Political dynasties in Pakistan appeared on centrestage long after they did in India because of the prolonged and periodically repeated military dictatorship there. Even when elected governments have been in power in our western neighbour, the army has called the shots, as is the case even today with Nawaz Sharif heading the duly elected government. His dynasty is still in the making. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif, has ruled Punjab, the heart of Pakistan, for long years and his daughter, Maryam, has started dabbling in politics and advising her father. The dominant dynasty in the politics of Pakistan remains the one founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was a protégé and later the nemesis of the first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and a collaborator of the second, General Yahya Khan, the real architect of the liberation of Bangladesh. So far, “Zulfi” has been the only civilian ruler to be in full control, until he was first overthrown and then executed by his handpicked army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq.
After Zia’s death in a mysterious air crash in 1988, a reasonably fair election was held by the army, which Benazir Bhutto, the legatee of her famous father, won. But in less than two years, she was dismissed by the then president, Ghulam Ishak Khan, a virtual nominee of Zia. In the ensuing midterm election, an Islamic united front was formed. Its candidate was Nawaz Sharif. On the orders of the then army chief, Aslam Beg, his ISI head, Lieutenant General Assad Durrani, financed the Islamic front. This time, Nawaz won, to be dismissed soon enough.
Thus, until the coup by General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999, Benazir and Nawaz alternated as prime ministers in shortlived governments. Well before the fresh elections after Musharraf’s exit, Benazir was assassinated; Nawaz had just returned from Saudi Arabia, where he lived because the Saudi royal family had rescued him from the life imprisonment that Musharraf had sentenced him to. The Bhutto family had no one to lead its Pakistan Peoples Party to victory in the polls that followed, except Benazir’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari. For their son, Bilawal Bhutto, was too young to take part in elections. He was then studying at Oxford, where both his mother and grandfather had gone before him. However, because the magic of the Bhutto name was needed, it was announced from the word go that Bilal and Zardari “are co-chairmen of the PPP”. Because of his age, Bilawal was ineligible for Pakistan’s National Assembly in 2013 as well. This time, Zardari was to lead the party to defeat. At no time was he a popular president. But he still gets the credit for leading the first democratically elected government in Pakistan’s entire history that completed its full five-year term. This rather elaborate backdrop is unavoidable in understanding what is going on within the Bhutto dynasty that Pakistani analysts, scholars and commentators always compare with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India.
April 4 this year was the 36th anniversary of “Zulfi” Bhutto’s death. Bilawal, still co-chairman of the PPP, who is away in London since last year, did not even care to come back to observe the occasion at Garhi Khuda Baksh, where his grandfather’s mausoleum is. He held a rally in London itself, and sent a message to his supporters back home. He knows, of course, that his passport to power is grandpa’s legacy alone. To make matters worse, he did not come even for the death anniversary of his mother on December 27 last year. To many Pakistanis and most foreign Pakistan watchers, this is confirmation of what they have believed since Bilawal’s sudden departure for London to sulk because his father evidently discouraged him from wanting to take over the party, reportedly on the young man’s own terms. A number of commentators have pointed out that what is happening within the Bhutto clan is little different from what is going on within the Gandhi family. According to a wag, “If there is a problem between father and son in Pakistan, there is a problem in India between mother (Sonia Gandhi) and son (Rahul Gandhi).”
Some students of dynasties in the subcontinent argue that both the Bhuttos and the Gandhis have gone through far more serious crises in the past. Murtaza Bhutto’s challenge to his sister’s leadership ended in the brother’s murder outside the Bhutto mansion in Karachi’s Clifton, while Indira Gandhi had to stifle her younger daughter-in-law Maneka’s fierce fight to be her late husband Sanjay’s successor, in preference to Rajiv.
As for Zardari, he is now grooming his daughter, Bakhtawar, to join active politics. Once again, there is a parallel with India. More and more Congressmen are chanting: “Priyanka lao, Congress bachao.”
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator