Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: Pakistan’s most divisive political leader
The highlights of this tenure as foreign minister include the initiation of Pakistan’s relationship with China and success in attracting investment and commerce from countries in the Soviet bloc. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s personal inclination towards the socialist ideology and his desire to be seen as a pro-people politician helped him become the chief architect of Sino-Pakistan relationship that continues to flourish to this day.
He also made Pakistan a prominent member of the Non-Aligned Movement, built close diplomatic relationships with the Arab nationalist-cum-socialist Ba’ath parties and extended support to movements for national liberation and progressive change in Latin America, Asia and Africa. These were remarkable achievements for a recently created developing country in the highly polarised world of the Cold War era.
What Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did internally and vis-à-vis India, however, was in stark contrast to his policy choices in external affairs. He actively supported Ayub Khan in his presidential referendum against Fatima Jinnah and backed Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir that resulted in an all-out war with India in 1965. Soon after the Tashkent Declaration calling for a ceasefire, brokered by the Soviet Union, he fell out with Ayub Khan, accusing him of losing a war on the negotiation table after it had been won in the battlefield. This is when the second phase of his political career (1966-1971) began.
After leaving the government, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reached out to progressive political activists and socialist ideologues to garner their support. In 1967, he launched Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Lahore which was then the capital of West Pakistan. His amalgamation of Islamic tenets of egalitarianism and justice with social ownership of public goods and resources, democratic rule and empowerment of the marginalised sections of the society made him popular overnight. His support was as strong among the workers and the peasantry as it was in the emerging middle class that was influenced by the global socialist and peace movements against the remnants of colonialism, right-wing dictatorships and neo-imperial western policies.
His PPP won a majority of National Assembly seats in West Pakistan in the general elections of 1970 but he had no support in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League swept the polls, winning all but two National Assembly seats there.
This is where we see another major contradiction in his politics — he did not side with the democratic principle of majority rule and opposed the transfer of power to Sheikh Mujeeb. It will be, however, unfair to single him out because there was a consensus among the elites of West Pakistan – military, bureaucracy, politicians and business – not to accept Mujeeb’s mandate and allow him to rule a united Pakistan. It was also the military that was in power then, not Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Still, he cannot be absolved of his support for a military action in East Pakistan that culminated in its secession from West Pakistan.
In 1972, the third phase of his political career began when he first became the president of Pakistan and then its prime minister. He termed his administration a people’s government and acquired the title of Quaid-e-Awam (people’s leader). His support among the poor, the landless, labourers, students and women was incomparable to any other politician. He made all political stakeholders agree to promulgate a new and fairly progressive constitution for the republic.
He built institutions of learning and culture, invested in a school network taking it to slums and small villages, created basic health facilities, distributed land among landless farmers, initiated housing and infrastructure schemes and mobilised foreign investment in industries. He is also the architect of Pakistan’s current defence paradigm premised on nuclear weapons and a missile programme among other things. But, above all, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave a sense of dignity and pride to Pakistan’s impoverished and disadvantaged population.
The elites and the affluent urban middle classes turned against him and their subsequent generations remain staunchly opposed to him even to this day. He fundamentally disturbed the class equation — not just in the economic sense but more so in social and psychological terms.