April 4 marked the death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came to a tragic end thirty-six years ago on this day. Historians widely disagree regarding ZAB’s assessment with some eulogizing him to be Pakistan’s ‘most gifted and charismatic political leader’ while others berate him as ‘unprincipled demagogue’. The followers of the PPP would credit him with imposing achievements including wresting thousand of square kilometres of land from India’s occupation, securing release of 90,000 prisoners, producing a consensus based constitution, kicking off the nuclear program, and above all giving poor people a voice through vote and raising the slogan of ‘Roti, kapra aur makaan’. But ZAB’s personality had tragic flaws, which drove him to commit egregious mistakes.

Perhaps, the most precise assessment of ZAB has been summed up by Sir Morrice James, Britain’s High Commissioner in Islamabad during 1960’s, in his Pakistan Chronicle: “Bhutto certainly had the right qualities for reaching the heights — drive, charm, imagination, a quick and penetrating mind, zest for life, eloquence, energy, a strong constitution, a sense of humour and a thick skin. Such a blend is rare anywhere, and Bhutto deserved his swift rise to power. From the end of 1962 onwards, I worked closely with him and it was a pleasure to deal with someone so quick-witted and articulate. We got on remarkably well…

“But there was — how shall I put it? — the rank odour of hellfire about him. It was a case of corruptio optimi pessima. He was a Lucifer, a fallen angel. I believe that at heart he lacked a sense of the dignity and value of other people; his own self was what counted. I sensed in him a ruthlessness and a capacity for ill-doing which went far beyond what is natural. Except at university abroad, he was mostly surrounded by mediocrities, and all his life, for want of competition, his triumphs came to him too easily for his own good. Lacking humility, he thus came to believe himself infallible, even when yawning gaps in his own experience (e.g. of military matters) laid him — as over the 1965 war — wide open to disastrous error.

“Despite his gifts, I judged that one day Bhutto would destroy himself — when and how I could not tell. In 1965, I so reported in one my last dispatches from Pakistan as British high commissioner. I wrote by way of clinching that point that Bhutto was born to be hanged. I did not intend this comment as a precise prophecy of what was going to happen to him, but 14 years later that was what it turned out to be.”

Bhutto’s biggest mistake was his betrayal of lofty socialist ideals after coming into power. He purged the PPP of radical leftist members and gathered the feudal landlords around him, who supported his dictatorial style of governance. ZAB used Federal Security Force (FSF)- a paramilitary force- to coerce his dissident party colleagues to either quit or fall in line. Ayesha Jalal writes in her recent work, The Struggle for Pakistan, that ZAB, like his counterpart Indira Gandhi, feared the consequences of leading a democratic political party. Jalal goes on to say that “Inner party democracy was dispensed as a threat to their pre-eminent power at the national level.”

The democratic credentials of Bhutto can be well imagined from the fact that, on the very day of enforcement of Constitution of 1973, the PM advised the President to issue order to the effect of continuation of Proclamation of Emergency of 1971. Accordingly the order was issued and the outcome was that fundamental rights, inter alia, the safeguards against arrest and detention and the right to equality, remained suspended till 5th of July 1977. Through various constitutional amendments, ZAB clipped the wings of the judiciary and elevated ‘faithful’ people to the positions of Chief Justices, undermining the independence of judiciary. Later, those ‘malleable’ courts became a tool in the hands of military dictator and gave verdict against Bhutto.

Two attempts at land reforms in 1972 and 1977 turned out to be as ineffectual as were those introduced by General Ayub. He also embarked on the path of appeasing religious right in the country and adopted policies, which, he thought, would rally the support of the leadership of Muslim world. His incorporation of the definition of ‘Muslim’ in the Constitution gave religious fanatics a license to label somebody not to their liking as ‘non-Muslim’, and kill straight way.

Bhutto remained preoccupied with obsession for power and thus he rigged elections of 1977, unwilling to risk defeat. His judgment proved misplaced and the movement against rigging built a momentum, triggering instability and chaos across the country. Vanity, absence of loyalty towards anybody but himself, and an insatiable lust for power were hamartian flaws in ZAB’s character that hastened his journey towards ignominious end.