April issue 2019

By | Bookmark | Published 3 weeks ago

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto remains a controversial figure in Pakistan’s politics. Forty years after his death, both, his supporters and detractors, remain equally vehement in their judgement of the man. Such divided opinion is perhaps a true reflection of the conflicting traits of a man whose name still provides valuable political currency. For this reason, books continue to be written about his life and time.

Shamim Ahmad’s book attempts to look at Bhutto’s politics in the light of his psychological development from his early years. The author is a retired civil servant who admired Bhutto for campaigning against the dictator Mohammad Ayub Khan, in the aftermath of the war between India and Pakistan in 1965. Later, following Bhutto’s role in the  civil war and the dismemberment of Pakistan that created Bangladesh in 1971, the author’s opinion changed. He says, “I venerated Bhutto no longer.” And this disillusionment with Bhutto was shared by many of his erstwhile supporters.

 The author has a degree in psychology and could therefore perhaps be considered qualified to make such an assessment.  However, having said this, a “psychodynamic” study is not an easy task and this is evidenced by the contents of the book.  It is only in two chapters of the book that an attempt has been made to understand the mind of a complex leader. In the author’s view, Bhutto’s personality is influenced by three key factors. 

First, he was strongly affected by the situation of his mother, a woman who was not accorded the respect he felt she deserved, on account of her original religion (she was a Hindu, who converted to Islam after marriage to Bhutto’s father), her humble origins, and the fact that she was Bhutto’s father, Shahnawaz Bhutto’s second wife. The author writes that this perceived humiliation suffered by his mother gave Bhutto a sense of inferiority that led to a phenomenon, established by the psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937), known as “Compensation.” This phenomenon, described by Adler as an effort to make up for a sense of deficiency, drove Bhutto on the one hand to succeed at any cost, and on the other rendered in him a propensity to humiliate anyone who challenged his superiority.  

The second factor that influenced Bhutto greatly, according to Ahmed, was the lack of attention by his father. The author attributes it to the “Phaeton Complex,” that is defined as an emotional pain engendered by the lack of a parent, or both parents’ love, their absence or loss. Bhutto’s father had married more than once and had children from his first wife. The divided attention of his father gave Bhutto a sense of insecurity that drove him to prove himself worthy to allay the sense of rejection he always felt.

Lastly, the author concludes that Bhutto had mood swings, with the pendulum swinging between manic and depressive. A number of incidents are quoted of Bhutto crying uncontrollably during depressive phases, and working unceasingly in manic phases. 

An unflattering aspect of Bhutto’s personality presented in the book is that he suffered from narcissism (excessive self-love) and sycophancy (flattery), the two opposite sides of the personality coin. His praise for President Iskandar Mirza as a leader greater than Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his full support of Ayub Khan’s subversion of the 1962 constitution are quoted as examples of this attitude.  Later, when Bhutto gained power, he thrived on the sycophancy of his courtiers to feed his narcissism. This self-destructive behaviour led to his sidelining and punishing even his closest comrades and associates who dared to disagree with him. J.A. Rahim, Mukhtar Rana, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, all intelligent and principled comrades of Bhutto, paid a heavy price for giving him advice he did not like.

Once the author establishes these aspects of Bhutto’s personality, the rest of the book is a historical recounting of the political events in his lifetime as evidence of the dominance of his personality traits.  One of the most telling is the account of  his treatment of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who had been chosen as the Chief of Army Staff for his perceived docility and sycophancy. The book quotes the historian Stanley Wolpert: “He often made Zia the butt of public ridicule, shouting at him from the head of the dinner table, “Where’s my monkey general? Come here monkey!” As history demonstrates, the monkey turned into a man-eating lion and devoured his master.

The main issue with the book is that there is little in it to qualify it as a psychodynamic study. Psychodynamics is broadly defined as a systematic study of reasons rooted in early childhood experiences and subconscious drives. There is little regarding supporting references for the psychological assessment of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto based on psychodynamics. Most of the observations are speculative. For example, in support of a very significant conclusion that Bhutto was strongly influenced by the treatment meted out to his mother,  there is just one statement attributed to one of Bhutto’s close confidantes, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, that Bhutto would, “…..declare that he would avenge the poverty and humiliation which agonised his mother.”  Clearly, it is a huge leap to conclude, based on one statement, that this perception was one of the most powerful influencers on Bhutto’s psyche. The line of reasoning used by the author seems to be, “If this is what his mother’s position was in the family, it follows logically that he would have developed the way he did.”

 As far as neglect on the part of his father is concerned, nothing has been provided by way of Bhutto’s own writings or any of his known conversations or speeches to indicate how he felt about his relationship with his father. Similarly, there is no medical or professional opinion to support his manic-depression. It seems that after developing a psychological profile based on very little evidence, the author supports the conclusion with Bhutto’s behaviour. This approach takes away from the declared purpose of the book to present a “psychodynamic” analysis of Bhutto’s mind.

One aspect of Bhutto’s personality that has been hinted at but not mentioned specifically in the book is self-serving cynicism. In his interview with Oriana Fallaci, he declares: “Politicians are always trying to make you believe that they’re good, moral, consistent. Don’t ever fall in their trap.  There’s no such thing as a good, moral, consistent politician.” Indeed, says Ahmad, an excellent summary of Bhutto’s own politics.

Perhaps, Bhutto’s personality is best described by a word used by the author, “ambivalence” that is defined as, “The coexistence in one person of two opposing emotions, desires, beliefs or behavioural tendencies directed towards the same same instinctual object, especially love and hate.”

In terms of his contribution to the people of Pakistan, the respected scholar Eqbal Ahmad described it succinctly: “Bhutto increased the margins of self-respect of the poor, but not the margins of their security.”

In his foreword to the book, the noted human rights activist I.A. Rehman writes: “No more is expected of a good piece of writing than that it should be readable, should add to the readers’ understanding… and should also stimulate a meaningful debate.” The book certainly meets the first criterion, but very marginally succeeds in its goal of presenting a sound analysis of the psyche of a complex person; well known but not well understood. 

The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.