August  7, 1990: Front page lede of Dawn
August 7, 1990: Front page lede of Dawn

Monday, August 6, 1990 was a morning like any other except for those in the Prime Minister’s House.

Pakistan Television had broken news that after just 20 months in power, Benazir Bhutto and her government had been dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Article 58-2(b) had been invoked and the National Assembly as well as the provincial assemblies of Sindh and NWFP (present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) stood dissolved. A state of emergency was declared — thereby allowing the president to suspend fundamental citizen rights as he deemed fit.

In the next hour, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, a former stalwart of the PPP, chief of his National People’s Party (NPP) and leader of the combined opposition parties, was sworn in as caretaker prime minister. Four members of a new cabinet were also sworn in; they included Malik Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Illahi Bukhsh Soomro, Rafi Raza and Senator Sartaj Aziz. The original announcement did not mention the dissolution of provincial assemblies, however. Later in the day, the dismissal of all provincial assemblies was notified and elections were to be held on October 24 and 27 for the National and provincial assemblies respectively.

After administering oath to Jatoi, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan spoke to the media and explained the background and causes that led to the sacking of the PPP government led by Pakistan’s youngest-ever prime minister. He claimed that the National Assembly has lost the confidence of the Pakistani people since it had become fractured is by “internal dissensions and frictions, persistent and scandalous horse-trading for political gain and furtherance of personal interests, corrupt practices and inducement.” The president further alleged that corruption and nepotism in the federal government were rampant, and showed no sign of abating despite “wide public condemnation.” He also held the Benazir government responsible for being unable to “protect the province of Sindh against internal disturbances.”

Although the president was well within his constitutional rights to dismiss the PPP government, the story of the Prime Minister’s ouster is one of intrigue and questionable intent

Although the frontline PPP leadership was shocked at developments that morning, Benazir herself appeared composed. It was almost as if she knew what would go down well in advance. Article 58-2(b) had been exercised by Gen Ziaul Haq to get rid of Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo and history was merely repeating itself as farce. Terming her dismissal as a “constitutional coup d’état,” she claimed that President Ghulam Ishaq Khan had been “forced to do it.” However, she expressed confidence that she still enjoyed popular support and would return to power after winning the polls.

Benazir’s dismissal was seen by independent analysts as a logical end to thorny affairs that were borne out of an imbalance of power between the president and the prime minister. The constitutional bindings that Gen Zia had brought rendered the elected prime minister powerless. Although Benazir headed the government, she did not have any authority over the ministries of foreign affairs, finance and defence.

Her foreign policy manoeuvrings — first in December 1988, when Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Islamabad for the Saarc summit, and then in June 1989, when she visited the United States — landed her in hot waters with the establishment. She did not divulge much to President Ghulam Ishaq when he enquired about the exact nature of talks held with Rajiv Gandhi. In the United States, she portrayed herself as a potent foe of religious fundamentalism and expressed her will to bring an end to it. In an attempt to find economic and military support from the Americans, she also affirmed that Pakistan did not possess any nuclear devices.

Things weren’t helped either by a frosty relationship with Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Even bringing a simple legislation became impossible for want of majority. All her moves to assert her position were negated by the president — whenever she approached him, he’d only respond that she could go to the parliament if she wanted. Her relationship with the opposition was sour too as Nawaz Sharif refused to see eye to eye with the prime ministers on numerous matters of national concern.

Some quarters also held Benazir’s relationship with her father-in-law, Hakim Ali Zardari, and husband, Asif, as reasons for her downfall. It was alleged that the Zardaris had made a fortune in land dealings while (mis)using their position in authority.

Another allegation was nepotism: the PPP manifesto had promised jobs to the unemployed but most of these jobs landed in the hands of party supporters. Benazir argued, unsuccessfully, that these party supporters had languished in incarceration during the Zia era and faced grave hardship for democracy.

The situation in Sindh proved a pickle for the PPP government. The flames of ethnic strife had spread from Karachi to Hyderabad and the violence showed no signs of abating. In May 1990, a meeting of the formation commanders was summoned to deliberate the situation. It was scheduled to be held in Rawalpindi but Benazir shifted it to the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Here Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, who was the interior minister at the time, briefed participants about the uncertainty in Karachi and Hyderabad. This briefing was not liked by the Army chief. Later that month, army units were forced into action in Hyderabad, for which the federal government claimed that prior approval was not sought.

On July 21, 1990, the commanders met again, this time in Rawalpindi, and discussed the law and order situation in Sindh besides other concerns. The meeting, as mentioned by Iqbal Akhund (Benazir’s foreign affairs advisor) in his book The Trial and Error, resolved to improve the situation in Sindh. However, he was told that the decision to dismiss the Benazir government was taken at that meeting.

But to many observers, the main obstacle for Benazir was not from outside but from within. From her to her comrades, nobody was prepared to hear or admit to any mistakes committed during their time in power. It was pride that turned angels into devils; it was pride that went before the fall of the PPP government.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2017



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