The theme that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was one of the most powerful leaders of Pakistan persists across many Pakistani textbooks and seminal works in constitutional and political history of the country. It is claimed that he was powerful enough to be able to alter the nature and direction of state policy at his whims. Bhutto has often been accused of having a Bonapartist streak and being drunk with an amoral lust for power, and it is suggested that this lens provides the greatest analytical purchase. But this approach, with its palpable moral underpinnings and anti-Bhutto bias, obfuscates a rather complex and multi-faceted reality. It does allow for a theatrical professor to captivate an audience and fits in perfectly with the lazy standards of social science scholarship of our time. However, with a political sphere that was extremely underdeveloped and inexperienced, the de facto ruling cliques: the clandestine deep state, civil-military bureaucracy, and vested transnational interest groups continued to assert their dominance in power configurations that ruled Pakistan even in the supposedly civilian-led Bhutto regime and some historical evidence will now be provided to substantiate these claims.

Dr. Mubashir Hassan, who was the Finance Minister and advisor of Science and Technology during the Bhutto government, was a key member of the PPP vanguard with strong socialist credentials. By 1974, he had become disillusioned with what he perceived to be Bhutto’s pandering to the capitalist establishment’s interests and impotency of the civilian regime. Therefore, he set up a meeting at the Bhutto residence to voice his concerns. Whilst there, he was shocked to hear, when Bhutto, who was perceived to be a strong populist leader, stated that he did not have the power to alter the miserable state of affairs because of certain thorny impediments generated by the bureaucratic juggernaut. Later, the civil engineer proceeded to make an important phone call only to discover that the telephone was bugged with a surveillance device. A state of shock ensued. Flustered, he told Bhutto who was irate and bemoaned the unforgiving nature of the bureaucracy punctuated with an expletive. But this was just the beginning. Later on, when the first lady Nusrat Bhutto arrived in the dining room, an even more disconcerting reality was unearthed. Apparently, the same device was planted in all phones of the Bhutto household, and young Shahnawaz had found one in his personal phone a year ago. But what followed after this revelation was much more troubling. No action was, or could be, taken against the deep state. Is it, then, a mere coincidence that Bhutto had chosen to co-opt the landed elites, amongst other status-quo forces, by 1974 because he was provided with no other choice?

In the 1973 constitution that brought back a parliamentary form of government, the prime minister could be removed through a vote of no-confidence. Such a motion could not be considered during a budget session, and following an unsuccessful motion, a new one could not be tabled for six months. Remarkably, the seemingly all-powerful, authoritarian Bhutto feared the intrigues of the civil-military bureaucracy which had successfully created dissidence within the ranks of political parties in the parliament in the past. Novel clauses were added: One was, casting votes by the show of hands. Another was, that for the next ten years, or by the time two general elections had been held, whichever came first, the votes of members in favor of a no-confidence motion would not be counted (in case that the majority in their respective party had voted against it). Visibly, Bhutto doubted the loyalty of his own party members who he perceived were susceptible to be adversely influenced by the establishment. This apprehension was reflected through constitutional guarantees and reeked of insecurity on part of Bhutto.

Being the leader of the majority party in parliament at the time that the 2nd amendment to the constitution of Pakistan was passed, Bhutto cannot be absolved of the responsibility for engaging in constitutional excommunication of a minority sect. But it would be erroneous to blame Bhutto entirely for the measure, because he did attempt, for a very long time, to delay the issue and not let it be debated on the floor of the house and personally, it must have been a very bitter pill to swallow for him and his modern worldview. PPP stalwarts back this view and claim that it was the pressure of the Saudis, who were reaping the fruits of the petro dollar in situational realities of the mass migration of Pakistani workers to the Middle East resulting in an exponential rise in remittances. In light of Bhutto’s wish to form a Muslim bloc to check the dominance of the communist and capitalist world orders, the house of Saud gained ample influence to adamantly vouch for a ban on the entrance of Ahmediyya community in the holy land. It is important to keep in mind the socio-cultural context of Pakistan where no mass protests against the ill-fated political misadventure materialized, and Bhutto naïvely told the Ahmedis that it was a temporary measure which would be revoked later.

Bhutto enacted reforms to curtail the unbridled power of the bureaucracies. The CSP was abolished, 1303 government officials dismissed and constitutional protection of civil servants was withdrawn, leading to intense resentment within the ranks. Ironically, it was DG FSF, Masood Mahmood (Bhutto’s close confidante at one time), a police officer, who became an approver in court proceedings, joining hands with Zia (Bhutto’s hand-picked general who was appointed after superseding seven senior officers) in, what is widely held, to be a judicial murder. Paradoxically, Bhutto’s nationalization policies led to an unprecedented expansion of the public sector that provided the disenchanted elite cadres of bureaucracy the space to assert themselves and engage in expediency, damaging the interests of the elected government, in the process. While the high treason article was being added to guard against coups d’état, a narrative was being developed by the military establishment that successfully transferred responsibility of the fall of Dhaka solely on Bhutto via proxies i.e. the religious right, at least in popular imagination.

The wily old fox was human, all too human, in retrospect. It shouldn’t take a lot for one to recognize that he realized it himself, and tried to assert his agency, as much as was possible, in a highly antagonistic and chequered environment. Maybe, he was more than a mere cog in the machine, but the machine’s overwhelming preponderance cannot be denied.

n The writer is a political scientist and a musician.