The Privileged But Tragic and Corrupt Lives of the Bhutto Dynasty

A new book delves, warts and all, into the family which is an indelible part of Pakistan.

Over the past half-century, two political dynasties have dominated South Asia. A Gandhi has been at the helm in India for 16 of those 50 years, the same length of time that the Bhutto-Zardari family has been in power in Pakistan. Both have suffered assassinations, tragedies, corruption scandals and public fall-outs sufficient, the outsider might imagine, to persuade any of the coming generation to keep clear of politics. Yet both families are still sticking at it, if with different degrees of diligence and success.

The Bhuttos were, perhaps are, feudal in a way that the Gandhis have never been. That brought with it a fierce vengefulness, arrogance and sense of entitlement which has often proved their undoing. In the post-Jinnah era, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir have been the most intelligent, visionary and liberal of Pakistan’s rulers. Yet it is a third member of the dynasty, Asif Ali Zardari, who after his wife’s assassination, achieved what no other Pakistani leader has managed – serving his full term and handing over power to another elected civilian. Zardari succeeded in that regard only because – being perhaps short of vision, principle and intellect – he concentrated simply on clinging on to power, which meant deferring to the army on any decision of consequence.

‘The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan,’ Owen Bennett-Jones, Penguin.

Owen Bennett-Jones’s magisterial and vivid account of the Bhutto dynasty began as a biography of Benazir Bhutto, a political leader he got to know and interview, and then extended back into the political landscape of the Bhuttos’ fiefdom in rural Sindh.

Benazir’s grandfather, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, was a powerful figure who made an accommodation with a global power, Britain, in much the manner that she sought to do with the United States. He was late in endorsing the movement to make Sindh a separate province, achieved in 1936, but still could well have been its first provincial premier if he had made the effort to win the seat he contested in Sindh’s first assembly elections – a mistake future generations made sure not to repeat.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his son and political heir, was born in Larkana when Sindh was still part of the Bombay Presidency and grew up in the city of Bombay where he had something of an infatuation with the actress Nargis. His mother, Shahnawaz’s second wife, was born a Hindu and seen as low status, which gave her son a sense of insecurity. On the other hand, extreme privilege and unaccountable power were part of his upbringing. He gloried in not simply going to Oxford but to Christ Church, the most exclusive of its colleges. He was a minister (in General Ayub Khan’s government) at 31, foreign minister at 35 and Pakistan’s president at 43.

Bhutto bears some culpability for the secession of the larger part of his country with the creation of Bangladesh, but once in power he managed to get back his PoWs, restore national confidence after a long spell of military rule and, eventually, to recognise Bangladesh without reopening old and deep wounds. He was also perspicacious in developing links with Asia’s emerging power, China – an alliance which has been Pakistan’s anchor – and in recognising the growing wealth and influence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and while his single-minded pursuit of a nuclear programme has made the world a much more dangerous place, it was hugely popular among Pakistanis.

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Zulfikar’s great failing was that he neither built democratic institutions nor won the confidence of the army. He was also not the best judge of people. It was his own pick as army chief, Zia ul-Haq, who first overthrew him and then executed him. In the dark days of imprisonment before the hanging, adamant that he would not plead for clemency, Bhutto displayed what have also been consistent traits of the dynasty – raw courage and strength of character.

Owen Bennet-Jones. Photo: Author’s website

Benazir was impelled into politics by reverence for her father. Pampered, western in outlook and a woman, she was not an obvious ruler-in-the-making for Pakistan.  She endured imprisonment, including ten brutal months in solitary confinement, before rallying the country to her political standard. Both the generals and Islamists scorned her because of her gender, the president cut her out of crucial discussions, yet she refused to be worn down. She quietly had her second child delivered early by caesarean section to pre-empt the opposition making mischief while she was in labour. Twice dismissed as prime minister by the president – with army connivance, of course – she was determined to bounce back.

Pakistan’s modern history is clouded by the secretive and malign influence of both the ISI and jihadists, and Bennett-Jones – a colleague of mine for many years at the BBC World Service – is too wise to offer a firm judgement when the evidence is contradictory. Was Benazir sympathetic to the terrorist campaign unleashed by her brothers after her father’s execution? Not as much as her mother. Was she complicit in the killing of her brother and rival, Murtaza? Possibly. Was she personally corrupt? Probably. Did she personally carry details of nuclear technology to North Korea? Very probably.

The book’s most confident assertions concern Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, having returned from exile to prise General Musharraf from power. Bennett-Jones has researched this exhaustively, including interviews with Asif Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, for an award-winning ten-part podcast and radio series. The Pakistan Taliban carried out the suicide attack but there was certainly a cover-up on a grand scale. What was being hidden? He suggests that sections of the ISI, though probably not the top leadership, may have been involved because of concern that Benazir might dilute the nuclear weapons programme her father initiated.

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All through the decades, the Bhuttos kept a wary eye on how they measured up to that other political dynasty. Zulfikar admired Nehru but described his daughter as ‘more than a match’ for Nehru’s daughter; Zardari once described himself as ‘a Sonia Gandhi advisory figure’, but clearly heard no inner voice when the top job beckoned.

Alongside the similarities, there are sharp differences between Gandhis and Bhuttos. The Indian National Congress had been going for 30 years before the first Nehru became its president while the Pakistan People’s Party was founded by a Bhutto and has always simply been a vehicle for the family; the Bhuttos have been tempered by repeated spells in jail of a sort that the Gandhis have not experienced since independence; and India’s leaders haven’t had to worry day-in day-out about the loyalty of the military and intelligence service.

The disappointment of The Bhutto Dynasty is the peremptory discussion of the man who now carries its flag. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is in his thirties and leads the PPP in the National Assembly – the reader deserves a fuller account of the man and his potential. Bilawal of course has age on his side – he’s 18 years younger that Rahul Gandhi. What matters for his future prospects is if, at any stage, he will have Pakistan’s army on his side.

Andrew Whitehead was a BBC journalist and editor for many years and is currently a visiting professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.