Wily Politics

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Ethnic politics, dynastic politics, and perhaps most ill-advised of them all – cultist politics.

But it would be false to identify Bhutto himself as the trail-blazer of Bhutto-ism: He was no cultist. Bhutto-ism could become a cult because of what Bhutto actually achieved and signified despite his catastrophic flaws. He founded a political party that reoriented national politics and revitalized the democratic grammar Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s basic democracy had rubbished. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party had a meaningfully persuasive popular ideology. Unfortunately he betrayed its democratic manifest: Once empowered, he sought the mode of a one-party state. Pakistanis were too pluralistic to accept that; but long after his death the party infrastructure he constructed remains viable.


His widow Begum Nusrat Bhutto’s courage in the most adverse of circumstances commanded respect and Benazir Bhutto, his victimized child, undoubtedly evoked sentimental sympathy. But neither depended on emotive Bhutto-ism for political dimension. Their politics centred on keeping their party and common civil politics functional in opposition to martial law. Benazir’s reliance on the theme of Bhutto’s martyrdom developed after she herself had been elected and failed to deliver. Actually it was her widower, former president Asif Zardari, who sought and found personal empowerment and political position nurturing cultist sentiment around the figures of his ‘judicially murdered’ father-in-law and ruthlessly eliminated wife.

guest-contributorHe took control of the party helm in calming the furies unleashed by Benazir’s assassination, and diverted the general approbation of that role into Bhutto-Zardari dynastic use as a personalized political powerbase. His dexterity saw the redefined Bhutto clan through some years; but its mismanaged political territory is diminishing. One could say the dynasty prospered at the expense of its democratically claimed space: Treating the party as a friends and family fief seemed to have reduced it to just that in the 2013 electoral verdict.

So what of forfeited political space and also of an infrastructure that seeks better party leadership? The PPP’s renewed emphasis on Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s link to a dynastic chain reeks of cultism rather than healthy flux and growth. Only the cultist can see him as leading followers towards a resolution of the formidable national problems every citizen can articulate. Realists will interpret it as an attempt to retain populist power within a charmed circle.

Mr Asif Zardari is more than an astute politician and former president of the State. The general assumption is that he probably needed the immunity presidential office gave him and which his electoral college was conscious of conferring on him. Recently he reminded of his ability to control turbulence with an accompanying implication that he could generate it. That is no empty boast. The problem is that there are too many politicians, militants and activists with the demonstrated ability to generate turbulence and stall normal civic life and political activity in the name of social justice and democratic aspiration. How can they seek to indict and address civil and political democratic dysfunction by promoting it?

If the idea is to dislodge government willy-nilly the behavior makes sense. If the objective is to paralyse opponents and rivals in national and provincial office regardless of national consequences and the impact on democratic and economic development the attitude makes sense. That is what apprehensive people would tell Imran Khan of the PTI and the PAT’s Mr Qadri.

What would they say to politicians and ‘influentials’ who fear accountability and due punishment? They seek personal salvation regardless of the public consequence, so perhaps the apprehensive Pakistani would address the people at whom their demagoguery is directed: Is your leadership taking you in the direction you prefer? Was the democratic mandate conferred one of implosion?