Bhutto and the 1977 coup

The politics of Zulfikar Bhutto leading to the coup of July 5, 1977 hold some crucial lessons for political leaders of the day

Bhutto and the 1977 coup

Every year those who believe in democracy in Pakistan observe July 5 as a Black Day in our political history when General Zia overthrew an elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Zia’s treasonous coup and his rule for almost a decade is rightly condemned and none would dare find excuses in its favour.

However, true to our national psyche, like we blame our external enemies for all our woes without much appetite for reflecting on our own self, on this day too we prefer to mourn and condemn that coup and scuttling of a democratic regime than to have introspection. That’s not helpful in the long run. It is important to learn from circumstances that immediately preceded the coup of 1977.

Ousting of an elected government was not an unprecedented event per se but it was a preface to a draconian chapter in Pakistan’s history as it led to atrocious execution of Bhutto through an outrightly bogus judicial trial. It ushered in an era marked with elimination of civil rights and most callous exploitation of religion under General Zia.

When we retrospect the time preceding that coup, Bhutto was certainly the most popular leader when Pakistan went to general elections in March 1977, yet he was far from being the unanimous choice of Pakistani electorate as his rule since December 1971 was full of political turbulence, more often caused by his own deeds. Seen from nation building context in Pakistan, Bhutto had a unique opportunity to bind up the nation and make a really new Pakistan following the 1971s civil war in East Pakistan which had resulted in dismemberment of Pakistan that Jinnah had created in 1947. Sadly, he preferred political self-aggrandisement.

In 1967, Pakistan People’s Party was founded on socialist inspirations by men of deep learning and integrity such as J.A. Rahim, Mubashir Hassan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Mukhtar Rana and others. Bhutto was chosen as its founding chairman for his record of having led the country in previous ten years, including as the foreign minister, his education and more importantly for his demagogic oratory. Not that these stalwarts of the PPP were not aware of Bhutto’s aristocratic background which must have alerted them but it seems they were optimistic to mould Bhutto’s autocratic tendencies he might have acquired as a result of his lineage with a feudal aristocracy. Perhaps, they were mistaken.

Bhutto’s autocratic disposition took no time to be exposed within the very first year of his rule. Not only did he exhibit little patience for his political rivals such as Wali Khan and Ghaus Bukhsh Bizengo of NAP but also for dissent within his own ranks. For instance, Mukhtar Rana and Mairaj Muhammad Khan were too outspoken and candid in their views to be tolerated by Bhutto who threw them in jail without having any charges against them. Similarly, J.A. Rahim, an old Bengali statesman, who was the true founder and thinker behind the party, also faced very insulting reaction from Bhutto.

Bhutto’s acts had catapulted his rivals to a position where they had no stakes left in the system. Instead of pacifying opposition and resolving the stalemate, a month after elections Bhutto imposed martial law in Lahore, Karachi and Hyderabad -- the nerve centres of opposition.

In a cabinet meeting, Rahim had opposed Bhutto’s nomination of a minister. As heated words were exchanged, Bhutto asked the old man to leave the room. The same evening Bhutto’s federal security forces barged into his house, callously beat up the old man and informed that he had been dismissed from the cabinet and from his party post as secretary general.

Instead of uniting the country and its diverse people by accommodating other political leaders and parties, he acted imperially. Although his party didn’t have any seat in the provincial assemblies of Balochistan and NWFP (now KPK), through political machinations and whimsical actions Bhutto overthrew the NAP-JUI government in Balochistan, and imposed governor’s rule, which led the NAP and allies to resign from NWFP setup too. These two provinces were then subjected to a musical chair of power. It wasn’t limited to these two provinces but frequent changes in governments continued in Punjab and Sindh also.

During 1973-77, Punjab saw four chief ministers and governors each; Sindh also saw four governors and two chief ministers. During Bhutto’s rule of five and a half years since December 1971, the four provinces of Pakistan collectively saw as many as seventeen governors and thirteen chief ministers; of course, few could have seen their first anniversary in office.

When Bhutto held second general elections in March 1977, his win was certain. What was not certain was if PPP would get two-third majority so that he could change the country’s constitution to his taste. To achieve that, Bhutto unleashed police, FSF, and ISI to cow down and scare away the opposition candidates first from filing their papers for election and then from running electoral campaign. Consequently, the PPP unbelievably secured 77 per cent of National Assembly seats, far more than desired for two-third majority, which led to the opposition parties’ boycott of elections for provincial assemblies.

Bhutto’s acts had catapulted his rivals to a position where they had no stakes left in the system. Instead of pacifying opposition and resolving the stalemate, a month after elections Bhutto imposed martial law in Lahore, Karachi and Hyderabad -- the nerve centres of opposition. That point onwards, circumstances only slipped from Bhutto’s control leading to his own ouster in a military coup two and a half months later.

Many would wonder how we can attribute all that mess to Bhutto. The question makes sense today, especially when we see now how little space prime ministers have had in the presence of an assertive judiciary, stormy electronic media and an all-powerful army to exercise power the way Bhutto did. But back then Bhutto was seen as a saviour of new Pakistan, most popular and charismatic leader while army was still recovering from the humiliating defeat in the war of 1971. His aristocratic background, own personal disposition and situation he found around him as the leader must have led him to feel and act as an imperial leader.

The introspection from the politics of the years leading to the coup of July 5 1977 should teach our political leaders to bridle their urge to transform themselves virtually into a vicegerent under the garb of democracy. Democracy is about people, co-existence with our political rivals, and not about political self-aggrandisement by those at the helm. We better learn this.

Bhutto and the 1977 coup