For the Bhutto dynasty, campaign publicity posters double up as family photos
For the Bhutto dynasty, campaign publicity posters double up as family photos

Political dynasties are ubiquitous in democratic countries, even though many countries democratised to move away from hereditary rule. The Philippines, India, Brazil, Japan and Canada come to mind, and let us not forget the United States of America, which has produced political dynasties in such abundance that Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op-ed titled ‘Political Dynasties: An American Tradition’. The Adams, the Tafts, the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Browns, and the Cuomos — the list is never-ending.

British journalist and former BBC correspondent Owen Bennett-Jones is a regular contributor to Dawn and has just come out with The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan. This is an examination of political dynasticism in the Pakistani tradition.

The Bhuttos have an almost mythological status in Pakistan. Whether it be their virtues or vices, their feudal status, their wealth, their corruption or their heroic nationalism, all is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the Pakistani citizenry. There are those who see the Bhuttos as martyred saints, and others who see them as glorified bandits.

The people of Pakistan are familiar with their family history, of the historical trials and tribulations of their forefather Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto and his deals with the British, for which “his loyalty was amply rewarded”; Shahnawaz’s second, younger and poor Hindu wife; the birth and education of their son Zulfikar; Zulfikar’s Kurdish/Iranian wife Nusrat; his brilliant daughter Benazir; his two bad boys Murtaza and Shahnawaz, and their failed attempt at a terrorist/guerrilla organisation.

Then there are the numerous squabbling cousins; Zulfikar’s prodigal son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari; Zulfikar’s tragic execution and Benazir’s tragic assassination; and Benazir’s son Bilawal’s political grooming. Several books have been written on this one family; do we need yet another?

In a case of off-putting first impressions, the cover of The Bhutto Dynasty is unfortunate. It looks like a recycled copy of a campaign poster but, in this case, the book should certainly not be judged by its cover. It begins with a chilling, journalistic account of Benazir’s assassination in December 2007, and then Bennett-Jones simply sweeps the readers away. The meticulously researched crisp writing, brimming with facts both known and unknown, clips at a steady, engaging pace.

Owen Bennett-Jones’s remarkable latest book is not simply about one dynasty. It is a history of Pakistan from its birth until the present day, seen through the lens of the Bhutto family

Every now and then he throws in a fairly lesser known nugget, such as Shahnawaz attending Sindh Madressatul Islam, where the founder of Pakistan Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah also studied. Or that the demarcation of Sindh as a separate province in 1936 — which Shahnawaz supported — meant that the Muslims in Sindh easily passed a resolution backing the creation of Pakistan and Shahnawaz was appointed chief adviser to the governor of the new province.

Or that at the age of 12, his son Zulfikar was forced into an engagement with a cousin 10 years older than him, the deal clinched with the bribe of a cricket kit from England. Or that the Bhutto family owned some of the best hunting grounds in the country and among the politicians, civil servants and military officials who accepted invitations to the hunts was Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, who shot no fewer than 143 ducks in five hours.

It is said that Pakistan is not a country with an army; it is an army with a country. The story of the Bhuttos unfolds against a backdrop of an Orwellian army that has, since the first coup by Gen Ayub Khan in 1958, played hunger games with civilian political parties. The army has exercised control, both overtly and covertly, since then. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rose to prominence during Gen Ayub’s regime. His popularity increased after Gen Ayub first dismissed and then imprisoned him.

Bennett-Jones then goes into the details of the formation of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), with its slogan “roti, kapra aur makaan” [bread, clothing and shelter] that resonated deeply with Pakistanis. In assigning responsibility for the civil war and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, it is important to remember that the seeds of discontent among the Bengalis were sown long before Zulfikar’s arrival on the scene. The Cinderella treatment the Bengali citizens of East Pakistan received from the western wing, especially from the firmly-in-control military junta that was heavily Punjabi and Pakhtun (only seven percent of the armed forces were Bengali), eventually led to the inevitable.

Zulfikar was a popular nationalistic and mercurial leader. He was definitely flawed, but sincere and not corrupt. His crowning achievement was the establishment of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, which has provided the country with the security it so badly needed. On the flip side, his most damaging legacy is the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Zulfikar was hardly a fanatic, but he chose to appease the Islamists, and this fateful decision has left the country with an open wound that bleeds to this day.

His biggest mistake was choosing Gen Ziaul Haq — whom Bennett-Jones aptly compares to Uriah Heep from Charles Dickens’s novel David Copperfield — as an army chief. After imprisoning Zulfikar on murder charges, Gen Zia turned into Voldemort from Harry Potter: not only did he have Zulfikar executed in the middle of the night after a verdict from a kangaroo court, but he began unleashing draconian laws and Islamists like Death Eaters.

Supported by the US — which has always been in favour of dictators in other countries — Gen Zia enforced a reign of terror that finally ended when his plane exploded in mid-air in August 1988. Several other generals and the American ambassador perished with him. Needless to say, Pakistan rejoiced.

Since her father’s execution, Benazir Bhutto had suffered house arrests, imprisonments, solitary confinements and eventually exile. She had spent 11 years of her youth fighting against the Zia regime, and she now came back with tremendous public support and force. The PPP won the first democratic elections conducted after the dictatorship and, at the age of 34, Benazir took oath as prime minister of Pakistan.

To one’s astonishment, The Bhutto Dynasty — a superb book so far — becomes gossipy, classist, sexist and yes, Orientalist, when dealing with Benazir. It flails about her arranged marriage to Zardari and her girlfriends’ disdain for her spouse. Plenty of powerful, well-educated men have chosen spouses who may not have been their intellectual equals; why give a woman such grief for doing something similar? Why couldn’t Benazir marry a man who may not have pursued her educational interests?

At a party in the United Kingdom, Benazir signs her name prefixed with the title “Prime Minister of Pakistan”, and Zardari signs his with the qualifier “A Nobody”; this is interpreted as a sign of an inferiority complex. The book also flings around such outdated terms as “Electra complex” when talking about the differences of opinion between Benazir and her mother, Nusrat.

In another instance, Bennett-Jones writes about Benazir apparently confiding in Hillary Clinton about men being alley cats; was she consoling Hillary for Bill Clinton’s obvious and well-publicised peccadilloes that had him impeached? Zardari called her an “Eastern wife”; when did being an Eastern wife become pejorative? Finally, the bit about Benazir confiding in Indian journalist Shyam Bhatia about her carrying discs related to Pakistan’s nuclear technology to North Korea in specially made coats with deep pockets (a confession that, most conveniently, she advised him to reveal only after her death!). Such kinds of insinuations weaken an otherwise serious book.

Zulfikar described his daughter Benazir as pure Damascene steel. She didn’t have to choose a difficult life, but serving her country seemed to be her single burning passion. Although many were disappointed in her performance and her image was tarnished with charges of corruption, in the end she gave her life for her beliefs.

When young Benazir visited her father in jail, he gave her a list of books to read. For all its drawbacks, one might want to put this book on that list because it is not simply about one dynasty; it is a history of Pakistan from its birth until the present day, seen through the lens of the Bhutto family.

Well researched and well written for the most part, it should be a must read for students of history, or anyone interested in jumping into the political pool. Perhaps, with the passage of time it may even become part of the political science programmes at the University of Oxford, the alma mater of Zulfikar, Benazir, Bilawal and Bennett-Jones himself.

The reviewer is a physician, the granddaughter of Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai and author of the short story collection Her Mother’s Daughter and Other Stories

The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan
By Owen Bennett-Jones
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300246674

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 20th, 2020


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