Another Bhutto at the helm
By I. A. Rehman
BENAZIR Bhutto occupies a unique place in the political history of Pakistan. Twice elected prime minister of the country and the first woman head of government in any Muslim-majority state, she inspired the hope that she could put democracy back on the rails. Inability to fulfil this expectation dented her image somewhat. Allowed to complete neither of her two terms and hounded from one court to another for a long time, she was compelled to spend a decade in self-exile. Yet the establishment never stopped fearing her as a potential game-changer; a threat that could only be averted with physical liquidation.
Several factors contributed to her enormous popularity at the start of her political career. Young, charming and well-educated, she commanded sympathy across the land as the daughter of a former prime minister who many thought had been hanged unjustly. She had also won admiration for refusing to surrender to General Ziaul Haq’s autocratic rule despite cruel harassment.
Within 28 months of her return from self-exile, General Zia perished in a plane crash which removed a big roadblock on the path to democracy. Also during these months, she became the wife of Asif Ali Zardari, a marriage that was going to considerably affect her political career.
As the judiciary declined to restore the dismissed government of Mohammad Khan Junejo – though its sack by Zia was not upheld – and struck down the law on parties’ registration which endorsed party-based elections, the prospects for Benazir looked good. Also welcome was the flow of professional election fighters towards her Pakistan People’s Party.
However, there was no illusion about the task of return to democracy having been made extraordinarily daunting by the outgoing – and dead – dictator. He had transformed the form of government from parliamentary to presidential, and turned the state into a virtual theocracy. Above all, his Afghanistan policy had embroiled Pakistan in a many-sided crisis that was getting worse by the day.
The election to the National Assembly on November 16, 1988, did not give Benazir Bhutto a majority in the house, but her party emerged as the largest single group, having secured more seats (52) from Punjab than were won by the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), an alliance clobbered by the establishment as a successor to the anti-Bhutto coalition of 1977 – the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA).
Three days later, apparently the establishment struck and did so most viciously by manipulating the provincial elections in Punjab to ensure that the IJI got more seats (108) than the PPP (84) and, thus, cleared the way for Mian Nawaz Sharif to become the chief minister of the politically most advantaged province. That effectively changed not only Benazir’s career but also the course of Pakistan’s history.
A Zia amendment had empowered the president to first nominate the prime minister before she/he could be elected by the National Assembly. President Ghulam Ishaq Khan did not name her as prime minister for nearly two weeks, until she had ceded to him and the military her authority in key areas, such as Finance, Defence and Foreign Affairs, especially Afghanistan. Yet she decided to take her chance.
She started on a sound note, making a humanitarian gesture by offering relief to death row prisoners. She also strengthened her regime through alliances with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) for the stability of her government in Sindh, and with the Awami National Party (ANP) to bag the chief minister’s post in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP; since renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).
However, preventing Nawaz Sharif from undermining her government soon became Benazir’s main preoccupation. The Punjab chief minister rejected the federal government’s choice for the provincial chief secretary’s post, tried to launch a radio station and decided to found a commercial bank. These steps converted the Punjab elite to the idea of provincial autonomy, an idea it had vigorously spurned when raised by the other provinces, especially East Pakistan that had been got rid of 16 years earlier.
Besides, working was not easy alongside a president who had little respect for the parliamentary system even though Benazir had swallowed the bitter pill by proposing him for a five-year term as president. He contested her right to have a say in making important appointments, and often choked the government by simply sitting on the papers sent up to him.
Adding to her worries were quite a few other problems. The Balochistan assembly was dissolved on the advice of chief minister Zafarullah Jamali as he was not sure of his majority in the house, but Benazir’s inability to set matters right before the high court restored the assembly shifted the blame on to her. Further, Benazir was not found good at retaining the goodwill of her allies. The break with MQM was no surprise as the pact with it was unworkable and the party had been seduced by Nawaz Sharif and their common benefactors. The alliance with ANP, too, was difficult to sustain but the efforts to save the Sherpao ministry in the NWFP did not add to the prime minister’s credit.
The break with MQM was followed by a surge in violence in Karachi and Hyderabad. The Pucca Qila incident became a sore point for both sides. While dealing with Sharif’s challenge, the government clearly took an exaggerated view of its capacity to tame a rich provincial chief being backed by the establishment. Before Benazir completed her first year in office, the opposition tried to dislodge her through a no-confidence motion that was taken up on November 1, 1989, and was defeated. However, the differences between the prime minister and the military on the one hand, and between her and the president on the other could not be resolved. On August 6, 1990, the president dissolved the National Assembly and Benazir ceased to be prime minister after barely 20 months in office. The charge-sheet against her included allegations of making the National Assembly dysfunctional, ignoring responsibilities to the federating units, lawlessness in Karachi, ridiculing the judges, and corruption.
In view of the appointment of opposition leader Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi as the caretaker prime minister, Benazir had little hope of winning the elections that were held three months later. In fact, her wait lasted three years when she came to power again after the October 1993 elections, which were held after president Ishaq and prime minister Sharif had knocked each other out.
Once again her party emerged as the largest group in the National Assembly. With the help of the Junejo faction of the PML and some independents, Sharif’s party, the PML-N, was denied power in Punjab as well. Soon after her trouble-free election as prime minister, her nominee, Farooq Leghari, was installed in the presidency. She felt far more comfortable at the helm of affairs and more powerful than she had ever felt earlier.
She began asserting herself by getting the PML-N ministry in the NWFP, led by Sabir Shah, suspended and governor rule imposed. The move was struck down by the Supreme Court. Then she set about changing the composition of the superior judiciary apparently to tame it and the subterfuge was quite unconvincing. This became the subject of a bizarre reference to the Supreme Court by president Leghari that the prime minister bitterly opposed. Eventually, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, her controversial choice as chief justice, pronounced a judgment in what is now called the Judges’ Case that negated all her work.
The other main developments during this term included a failed attempt to oust Punjab chief minister Manzoor Wattoo of PML-J; Sufi Muhammad-led uprising in Malakand for Shariah rule; a huge increase in killings in Karachi; a hike in terrorist attacks; and sectarian violence. Stories of corruption involving Benazir and Zardari also gained currency at an uncomfortable pace. The allegations, even if not proved in courts, clearly reduced the prime minister’s popularity and credibility in equal measure.
Murtaza Bhutto’s return home and his arrest caused Benazir an ugly split with Begum Nusrat Bhutto, and his death after an encounter with the police dealt a severe blow to her government. Eleven days after the incident, on November 5, 1996, the president dissolved the National Assembly and Benazir was again out of power. The charges against her were Karachi killings (though the number had fallen by around 75 per cent from the 1995 figure), disregard for federal institutions, ridiculing the judiciary, and corruption.
As subsequent events showed, this was the end of Benazir’s role in the country’s government though she remained active in politics till an assassin’s bullet silenced her for ever near the place where the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, had been shot dead in a conspiracy of another kind.
Benazir Bhutto’s positive work as prime minister included giving the government a humanitarian face. The commutation of death sentences to life imprisonment was followed by banning of lashing (except for Hadd cases) and public hanging. The plan to offer the disadvantaged relief through special tribunals did not work, so a separate ministry of human rights was created. Her effort to amend the procedure in blasphemy cases was scotched by the conservatives, but her instructions not to arrest any accused without a proper inquiry did lead to a fall in such cases.
Women activists complained that she didn’t do anything substantial for them, but they could not deny the favourable ambiance Benazir had created. And her uncompromising resistance to pseudo-religious militants was not matched by anyone, with the possible exception of Afzal Lala of Swat.
The hurdles that held Benazir back included the absence of a culture of democracy; the habit of political parties to treat one another as their worst enemies and a tendency among them to destroy political rivals with military’s help; the personality cult in the PPP and its centralised decision-making without democratic centralism; and the politicians’ failure to remember that what was not permitted to authoritarian rulers was prohibited for them too.The PPP also suffered as a result of its shift away from a left-of-centre platform as it blunted the edge it had over the centrist outfits.
An assessment of Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership usually takes two forms: one, that she was incapable of establishing a democratic order, and, two, that the establishment did not let her work. A realistic view will begin by noting the absence of a stable, efficient and fair-minded state apparatus that could relieve her of routine chores and allow her to concentrate on broad political and socio-economic issues.
Also, no politician could (or can even today) roll back the Zia legacy through a frontal attack, except for a popular revolution. Besides, the deeply entrenched, highly trained and generally better informed establishment needed to be outmanoeuvred in a subtle and adroit manner. Benazir Bhutto was outmanoeuvred by the dominant power centre and she might also have sometimes unwittingly helped it.
The real losers as a result of Benazir Bhutto’s elimination from politics were the people. Their concerns remained off the government’s agenda and the dream of a democratic and egalitarian Pakistan receded even further.