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The flip side of Bhuttoism

April 07, 2012

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IT’S a question to vex the mind of any traveller through the interior of Sindh: on balance, since the advent of Bhuttoism some 45 years ago, has Bhuttoism been part of the solution for Sindh or part of the problem?

Everyone can agree on at least one thing: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto infused rural Pakistan — not just in Sindh but, most critically for the PPP’s ability to project power nationally, in Punjab too — with a sense of self-worth.

So pronounced was the shift that people speak of a pre-Bhutto and post-Bhutto rural society. Where once the poorest of the poor and the luckless peasants and workers were commanded to vote, now they are asked.

Where once the poorest of the poor and the luckless peasants and workers were expected to know their place and shut up no matter what their suffering, now they dare complain to the face of their representatives.

Interior Sindh is still a thoroughly, monstrously unequal society. But before Bhutto, the guy at the bottom had nothing. Now, he may still have nothing but he believes he is worth more, that he ought to command more respect than nil. And he has the courage to demand some of what he thinks he’s entitled to.

And yet, the grinding poverty, the absence of real urban pockets, the lack of infrastructure, the paucity of decent schools and health facilities, the overall backwardness of interior Sindh, it all leaves you wondering:

Bhuttoism may have given the people, the ordinary people of interior Sindh, a sense of self-worth, but did it also brainwash them into supporting a party that no longer has — or may never have had — an interest in their material and social progress?

For sure, interior Sindh is no rural Balochistan. But it is markedly behind many parts of Punjab and some in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

And also for sure, the establishment has more than played its part in strengthening the old, so-called feudal guard in Sindh. The PPP has been in power for only 15-odd years of the last 40, the rest being used by the establishment to prop up and strengthen an anti-PPP bloc of waderas, sardars and pirs who have perpetuated ancient social ties based on subjugation.

But it’s also true that Sindh is Bhutto and Bhutto is Sindh. The PPP dominates the political narrative here in a way that no party has or will in the foreseeable future.

And you have to wonder — with all the caveats of being an ‘outsider’, of not understanding a different way of life and thinking, etc — did Bhutto ever really seek to transform this society, to pull it out from a highly unjust social and economic equation and make it more egalitarian and respectful of the worth of every individual?

To ask the question of a non-Bhutto politician would be silly. None of them have ever pretended to have anything other than power politics at the heart of all that they do. But the Bhuttos of Sindh are different: theirs is a politics of promise, of emancipation, of hope.

But was it ever real?

In Sindh, in 1970, Bhutto embraced some of the very landlords that he was telling the poor they were being oppressed by. By 1977, most of the big, bad ‘feudals’ were in the PPP fold.

Without getting too psychoanalytical about it, could ZAB’s politics have been about subjugating the landlords rather than freeing the people?

Here, after all, was a man — a proud, brilliant, angry man — who was mocked for his pedigree, his parentage the subject of rumours, his family’s ‘small landowner’ status relegating him down the feudal pecking order.

But ZAB had something none of the big feudals who sneered at him had: ambition and an ability to win over ordinary people.

He went around hugging and kissing the poor, sitting on the floor and eating their food, rolling up the sleeves of his bespoke Turnbull & Asser shirts and roaring the masses on.

Awakened and energised, the masses voted for the PPP. The big, bad feudals realised the danger ZAB had unleashed and quickly fell in line, paying obeisance to the new king.

Mission accomplished, ZAB shelved his agenda — but crucially, not the rhetoric — of transformation and ever since it’s been business as usual: the old guard asserting their control over the oppressed people of Sindh.

Countering that simple narrative is the fact that ZAB and the PPP have given Sindh a lot. Even strident critics admit that Bhutto brought schools and colleges, clinics and health services, roads and infrastructure to swathes of Sindh.

If parts of Sindh still feel like they are stuck a hundred years in the past, before Bhutto and the PPP they may have been several hundred years in the past.

Some critics, though, argue that the PPP has used its access to resources, jobs in the state machinery and public sector in particular, to buy off whatever pockets of middle class that do exist in interior Sindh.

Bloated and beholden to the PPP, instead of lean and hungry, middle-class Sindh has been unable to champion the cause of change in a decaying society.

But others point to the ancient personality of interior Sindh, a mindset that is averse to change and experimentation, which venerates the dead and is sceptical of the new.

A turgid and static society, Bhutto’s electrifying politics and charismatic personality lit a fire under Sindh and flux ensued, causing the axis of interior Sindh to swing towards Bhuttoism.

The fire went out soon enough but Sindh’s axis never switched back. It’s been stuck on Bhuttoism ever since.

An ancient society with a modern device — the vote — Sindh has infused the PPP with much of its democratic credibility. But in interior Sindh, the vote isn’t seen so much as an instrument to demand change as it is a way of expressing loyalty to the graves in Garhi Khuda Bux.

So, travelling through Sindh, seeing a society held back, a people still suffering, a ruling class that is distant and aloof, you can’t help but wonder: could the people’s love for Bhuttoism be part of what’s holding them back?

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

twitter: @cyalm