divides to this day. How many waderas had the peasants fallen in love with before? This wadera was neither a pir, nor a mir nor a syed, nor a sardar. He and his clan had figured nowhere in the real feudal hierarchy of Sindh before he rose to power and popularity.

A populist fascist? He miserably failed to endear himself to the forces most immediately recognisable as fascist and Bonapartist. They were out to get him. They got him.

He had persecuted his opponents, put them in prison, disgraced their women, had them kidnapped and killed; he had tampered with the constitution and violated fundamental rights. He had used the state media for character assassination. His enemies used these ‘facts’ to assassinate the ‘idea’ of Bhutto before and after they killed him.

They were not very convincing to les miserable. The wretched lot had a different story to tell. The story of a Bhutto who felt their pain and articulated it. He let them express it. He targeted their oppressors. He gave them respect and made them feel it. And it was a powerful feeling. They had a different approach to his crimes. In trampling fundamental rights he trampled something that had never existed for them. How could they mourn a feast they had never enjoyed? Kidnappings and murders of noble Nawabs? They had the count ready – of their kith and kin tortured and killed with impunity by the lords of the land. And did they take perverse pleasure at the sight of women of noble birth being humiliated and dragged to police stations during the nightmare that was the Bhutto rule? Perhaps not. Were they not the daughters of those who saw women of the poor as fair game for daily entertainment? In the face of all the facts, the brutal truth is that class crimes lead to class hatred not sympathy.

A backward, privileged, lazy and luxury-loving feudal class devoid of imagination and innovation. A peasantry oppressed by the feudals and without any hope. A conservative and cunning middle class making administrative and managerial hay in the neo-colonial sunshine and basking in the expansion of a non-productive economy. A non-productive and parasitic ‘industrial’ class industrious only when it indulged in corruption and exploitation. A working class resenting destitution and exploitation. An all-powerful army incorrigibly in lust with power and perks. A powerful bureaucracy running a neo-colonial country for the powerful. This was the socio-economic bed in which was born the Bhutto phenomenon. Bhutto set the bed on fire.

Bhutto rose to fame and power by causing a crisis within the feudal power structure. He talked to the people. Directly. Genuinely. He did not talk down to them. He looked them in the eye, and what they saw in his eyes they loved. They were roused. For the rights they never had. Against the wrongs done to them for centuries.

The feudals never forgave the iconoclast. But they had to love him and hate him at the same time. Fearsome to the peasants and fearful of the military and civil bureaucracy, they liked representative government because it helped them transform social privilege into political power vis-à-vis the army and the bureaucracy. The middle class – without constituencies for vote power – was enamoured of the army and the bureaucracy. The feudals were devoid of a platform that could meet the strength of both. Bhutto provided the Sindhi and Punjabi feudals with just such a ladder to political power. But Bhutto did not make the social order more repressive for the peasants.

He favoured the feudals with loans, stability in agricultural prices and better rules for agricultural trade. The feudals were rewarded with plots and permits and the treasury was plundered. This is what lay beneath the urban hatred for wadera shahi. The urban bureaucratic class wanted it all for itself.

The feudals of Sindh supported Bhutto whose humble origins they neither forgot nor let him forget. The contempt was mutual. He put the fear of God in them with the baton of the state and power of his populism. He gave his contempt a concrete, social shape. He brought disgrace upon the feudals by turning the harmless chitchat of the peasant into the ‘open kutcheri’ – direct accountability of the rulers by the people. Imagine the thrill of the rustic soul.

He built roads in areas no one had thought of before, he constructed schools and clinics where books and medicines were rarities, he gave land to the landless. However inadequate, these were big historic events in the uneventful life of the country folk. Such work had been done before but not on such a scale, and certainly not with the touch of emancipation that Bhutto gave his work. A heady mix of gratefulness and emancipation is what lies at the heart of the mystery that is the rural worship of Bhutto. He gave them nothing. He gave them the world.

To the utter disgust of the middle class he embraced culture. He reached out to the people in their own idiom with their own symbols. He did damadam mast qalandar. He used dead peers against living peers, and to disarm middle-class maulvis.

Without fundamentally changing the socio-economic structure and with the slogans that seduced the proletariat, he attacked the capitalists with his ‘socialism’ to break monopolies and promote state capitalism. Nationalisation and labour reforms earned him the friendship of the urban working class. He compromised this friendship when he capitulated to the capitalists and suppressed the very force he had befriended. He purged the party of the left and strengthened the feudals within it. He gained and lost loyalties. He made and marred friendships. Playing one contradiction against another he became alienated from the social forces that had fought for him. It was now time for the enemies to bay for his blood.

So was he an accident of history? One of the mysterious ways of Providence to set things right? Work of the devil to destroy what was already right? He was none of this. He was a unique character born in peculiar socio-economic circumstances. He embodied all the contradictions of those circumstances. He shied away from confronting the real sources of these contradictions. He attempted some plans of progress that could also better the lot of the poor. That necessitated an ease in the neo-colonial grip. For that, he had to sustain himself in power. For that he had to reconcile with exactly the same forces he had run afoul in his quest for power.

A perverted Hegelian, he tried to be the state unto himself and kept both his friends and foes frightened. His basic contradiction – his tragedy – was that he could give advanced slogans against the system on his way to political power but could assume power under the same system. And in that system the real power lay with the military and civil bureaucracy. He was not ready for a prolonged fight against it. He was no revolutionary, but he became a vehicle for emancipatory slogans. He roused the people. His politics had given them dangerous ideas. He remained a symbol of danger. Danger reduced to a symbol is easy to eliminate.

-this article is a highly abridged and retold version of the late Dr Feroz Ahmed’s incisive analysis of Bhutto titled ‘Awam Bhutto Sey Mohabbat Kion Kartey Hein,’ in Dr. Feroz Ahmed Ke Mazamin (Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, 2009). Points have also been added in several places and language used for effect. The order of arguments too has been radically changed. Like all such efforts, this is a mere signpost to the work of a great scholar who must be read by those wanting to go beneath the surface.

-the writer is editor oped, The News

-courtesy: The News International