Benazir Bhutto during her first tenure as prime minister at the PTV headquarters, Islamabad, in 1988 with PTV’s managing director Hameed Qureshi and Javed Jabbar | Photo courtesy Vintage Pakistan
Benazir Bhutto during her first tenure as prime minister at the PTV headquarters, Islamabad, in 1988 with PTV’s managing director Hameed Qureshi and Javed Jabbar | Photo courtesy Vintage Pakistan

Javed Jabbar has been a prominent public figure for decades — an advertising magnate, film producer, development practitioner, politician-slash-technocrat and, through it all, a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines. With such a list of accomplishments, it was only to be expected that he would eventually come round to writing his memoirs.

This he has proceeded to do, and the first of his series of reminiscences deals with his association with former prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto, over a 20-year period. As the author emphasises in the prologue, this is a personal narrative and not a study of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) governments of the 1990s. Four more books, two compilations of speeches in parliament, and one book each about his time in the Millat Party and in former president Gen Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet are to follow in 2022.

As the somewhat long title conveys, “But, Prime Minister…” — A Political Memoir. Interactions 1986-2000 with Benazir Bhutto, the World’s First Muslim Woman Prime Minister is based on a series of key events, all involving the writer’s time in the PPP and his interactions with Bhutto, from the tail end of Gen Ziaul Haq’s era almost to the time of Bhutto’s assassination.

The book’s title comes from an observation of a senior bureaucrat of the time, who noted that Jabbar was one of the few in the cabinet who did not hesitate to make his views known, even if they were opposed to those of the prime minister. Jabbar takes obvious pride in this characterisation and in distinguishing himself from mainstream politicos. One almost wonders at his political ambition and his survival skills (he was a member of various legislatures from 1985 to 2008).

Although not chronological per se, the book is divided into three parts, and begins with the author’s experiences in Bhutto’s first government, in which he served as minister of state for information and was the only PPP senator — he had, in fact, been a member of the Senate as an independent since 1985, and was invited to join the PPP in 1988, when the party was elected to power in the National Assembly but did not have a presence in the Senate.

Javed Jabbar’s first book of memoirs, documenting his association with Benazir Bhutto in and out of government, is important not just for ordinary citizens, but also for historians of our political history

It is fascinating to read his account of Bhutto’s first address to a hostile Senate as an elected prime minister who was facing the remnants of the martial law regime in the upper chamber and who was, by turns, nervous and defiant. In fact, the author reproduces the proceedings verbatim, and although this reviewer was sceptical of that approach, it does work here in that the sense of decorum of the senators comes through clearly, as does the underlying tension.

One gets the sense that Bhutto needed all the help she could get, and Jabbar must have been a welcome ally. The fact that he was not a party stalwart, or a jiyala, could actually have worked to the government’s advantage since he seems to have given good, if unpopular advice, as per his account.

His appreciation of some key reforms undertaken by former prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, his advice to the PPP to not throw the baby out with the bathwater and, more importantly, his advice to Bhutto to “please go to Lahore” in November 1988 before taking oath as prime minister, came from the good sense of a dispassionate observer.

The book is peppered with such anecdotes, and opens a window to that tumultuous, yet hopeful period. The author has a lot to say about his attempt to introduce private channels on television — something we now take for granted, but which would have been a huge step 30-plus years ago — and documents how he was repeatedly thwarted in his attempts by an increasingly insecure administration. He did succeed in introducing more balanced coverage in the state media, but apparently that also backfired on him.

Part One of the book ends with the author’s attempt to resign from the cabinet upon realising that his more liberal media policy was being rolled back. Bhutto did not allow him to resign, however. Neither did she listen to his advice. Instead, she offered him the decidedly less glamorous portfolio of science and technology.

It is to the author’s credit that he tried to make a go of it in this largely marginalised ministry, to the extent of initiating Pakistan’s presence in Antarctica through the Jinnah Antarctic Station. For the 20 months or so that Bhutto’s first government lasted, the author seems to have genuinely worked hard to make a mark and to support the new dispensation. By his own admission, though, his enthusiasm had abated by the time the 1990 elections came round, and he was not even offered a ticket for re-election to the Senate.

A number of the chapters in the book are interesting, or offer fresh insight into the political culture of that time. With some others, however, one wonders why the author thought these would be interesting to the average reader. A short chapter on press conferences titled ‘Press Conferences With — and Without — the Prime Minister’, for instance, revolves around Jabbar’s “lapse” of forgetting that the prime minister had to make a statement before fielding questions. This is hardly a major omission, or at least not one that would resonate with most readers.

Then there is a chapter devoted to the prime minister’s refusal to inaugurate AdAsia ’89, when Pakistan won over Australia to host the 16th Asian Advertising Congress. Again, while this may have been a disappointment to an information minister also associated with advertising, it does not seem to have been a notable misstep by a political leader.

Some chapter titles lead to an anti-climax. For example, there is one titled ‘Getting to Know Murtaza Bhutto’, but it turns out the only encounter that the author had with the latter, which went beyond mere pleasantries, was a dinner hosted by friends where he (Jabbar) bravely expressed his candid opinion on PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s style of governance.

Perhaps one of the more interesting sections comes towards the end, where Jabbar recounts a meeting with Bhutto in Damascus in June 2000, where she talks to him about her perception of her time in power. The author says that he advised former president Gen Musharraf to open a dialogue with her, and did not know that such talks had indeed been secretly initiated later. That these did not go well became clear only later after Bhutto’s shocking assassination in December 2007.

Javed Jabbar has lived a full life and has had a front-row seat, from time to time, of the power play in Pakistan. His memoirs are thus important not just for ordinary citizens, but also for historians and chroniclers of our political history. One looks forward to future volumes.

The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst


“But, Prime Minister…” — A Political Memoir. Interactions 1986-2000 with Benazir Bhutto, the World’s First Muslim Woman Prime Minister

By Javed Jabbar

Paramount, Karachi

ISBN: 978-9692101646

520pp.


This review has been corrected to remove certain factual inaccuracies. Specifically, the meeting between the author and Ms Bhutto in Damascus took place in June 2000, not 2007, and the first government of Ms Bhutto lasted 20 months, not 18. In addition, the author mentions in the book that he was invited to join the PPP in 1988 and never “offered his services” as the review had originally stated.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 7th, 2021

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