November Issue 2017

By | Cover Story | Published 6 years ago

Interview by Shahzeb Jillani 

When did Zulfikar Ali Bhutto first tell you about his desire to form a new political party, and what was the promise?

We had talked about it before, but it really started when President Ayub Khan sacked Mr Bhutto from his cabinet. He knew it was coming. That day I went to see him at his ministerial residence in Rawalpindi. The place was usually bustling with people, but that day there was hardly anyone there. He told me, “It is happening today. I’ll get a kick in the pants;” and then said, “You wait here. I won’t be long.” So I waited there. In about 45 minutes, he came back and said: “Well, I got the kick. We are out!”

The two of us talked for a while. I told him not to feel dejected and said we would face the dictator together. Mr Bhutto embraced me and said, “Yes, we will fight.”

So then it’s fair to say that the idea of the PPP was born mainly in opposition to President Ayub Khan?

Yes, that’s how it all started. Soon after, I brought in Hayat Khan Sherpao of the Frontier. Ghulam Mustafa Khar was next. In Karachi, Mairaj Mohammed Khan joined. In Lahore, Dr Mubashir Hasan. From the Foreign Office, J. A. Rahim became a staunch supporter. That made the six of us, who started the party.

From there, it just grew and grew. Everything Bhutto said and did, had its effect. He started his countrywide tour, addressing public gatherings. The party kept on gaining momentum, even though there was a total ban on the media from reporting our activities. The only exception at the time was the Urdu-language newspaper from Lahore, Nawa-e-Waqt. They defied the ban. We toured extensively and their reporters used to travel with us. We went into villages. We spoke to people and listened to them. Our message spread like wildfire. And that is how the party came into existence.

How did Ayub Khan’s government react?

The government tried to suppress us. But the more they tried, the more popular Mr Bhutto became. I remember a rally we were having in Dera Ismail Khan. The authorities banned the gathering by imposing Section 144. Still people tried to make their way to the venue. The police resorted to lathi (baton) charge; the crowded pelted stones at the police. Clashes erupted as we tried to get to the main bazar. Bhutto Sahib saw a house with a staircase going to the upper floor; he decided to enter and take the stairs up and we followed him. There, from the balcony of that house, he made a charged speech. The crowd went wild and surged through the streets, trampling on the policemen who were trying to block them.

The news of that lathi charge spread across the country. It galvanised more people to come out against Ayub Khan’s dictatorship.

The government then tried to break up a public rally in Rawalpindi, in which police opened fire and a student was killed. That incident added more fuel to the fire. We then travelled by train from Rawalpindi to Lahore. It was meant to be a fast train. But there were so many people who thronged to see and hear Bhutto that we were forced to stop frequently along the way.

When we reached the Lahore Railway Station, it was packed with people — sitting in the train, on the roof, everywhere. There was total chaos, people were pushing, jostling, hugging. I got pushed out of the train and fell on the other side of the tracks. We didn’t know what was going on. I looked for Bhutto, but couldn’t find him. I came out on the other side and took a rickshaw to the InterContinental Hotel where we were all staying. Bhutto got a lift to get to the hotel safely.

That night, we were at Dr Mubashir Hasan’s place, when the police raided his house and we were all arrested. Bhutto Sahib was taken to a prison in Kalabagh, I think. Dr Mubashir and I were taken to Sahiwal.

But the revolution had begun. The arrest infuriated people, and caused more unrest. People showed a lot of guts and loyalty in those days.

Bhutto’s personal charisma and anti-Ayub stance aside, how did the party’s programme come about?

It was mainly Bhutto’s creation. He was the author. I contributed to the party manifesto, so did highly learned men like J. A. Rahim and others. But in the end, it was the man himself. He decided on the slogan of roti, kapra, makan (food, clothing and shelter), which struck a chord with millions of ordinary people.

There was also a very clear message of a class struggle against the country’s 22 richest families, to empower the farmers, trade unions and students. Considering Bhutto himself was a landed aristocrat with a privileged background, how was he able to articulate their miseries so effectively?

Bhutto Sahib was a well-read and a highly qualified man. He moved among the people. He knew what affected them the most — just like any good zamindar (landlord), who has to look after his cultivators, mix with them, be there for them in good times and bad. There’s a deep misconception about the landed gentry that they don’t know or care about their people. In fact, they earn the goodwill of their cultivators because a landowner is often the only one there for them.

But that feudal culture is also about exploitation and maintaining the status quo. Bhutto said he stood for redistribution of power and resources. Was there a contradiction inherent in the man and his promise?

There was no contradiction. During Bhutto’s time, we introduced land reforms twice. We addressed the difficulties faced by farmers. We introduced new laws so that the powerful could not arbitrarily take away land from the cultivators. We ensured the rights of labour and tenants. Those reforms counted for a lot and they made a difference. Our reforms would have had more impact had it not been for corruption in the bureaucracy.

Over the decades, corruption seems to have become the defining character of the PPP. How serious a concern was it back then?

It was a very big concern indeed, but it was mostly limited to the bureaucracy. And we tackled it and controlled it to a great extent. I remember at one point we dismissed more then 200 notorious officers. We could take such drastic action because in the initial years we had martial law powers. It sent a clear message that Bhutto’s government had very low tolerance for corruption.

But the thing that really worked in our favour was that people saw change. We were building schools, roads and hospitals. People could see Bhutto was delivering on his promise to improve the lives of ordinary people. When I was chief minister of Sindh, we gave Karachi a new drainage system. We promoted development, in cities as well as villages.

Were there complaints of massive kickbacks on public spending projects back then, as the PPP leadership and parliamentarians face today?

Some corruption was always there, but nothing on the scale we see today. These days there’s a storm of corruption. If you are not corrupt, you have no business being in government. Everyone knows about Zardari’s corruption, and look where it has brought the party. In those days, corruption mainly existed in the bureaucracy — and that too in the lower ranks. Corruption among senior officers or at the ministerial level was unheard of. For many of us, it never crossed our minds. Under Bhutto, we were focused on delivering and performing. It was a different country back then, with an altogether different ethos.

The PPP’s slogan was to empower the downtrodden. That’s how it swept to power in 1970. Why did Mr Bhutto then turn his back on his early allies and embrace rich feudals?

Well, these people had their way of weaving and creeping into power. They had their usual tactics of flattery, and prostrating themselves before the government of the day. And they were powerful and effective at that. The reality was that they had a hold over their people. Their cultivators depended entirely upon them. In turn, the farmers did as they were told. So despite our best efforts, the system persisted, while we had our eyes on the next election. We had to mobilise the country. We needed all the support we could get.

But when the tide turned and General Zia toppled Zulfikar Bhutto, these people were among the first to jump ship, were they not?

That’s right. Shortly before Bhutto Sahib’s hanging, I went around and met about 15 or so of the most powerful people of Sindh for support. But none of them responded. It has been like that since. Whether it was Zia or Musharraf, these people are quick to switch sides and find a way to go with power.

Bhutto was very disappointed with the big shots throughout the country; he felt let down by them.

Do you think it shattered his belief in the power of the masses?

It should have. It must have. Because it was a total betrayal, a total let down. Some die-hard supporters did try to organise protests and some party workers self-immolated in Punjab. But other than that, there was silence — more out of fear than anything else. There were troops and tanks all over the place.

Talking about betrayal, you were among the so-called “uncles” of Benazir Bhutto who were accused of abandoning Bhutto. You were arrested from Larkana at the same time as Bhutto, but the military regime set you free a month before Bhutto’s hanging. Did that put a question mark over your loyalty?

I spent about a year-and-a-half in jail. My release came on the orders of the Sindh High Court. There was nothing more to it. But the Bhutto ladies — Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir — feared that I was planning to take over the party. It was simply not true. People around them (like Dr Ashraf Abbasi) made them suspicious of me. They believed the rumours and kept me at a distance.

Later, when the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was formed, in her quest for power, Benazir surrounded herself with her father’s biggest enemies — like Malik Qasim and Asghar Khan. They started justifying taking in all the people who had fought the Bhuttos vehemently, like the Khuhros of Larkana. I found it unacceptable and I objected to it. To me, it was nothing less than a treachery. So I stopped going to their meetings. Later, they threw me out of the party.

During the last three decades or so, you have bitterly fought the PPP in Larkana, accusing them of widespread corruption. But, apart from a few, you have repeatedly lost the elections, while they kept winning them. Why is that?

That’s because of their mass rigging. In my constituency, I have seen how they take over polling stations and stuff ballot boxes. They threaten people who go against them. They have mastered the manipulation of the election machinery. Is that democracy? The PPP is nothing now, but a band of thieves led by Zardari.

So, what next for Bhutto’s party? Do you see Bilawal Bhutto Zardari ever taking it in a new direction?

Bilawal can’t do much, even if he wants. He is a hostage to his father and his aunt, Faryal Talpur. The two of them have been on a money-making spree, and Bilawal doesn’t seem to have it in him to grow out of their shadows.