It has long been a commonplace among observers of Pakistan to point to a toxic trio of forces beginning with the letter A – Allah, army and America – as the ultimate arbiters of the country’s destiny. While far-reaching social and economic changes may have rendered Pakistan’s future less predictable in recent years, the power of this triumvirate to dictate political outcomes is still not in question. This is strongly brought out in the books under review here: a history of one of the country’s most powerful political dynasties, a memoir and a collection of pen portraits. Each also contends with important questions. What can a history of a single family reveal about social and political processes? What is the value of a memoir as a source of historical enquiry? How far can eyewitness accounts help to explain a complex country? These questions challenge all three authors and all, to be fair, acquit themselves admirably.
That is not to say that each book will command the same degree of attention. Owen Bennett-Jones’s sweeping history of Pakistan’s most flamboyant political dynasty, the Bhuttos, stands out here for the author’s deep reading of Pakistan and its labyrinthine politics. Fluently written, impeccably researched and never short of extraordinary insights, this is a landmark publication. While by no means an authorised study, it is the most comprehensive book on the Bhuttos to appear since the respected historian Stanley Wolpert’s life of its illustrious scion Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was published in 1993.
Wolpert was commissioned to write the book by the Bhutto family but fell foul of his benefactors after appearing to take too keen an interest in Zulfikar’s sexual peccadilloes. Bennett-Jones steers largely clear of this temptation, though he offers some entertaining vignettes of earlier generations of Bhuttos using sexual politics to outmanoeuvre their British colonial masters. Indeed, what is noteworthy is his sober treatment of his subject. He avoids casting the Bhuttos as either psychopaths or saints. This even-handed approach, supported by a mass of published and unpublished evidence and scores of interviews with friends and foes, gives us an unrivalled portrait of a dynasty whose political ambitions have left an indelible mark on Pakistan.
With roots in the country’s southern province of Sindh, where the family amassed a vast fortune from landholdings after migrating from Rajasthan (in present-day India) in the 17th century, the Bhuttos rose to prominence as loyal subjects of the Raj. In 1930, Zulfikar’s father, Shahnawaz Bhutto, was rewarded for his services to the empire with a knighthood. During the 1930s, he sealed his family’s influence in what would become Pakistan by spearheading a successful campaign for Sindh, which had long been part of the Bombay Presidency, to be granted the status of a separately administered province. When India was partitioned in 1947, this new Muslim-majority province elected to join Pakistan.
Notwithstanding these achievements, the story of the Bhutto dynasty is dominated not by Shahnawaz but by his son, the charismatic Zulfikar, successively president and prime minister of Pakistan between 1971 and 1977, and his exceptionally courageous daughter, Benazir, often portrayed as Electra to his Agamemnon. But if Benazir herself was in no doubt about the unmatched heroism of her adored father, Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, history ensured that she eclipsed her mentor to emerge as a formidable leader in her own right. She twice won election as prime minister and remains an inspiration for millions. It is no wonder that the global outrage unleashed by her assassination at the hands of jihadists in 2007 while campaigning in the country’s general election – an event Bennett-Jones examines in forensic detail – far surpassed the international condemnation that followed Zulfikar’s ignominious hanging by the military in 1979, two years after he had been removed from power in a coup.
Bennett-Jones’s recognition of the genuine stardom of père et fille is judiciously balanced by scrutiny of the ways in which the policies they pursued caused lasting damage to Pakistan. Zulfikar’s complicity in the break-up of Pakistan and secession of Bangladesh in 1971, Benazir’s decision to recognise the Afghan Taliban formally in 1996 and flagrant breaches by both of international rules governing nuclear non-proliferation are all carefully assessed. So too are allegations of corruption against Benazir and members of her family – notably her husband, Asif Ali Zardari – which led to her twice being controversially dismissed as prime minister. But Bennett-Jones is too shrewd an observer of Pakistan to let moral judgements cloud his analysis. For while he is clear-eyed about the charges of corruption against Benazir and her husband, who served as Pakistan’s president from 2008 to 2013, he concludes, rightly, that the real problem lies in a judicial process that is ‘hopelessly politicised’ and allows allegations of corruption to be used as weapons against political opponents, a habit as zealously cultivated by the Bhuttos when in power as by every other civilian and military government in Pakistan’s history.
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The vital question any study of the Bhuttos must answer is why, despite their immense talents, they failed to deliver as leaders. For Bennett-Jones, the clues lie in the family’s colonial past and its relations with the West. Accommodation spelt success; antagonism almost always led to a reversal of fortunes. Shahnawaz Bhutto’s loyalty to the British Empire ensured his status as a pillar of the colonial establishment, while the pro-Western policies of Benazir made her the beneficiary of Western (mainly American) largesse. By contrast, Zulfikar’s open hostility to the West won him few favours. Benazir was among those who believed that Zulfikar’s defiance of the United States in pursuing a nuclear weapons programme contributed to his deposition and untimely death.
Since the country gained independence, the dominant power within Pakistan has been the army. It has played a crucial role in determining the fate of the Bhuttos, who, as Bennett-Jones argues, are yet to find a stable modus vivendi with the military. Although Zulfikar and Benazir made significant compromises with the army to win power, neither could secure civilian supremacy within the state, something that continues to elude elected governments in Pakistan to this day. Turning to Islam, Bennett-Jones does not single out the self-styled forces of Allah as being vital to the political future of the Bhuttos, whose ambitions now rest on the shoulders of Benazir’s son, Bilawal. Nevertheless, their ominous presence in his narrative is hard to miss. The high price exacted from the Bhuttos for their attachment, however fragile, to secular values is chilling testimony to the power of Islamists in Pakistan.
The pressure of navigating these currents was acutely felt by Benazir. This is brought out in an affectionate memoir by the historian Victoria Schofield of her long friendship with Benazir, stretching back to their time as undergraduates at Oxford in the mid-1970s. With close connections to members of the Western political establishment sympathetic to Benazir, Schofield is well placed to satisfy our curiosity about her life.
Schofield makes no claim to have written a book that interrogates ‘the good and the bad, the failures and successes’ of its protagonist. This is both a strength and a weakness. Its greatest virtue is to humanise Benazir, whose iconic political status has often obscured the human being. Schofield gives us a rounded picture of Benazir as devoted daughter, dutiful wife, indulgent mother and sibling who longed to heal the rifts in her family. Above all, she emerges as someone with a great capacity for empathy, which helps account for her political appeal. Schofield explores this in fine detail, tracking Benazir’s transformation from political ingénue into mature leader, whose youthful promise was widely expected to translate into political achievement. That it did not is a fact Schofield finds hard to acknowledge. While she makes a strong case that the army was chiefly responsible for Benazir failing to make a success of her stints in office, Schofield is unwilling to wrestle with Benazir’s reluctance to transcend her feudal background or renounce dynastic traditions. Both of these fuelled ill feeling, not only in the ranks of Benazir’s Pakistan People’s Party, where she held the post of chairman for life, but also in her wider family, where her decision to concentrate power in the hands of those who could guarantee the dominance of her bloodline bred resentment. As a loyal friend, Schofield strains to paper over these flaws, preferring to cast Benazir as the symbol of unity she once was and studiously ignoring the divisive figure she became.
The country Benazir Bhutto left behind at the time of her death in 2007 was deeply polarised. Declan Walsh, who spent a decade in Pakistan as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and the New York Times until his expulsion in 2013 on mysterious grounds, leaves no doubt about the many fault lines running through this ‘divided nation’. His depiction of Pakistan does not so much correct as confirm cheerless Western impressions of a country that often claims to be misunderstood. Through biographical sketches of nine individuals (some of whom died violently), Walsh captures the heart of a country brutalised by years of military dictatorship, scarred by religious bigotry and crippled by conflicts that have left it prey to outside powers. Although accused by some of his well-heeled interlocutors of failing to portray ‘the real Pakistan’, Walsh is clear: ‘denial could not mask the cruel, ugly, and downright terrifying side of Pakistan.’
That said, this is far from an ungenerous reading of Pakistan. Walsh’s instinctive sympathy for those committed to making the best of a bad lot shines through his chapter on the late human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir, who took on the military establishment and whose fierce dedication to the cause of women and Pakistan’s non-Muslim minorities won her widespread admiration. No less compassionate is his chapter on the maverick politician Anwar Kamal Khan and his futile struggle to mine the cultural codes of his fellow Pashtun tribesmen to see off the Taliban threat in his native Waziristan.
In The Nine Lives of Pakistan, Walsh roams freely across the country. In so doing, he treats readers to some unforgettable profiles, including of a police chief who was both a cop and a criminal, a millionaire governor who sought to challenge dominant notions of ‘the good Muslim’ and a cleric with a weakness for Che Guevara. Rarely have revelations about Pakistan made for such good reading.