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Why ZAB failed

August 16, 2003

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On holiday, I have brought along a number of books that have been sitting unread on my bookshelf for a long time. Without the plethora of newspapers and magazines that normally cut into my reading time, I am finally going through at least some of them.

Much to my embarrassment, one of them is Dr Mubashir Hasan's 'The Mirage of Power: an inquiry into the Bhutto years, 1971-1977' (OUP, 2000). The author is somebody I have long respected, and the fact that I have only just finished it three years after it appeared is a reflection on my various distractions and indefensible laziness. But I'm glad I have finally got around to it, because Dr Hasan's 'Inquiry' gives at least a partial explanation of the Bhutto phenomenon as well as what went wrong.

Nearly a quarter century after his farcical trial and his cruel execution, Bhutto still excites strong feelings among much of Pakistan. In the air-conditioned drawing rooms of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, he is generally reviled although the party he formed in 1967 received the largest number of votes last October, despite its present leader's self-exile and the aura of corruption that now surrounds her like a malodorous cloud. But love him or hate him, nobody can deny his place in history.

When he was sworn in as President and Chief Martial Law Administrator in those dark December days in 1971, he was being handed no bouquet of roses. His many critics forget the state of the country at that juncture: the eastern wing of the country had seceded after a bloody civil war; Indian troops occupied substantial areas of West Pakistan; over 90,000 soldiers were prisoners of war in India; and the economy was in such tatters that foreigners were not prepared to extend any credit to Pakistan.

Bhutto has been much criticized for accepting the title of a civilian CMLA, but the fact is that there was no constitution in force at the time, General Yahya having abrogated Ayub Khan's constitution when he seized power. Martial Law was the law of the land at the time, and to exercise authority, Bhutto had to use whatever tools were available to him. Those of us who are old enough will recall the threat India still posed on our borders at the time.

To help Bhutto 'pick up the pieces' was perhaps the 'dream-team' of Pakistani history. The inner circle comprising Rafi Raza, J.A. Rahim, Mustafa Khar, Hayat Sherpao, Mumtaz Bhutto and Dr Mubashir Hasan had been with Bhutto since the founding of the PPP in 1967, and trusted him and each other completely. Some of the minutes written in those early days and reproduced by Dr Hasan give a flavour of the dynamism and the sense of urgency that drove the Bhutto government in its early days. In August 1972, he showed his impatience with progress in a note to all ministers, special assistants, provincial chief ministers and governors:

"We have been in office for more than six months. Many decisions have been taken but a growing implementation gap is becoming visible. Once the implementation gap sets in, the decline begins. We came to abolish the abominable status quo but the status quo is very much present..."

A wheat shortage had been looming over the country as the crisis in East Pakistan had diverted the military government's attention. After a year of trying to grapple with the situation, Bhutto showed his acute understanding as well as his frustration in this long, personally written directive:

"In the course of the whole year, I have made strenuous attempts to tackle and overcome the wheat crisis. We have held umpteen meetings and I have issued directive on top of directive. We have not been able to convert it from a crisis to a problem, leave alone resolving it.

I know all the pet answers: our population is growing, wheat is being consumed in greater quantities, lands are saline and waterlogged, we are dependent on rainfall, after the Indus Basin Treaty the riverine tract is not producing wheat, fertilizers are not available, the seeds are impure, the credit facilities are not available, tractors are not available and they have become too expensive, the shortage of power is affecting the tubewell programme, the prices are not adequate, pesticides have become expensive, extensive smuggling is taking place..."

No Pakistani head of state before or since - with the short-lived exception of Mr Jinnah - has demonstrated this kind of deep understanding of national issues and the determination to resolve them. He continued in this note: "How long will we be at the mercy of the United States? How long will we squander away our foreign exchange for the import of wheat? ... We must find concrete answers".

He understood well the risks inherent in alienating his popular support. In August 1972, he wrote a long note to top party leaders and ministers: "Party workers are getting frustrated. They are on the verge of revolt. They feel neglected, they feel bypassed. They are full of grievances, both genuine and otherwise... They feel they have been exploited by the leadership..." He urged party leaders to address these issues, otherwise: "... we will fall more and more on the mercy of the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy has no love for us..."

Despite his clear understanding of the bureaucracy's hostility, ultimately Bhutto depended more and more on civil servants, intelligence agencies and the army to stay in power. As he leaned on these pillars of the state, he became gradually estranged from his comrades, and one by one they went their own way.

He took advice from the bureaucracy and sidelined his key political associates. J.A. Rahim, the only one of his inner circle who could openly disagree with him, was brutally treated (although Dr Hasan does not give us the exact reason), and Bhutto became paranoid in suspecting his closest friends and colleagues of political ambitions.

Although Dr Hasan provides us with a fascinating array of official minutes (he must have left the ministry of finance with a truck-load of papers), he tends to concentrate on finance and planning, defending his own record as the minister from 1972 until his resignation in 1974. He does not comment, for example, on the disastrous nationalization of educational institutions which the country has still not recovered from. I hold this particular policy to be the worst of the PPP's legacy.

Reading about Bhutto's fall with the advantage of hindsight is like watching a Greek tragedy: here is an enormously intelligent and gifted man, hard-working, hugely articulate and charismatic, and yet he falls prey to his inner demons. Not only is he removed from office and made to suffer an ignoble death, but the coup that replaced him with General Zia sent Pakistan on its present path to perdition with its emphasis on phoney piety. Zia opened the door to the zealots who are so entrenched today. So apart from the personal tragedy involved, it is important to understand what happened to Bhutto and why.

Dr Hasan has identified Bhutto's dependence on the intelligence agencies as a major cause for his downfall, but he has not attempted an analysis into why a shrewd politician like Bhutto should fall for their transparent tactics. After all, he had been a minister under Ayub Khan for long enough to gain a clear insight into the working of these organizations. There is a revealing episode in the book when Dr Hasan personally takes Bhutto's office phone apart and fishes out a bugging device. Bhutto calls his wife, Nusrat, and shows her the bug, asking her if she had ever seen one before. She replies that their son Shahnawaz had spotted one and then removed them from every instrument in the house. Bhutto was stunned to discover that even he was not free from surveillance. Although heads should have rolled, the author does not recount any action being taken against the boss of the agency involved.

But despite his many flaws, Bhutto genuinely tried to improve the lives of his disadvantaged countrymen, and his shadow still looms over the political landscape.