The politics of populism and the idea of the great Bhutto legacy | Pakistan Today

The politics of populism and the idea of the great Bhutto legacy

‘Behind this mask, is an idea Mr Creedy. And ideas are bullet proof’  

He was seasoned, he was educated. He was well spoken and a powerful orator. And of course, his greated appeal: he connected with the people

It has been argued that the politics that is practiced in Pakistan has no equal the world over. That is by no means a compliment to the system, but it is an observation that few would find easy to dismiss. The fervour that greets a populist leader is mind boggling, as one witnesses political leadership lay claim to the affection of a population that seems blind to their leaders’ shortcomings as politicians and policy makers. Arguably, the history of the country has witnessed no leader more commonly associated with such fervour after the founding fathers themselves than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

It’s utterly perplexing.

Understanding what makes ZA Bhutto different from other politicians could – and has — been the subject of many a discourse. Pakistani students of political science dedicate months wrangling with the many contradictions his legacy presents. And yet, at the end, whether or not they agree with his politics, they – and others far older and wiser than them, leave him with, at the very least, a grudging sense of awe and respect.

‘You won’t find a leader like Bhutto today’

We thought we did.

In 2011, when Imran Khan of the PTI called for support, the Minar e Pakistan found itself surrounded by a bewildering number of people: men, women, children alike. For a very, very brief moment, politicians across the country may well have held their breaths and wondered what if…

Of course, outside of the PTI, that’s not a view that was held for long, and senior analyst Ayaz Amir explained why seasoned politicians and analyst are quick to dismiss similar notions with a “no, no, no..”

“I’ve been attending rallies and political gatherings since early adolescence,” he started. “And yes, there was a large gathering there – but you can’t say it was Mochi Darwaza at Minar e Pakistan. For the first time, I saw young men and women and entire households turn out in a way that, admittedly, hadn’t been done before. But this was a crowd that had, so far, been cut off from traditional politics since 1985. It was the burger crowd, the Gulberg classes, the drawing room classes and so on and so forth. These were a completely disenfranchised section, and suddenly here was Imran – a man who spoke their language.”

There were people from lower classes, he acknowledged, but not a significant amount. Nothing like, say, the time of Bhutto.

The great uniter

“You have to understand,” he continued, “Bhutto was a child of his time.” In the aftermath of the strict, almost suffocating military rule that Ayub Khan’s time is often referred to by the left, Bhutto must have been quite a breath of fresh air. He was seasoned, he was educated. He was well spoken and a powerful orator. And of course, his greatest appeal: he connected with the people.

“He arose out of a tight, authoritarian political system, a restrictive system. It was like everything had been under the lid. Once the lid was lifted, the effect was explosive.”

And Bhutto gave those energetic crowds a taste of power, showed them what they could become. He gave the country direction with the novel concept of socialism and nationalism, playing the anti-India card for all it was worth, and, of course, the feather in his cap: paving the way for Pakistan’s nuclearisation.

Bhutto, hum sharminda hain, teray baap ki khaatir zinda hain – Is the PPP’s survival reliant on a ghost of a memory?

Many argue that the PPP, as it lives and breathes today, is surviving solely on the image and memory of ZAB, and his daughter, the late Benazir. In fact, it is often said that she too, came to power twice because of her father’s memory.

Again, Ayaz Amir was quick to dismiss this.

“You must remember that when ZAB came to power, it was because of the circumstances – the country had just exited a strict military regime. PPP contested in local body elections in Junejo’s time, they lost.”

It was, once again, circumstances that became one of the many factors that paved the way for Benazir’s rise to power, he argued. Circumstances that were very similar to the ones her father had faced.

Mustafa Khokhar, PPP’s Sect of information Central Punjab, pointed out that the party’s leftist leanings are another reason why it still survives – and in many areas, thrives.

“The PPP,” he said, firmly, “is and continues to be the only left to the centre party in Pakistan.”

Both Benazir and her father, he pointed out, had a history of taking risks other leaders would have balked at. It endeared them to the people at large. ZAB connected with all factions of society in a way no leader has been able to do since. And Benazir, he argued, had had a choice after the first terrorist attack upon her return.

“She could have gone home. She could have stayed inside. But she didn’t. She chose to come out. And she chose to come out of her vehicle again in Liaquat Bagh.”

It is their romance with the country that endeared them to the people, he argued. And it’s the romance with the Bhuttos and their ideology that drives the PPP. And so, people continue to support it, not just in one province, but nationally.

His calls for socialism, a novel idea for the demoralised nation of the 1970s, are what drew people to him to begin with. But by 1978, it has been argued, things became quite different

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

But the Pakistan of today is not the Pakistan of the 70s.

The Pakistan of the 70s was a whole other matter. It was a young nation that had never seen a government changed via the electoral process that democratic nations pride themselves upon. The impediments to freedom of expression and the hurdles for political progression that existed when the late ZAB came to power were products of their time. Over 90,000 prisoners of war remained at the mercy of Indian hospitality. It was a nation demoralised and badly, badly shaken.

It was, as Ayaz Amir put it, a time that needed a Bhutto.

And Bhutto answered.

Out, out, damned spot!

Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, Oh, Oh!” –  Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 1, Page 3)

That is not to say, of course, that the late ZAB’s political legacy is devoid of its own share of criticism, controversy and downright failure.

When human history share the stories of its preferred heroes, those documenting it often tend to brush over the stories of murder plots (he was eventually awarded the death sentence for conspiring to murder Ahmad Raza Kasuri and his father) and calls for militarisation of complete provinces (to quash Balochistan’s civil unrest of the 1970s). Critics of Bhutto are quick to point out his roles in both Operation Gibraltar and in the secession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Attending a PPP rally may never be the wisest of choices for someone who feels the need to point out to its humanitarians and activists that it was during ZAB’s time that the State gained the infamously controversial and hotly debated (if only within the confines of one’s drawing room) right to involve itself in matters as personal as defining an individual’s religious orientation.

And a PPP supporter of today would perhaps find it difficult to mention ZAB’s successful recovery of 90,000 PoWs without being soundly told off – because it is widely believed that the Simla Agreement came at the cost of what potential benefits Pakistan could have gained with UN’s involvement in resolving the Kashmir dispute.

It must also be acknowledged that his brainchild, the Pakistan Peoples Party, was not the same PPP in the 80s as it had been in the 70s.

His calls for socialism, a novel idea for the demoralised nation of the 1970s, are what drew people to him to begin with. But by 1978, it has been argued, things became quite different.

“You’ll see a marked difference between the ticket-holders of 1970 and 1978,” remarked Ayaz Amir. “By 1978, it’s clear that ZAB had started keeping the party’s left oriented section at arm’s length.”

And it became apparent nowhere more than in a review of a list of the party’s ticket-holders, which started displaying more and more traditional players and landowners.

And it’s hardly any similar to the original now.

ZAB’s legacy is hardly spotless. But then again, his advocates will say, the stuff of legends rarely is.

A legacy of what ifs

The Bhutto legacy is, in short, a legacy of what ifs, built on a foundation of charismatic leadership and a connection to the masses that none have achieved on a national level since. For all his administration’s failures, Bhutto’s success was a child of its time. But that time is not the time of today, and Pakistan is a different country and a whole new playing field.

As Mustafa Khokhar summed up: the world, and democracy, are changing.

“Democracy is evolving in Pakistan. And the leaders of today need to accept these new realities. As the rest of the Muslim world says “we need democracy”, we in Pakistan say “we need to strengthen democracy.” It now needs to be more governance oriented. The rise of the media and the civil society has made things very different than they were before, and they are what we need to use to make democracy more accountable, and make good on the promises made.”

“For one brief, shining moment, there was Camelot,” said Jackie Kennedy in an interview with Theodore White for Life magazine in Jackie(an account of the time immediately following JFK’s assassination, directed by Pablo Larrain). It chronicles how the young widow ensured the survival of her husband’s legacy – by associating it and him with another ill fated, fabled young leader, King Arthur.

“There will be great presidents again,” she tells him, “but there will never be another Camelot.”

John F Kennedy’s brief time in office spawned many things, one can argue, but none were enough to bring the young president the accolades and near-Lincolnesque association with the civil rights movement and progressive thinking as the images from his funeral procession. And the moving profile provided by his young widow enshrined his image as a hero, slain before his time.

What wonders could Arthur have accomplished with his chivalrous knights had it not been for his untimely demise? What would Kennedy have done for the civil rights movement in America if his assassin had missed? What could ZA Bhutto have wrought if the decision to award him the death sentence had been overturned by Gen Zia ul Haq? And what if his favourite child, Benazir, had survived the shooting at Liaquat Bagh?

What if, indeed.

It is that what if that keeps legends alive. And as Pakistan’s political landscape shifts and changes, for all the criticism that is leveled against him, the PPP’s romance with the legacy of Bhutto will ensure that his legend persists.  

“Ask every person if he’s heard the story. And tell it strong and clear if he has not. That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory, called Camelot” – Camelot reprise, Richard Burton

Noor RK

The writer is a former Pakistan Today staffer. She is currently a part of the South Asia Hub at Climate Tracker ( and tweets @noormadecoffee