ON April 4, 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first popularly elected prime minister of Pakistan and the founder of the country's largest political party, was executed after he had been convicted in a murder case. Bhutto's death closed one of the stormiest chapters in Pakistan's political history.

Was economically and politically Pakistan better off during the Bhutto era (1971-77)? Was he was an exponent of democracy or mobcracy? And whether he had a fair trial and was rightfully convicted? On questions such as these public opinion remains sharply divided. On the last question, the ruling party has decided to file a reference in the apex court. Whichever way one answers these questions, it cannot be denied that the late prime minister left an indelible mark on the country's history.

Mr Bhutto founded the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which to date remains Pakistan's largest and the most popular political party having a nationwide appeal and an across-the-country base. The PPP was founded in opposition to Pakistan's first military ruler Ayub Khan in whose cabinet Mr Bhutto held the portfolio of foreign minister.

The philosophy which the PPP espoused at the time of its birth was democratic socialism, which meant establishment of an egalitarian society through democratic, constitutional means. Mr Bhutto was fortunate that he did not have to wait too long as Ayub Khan was forced by country-wide agitation to step down in March 1969 paving the way for Pakistan's first general elections in December 1970. The PPP won the election in the western wing and eventually formed the government in 1971 after the separation of the eastern wing.

Mr Bhutto was avowedly committed to a command or socialist economy, which envisaged the state as the major player on the economic scene. Therefore, after attaining power he started a nationalisation programme. In the first phase of the programme, a number of basic industries were nationalised. In the second phase, the state took control of financial institutions including banks and insurance companies. And in the third and final phase, rice-husking units were nationlised.

The nationlisation policy of the Bhutto government has come in for sharp criticism. It is alleged that nationlisation of industries and financial institutions did serious damage to the efforts for economic development during 1960s and resulted in economic inefficiency and mis-allocation of resources. Some critics have even alleged that nationlisation was not occasioned by any philosophy or doctrine; rather it represented the attempts of feudals led by Bhutto himself to clip the wings of industrialists, who had grown immensely strong under President Ayub.

Undeniably economic growth slowed in the wake of nationalisation. This is corroborated by the fact that whereas during 1960s, Pakistan's economy grew on average at 6.8 per cent per annum, during 1970s, growth rate fell to 4.8 per cent per annum on average. It is also true that most of the nationalised units went into loss, because decisions were not market-based. However, rapid economic growth is not the only macro-economic objective of a government. The government has also distributional objectives so as to reduce economic disparities. During 1960s rapid economic growth was accompanied by concentration of resources in a few hands.

Hence, when Bhutto assumed power, there was a popular demand for breaking the concentration of economic power. And it is doubtful whether that was possible without the state increasing its economic role. Besides socialism was still a powerful economic doctrine during 1970s and a party's pursuit of socialist ideals was not surprising. Today of course things are much different as governments all over the world are pursuing market-based policies. In Pakistan as well, all major political parties including the PPP are wedded to market economy.

Mr Bhutto had the credit of forming the first popularly elected government of Pakistan. However, it must be admitted that it was not the PPP but the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman that had won the popular mandate to form the government having emerged as the single largest party in the elections. If Mr Bhutto were a democrat at heart, he must have accepted the Awami League's right to form the government. But never for once did Mr Bhutto call for transfer of power to the Awami League.

Initially Mr Bhutto was installed as president but later became prime minister after the promulgation of the 1973 constitution, which remains the party's most significant contribution to date. Constitution making has remained a serious problem in Pakistan. It took the country nine years to draw up its first constitution, which was abrogated only after two and half years. The second constitution, the 1962 constitution, was a mockery of constitutionalism as it had made the president all-powerful but responsible to none. The 1973 constitution, which is still in force despite having been suspended thrice by generals, is an excellent document. It not only provides for a responsible form of government but also reconciles the apparently conflicting principles of full provincial autonomy and federation's integrity. What is remarkable about the constitution is that it was adopted unanimously by the people's representatives.

Above all, Bhutto deserves the credit of inculcating political consciousness among the people. With Bhutto, democracy was restored in Pakistan after a long spell of despotism. Democracy is essentially a faith in the power of the people, and only politically conscious people can constitute that power.

Thus a foremost task of a leader in a democratic polity is to infuse that consciousness in the masses. Before Bhutto the people were merely passive spectators in the game of politics and were markedly deficient in political consciousness. Politics was entirely dominated by feudals and the country lacked a politically influential middle class, which is so vital to the success of democracy.

Though during the Bhutto period feudals continued dominating politics — Bhutto himself being a feudal lord — a politically conscious middle class came into being. Since that class had pretty adequate representation in the legislatures, it wielded some influence as well.

Bhutto made the masses realise, in a way none had done before in Pakistan, that they were not a non-entity, and that they had their rights as well as obligations as citizens of a democracy. The popular expression ruti, kapra aur makan was not merely a political slogan but a driving force in arousing the masses. Without having access to these necessities of life, the people cannot be free. As one great revolutionary leader of the last century puts it, a starving man has no opinion. And only a free people can fulfil their responsibilities as members of a democratic order.

Bhutto also took the momentous decision that Pakistan start its nuclear programme in response to that of India. Whether that was a right decision or not, we need not enter into that debate. But the fact that the Bhutto government did not knuckle under tremendous pressure to abandon the nuclear programme testifies to the strong character of the man at the helm.

The late prime minister will also be remembered for presiding over a fundamental shift in Pakistan's foreign policy. Disappointed with the US role in 1971 Pak-India war, Bhutto decided it was high time Islamabad shunned its dependence on Washington and instead looked to the Muslim world for support and strength. The hosting of the second OIC conference at Lahore in 1974 created at least a semblance of Muslim unity.

The Bhutto regime was not without its dark side. The late prime minister had indomitable lust for power, which made him frequently overstep his authority. He was given the mandate for a democratic, responsible government but he tried to turn the same into a licence for authoritarianism. His amendments to the 1973 constitution by force of brute majority, his attempts to encroach upon provincial autonomy guaranteed in the constitution, manhandling of opposition leaders both inside and outside parliament, and his humiliation of his own partymen who dared oppose him are some of the examples.

His creation of the federal security force (FSF) to harass and victimise the opposition and his intolerance of any criticism show his dictatorial bent of mind. If democracy is the government of the masses, it is also the rule of law in an environment of political tolerance. Bhutto's intolerant attitude and his extra-legal steps weakened democracy. It is pertinent to mention that throughout the Bhutto era, emergency remained enforced in Pakistan and he never shrank from using the powers that emergency provisions had conferred on him.

Bhutto tried to strengthen himself at the expense of institutions, whereas the success of democracy depends not so much on strong leaders as on strong institutions. The personality cult of which Bhutto and most other democratically elected leaders in Pakistan have been guilty may be so important for dictatorship but is definitely a lot detrimental to democracy. That Bhutto tried to put himself above institutions nothing demonstrates this better than his dealings with the armed forces.

Instead of strengthening his grip on power by strengthening democratic institutions, Bhutto tried to do so by appeasing the senior command of the army. Under Bhutto, the size of the army increased and public discussion of the troops' debacle in Dhaka was banned. To ward off any danger of coup d'etate , he appointed a junior office as the army chief. But ironically that very person whom the late prime minister believed to be meek and personally loyal to him toppled his government and had him hanged.