Book review: The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan, by Owen Bennett-Jones



The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan, by Owen Bennett-Jones, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 27 October 2020, Hardcover,  320 pages, $28, ISBN: 97880300246674.

By Arnold Zeitlin

Owen Bennett-Jones’s account of a Bhutto dynasty reminded me that I enjoyed a rare, near-quixotic relationship with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto during my time, September 1969 to April 1972, as the Associated Press reporter in Pakistan. His associates often were astonished at our conversations. As when he complained to me on one occasion that the American congress was blocking his effort to buy U.S. military equipment, in this case, tanks.

But you are safe under the umbrella of the Shah of Iran, I told him.

“What if the Shah gets constipation,” he shot back.

Or, on another occasion, I asked him why so many of his political opponents end up in jail.

“That,” he said, with an airy wave of a hand, “is our wild west.”

I came to Pakistan in that September to open AP’s first bureau there. Previously, reporters from AP’s New Delhi bureau had traveled to Pakistan to cover events there, an arrangement that dissatisfied clients who wanted someone on the spot. As soon as I settled in a home office on Peshawar Road in Rawalpindi, I set off to introduce myself to the country’s politicians. Pakistan was then under the martial law of General Yahya Khan.

Of all the politicians, from Wali Khan, Mumtaz Daultana, and Quayum Khan, I clicked best with the slick, cool Bhutto. He had been out of politics until he founded his Pakistan People’s Party in 1967. I showed up at his news conferences and speeches and made sure he knew I was there. On one occasion, I was driving my Toyota along a dusty provincial road right behind the truck he used as a platform, Bhutto staring down at me.

He responded, inviting me to 70 Clifton, his home in Karachi. He escorted me into his library and pulled from the shelf a book about Golda Meir, then the first woman to be prime minister of Israel.

“I’ve always regretted not to bring able to meet her,” said Bhutto, referring to the hostility of his Islamic state to Israel.

Bennett-Jones offers in his book a contrary view of Bhutto’s attitude toward Israel. He quotes a Bhutto school friend, Omar Kureshi, as saying about Bhutto “if there was one issue about which he would really get worked up, it was Israel….he would be scathing about Israel. About America’s support to Israel, he would say: not the United States but the Jewnited States of America.”

This may simply be a case of a politician saying what he thinks his audience wanted to hear. I’ve always thought Bhutto was telling me (1) he knew I was Jewish, (2) it made no difference to our relationship, or (3) he was careful to spot any bias against him and Pakistan. In any case, the issue never arose again.

Our meetings became so familiar I made a game of them: if we were in the same room and I had to get his attention, I lost. But if he sought me out first, I won.

I won at a signing of papers in Rawalpindi between Bhutto and the visiting Romanian president, Nicolae Ceaușescu (fatefully, Ceausescu was to be executed by firing squad and Bhutto was to be hanged). As he left the room, Bhutto came over to me and asked if I would be in Lahore the next day. I had no intention of traveling to Lahore but I said, “yes.”

The next morning, my phone rang. Bhutto’s military aide-de-camp asked, “Are you coming to Lahore?” “Yes, of course,” I said. I rang up Pakistani airlines. A plane to Lahore was leaving in a half-hour.

“hold the plane!” I said, “President Bhutto has summoned me to Lahore.” I raced to the airport. The plane was held and waiting; I was the last one aboard. In Lahore, I raced to the governor’s mansion where I found Bhutto with his lackey, Ghulam Mustapha Khar, then the Punjab governor.

“I’m sending Mustapha to Washington for his honeymoon,” said Bhutto. Khar has been married eight times, including with a later bride, Tehmina Durrani,  who became famous with a 1991 book describing Khar’s abusiveness. Was this why I rushed to Lahore? Was Khar to carry a particular message? No. it wasn’t clear whom he would see, of anyone in authority,

I’ve always felt that Bhutto was sending me a message that I was too dumb to understand. As I left the room, I tripped over a carpet, and Bhutto muttered, “and he hasn’t had a drink.”

Bhutto was annoyed that I didn’t drink. He gloried in his drinking. An example was the evening he had his military aide-de-camp call me to his bedroom in the Peshawar home of Mufti Mahmud, a bitter political rival and then the chief minister of the Northwest Frontier province. We had just finished a dinner celebrating the end of a Bhutto swing through the tribal areas to the north. I was a member of the news media group that accompanied Bhutto. As our group was leaving, the aide-de-camp summoned me upstairs. There was Bhutto, hand outstretched, holding a snifter of brandy.

“You see,” he said to me, referring obliquely to the fact that Mahmud had banned to use of alcohol in his province, “in the house of the imam.”

I knew he kept tabs on my reporting. I wrote a story mentioning his first wife, whom he married before he went to the United States to study and whom he kept in obscure purdah at his estate in Larkana, Sind province. At a news conference shortly after the story appeared, he mentioned “his wife,” then paused and after a glance in my direction, he continued, “I mean my wives.”

When I wrote in another article that despite his anti-American rhetoric, he sent his children to American schools in Pakistan and overseas, Bhutto sent word through his press secretary, Khalid Hasan, warning me to lay off mentioning his children.

Bhutto came to Rawalpindi in February 1971 to meet Yahya Khan as tensions heightened following an election in which the east-based Awami League won 167 of 169 parliamentary seats, all in east Pakistan but enough to form a national government, and Bhutto’s PPP won 81 of 138 seats, all in the west. Bhutto wanted to share power, not be in the opposition.

I was with a group of journalists at the airport as Bhutto left for Peshawar after meeting Yahya. He approached me and said, “are you coming to Peshawar?” This time I said ‘yes’ and meant it. As soon as he flew off, I drove the Grand Trunk road to Peshawar. Bhutto was doing his political rounds and was to stay the night at the home of his ally, Hayat Mohammad Khan Sherpao. I waited for him at Sherpao’s house. He turned up about midnight, obviously tipsy. I suggested returning in the morning but he beckoned me to a bedroom upstairs.

Fully dressed, Bhutto stretched out on the bed. A servant jumped over him to begin a massage. For the first 15 minutes, I endured a harangue about a lunch I had in Dacca (as it was then spelled) a month before with friends, including G. Mueenudin, a retired, extremely well-informed civil servant and a family friend whom Bhutto detested (a favor that Mueen returned). With us was Akhtar Ispahani, a friend from a prominent family, and an attractive woman introduced to me as Mary. Turned out Mary was Bhutto’s current lover and apparently reported to him verbatim our luncheon conversation.

Eventually, we got to the point of our meeting. Bhutto informed me that he and his party were boycotting the scheduled meeting in March of the National Assembly in Dacca, then added that a resolution to the political stalemate over sharing power might be in having two prime ministers.

I left to drive back to Rawalpindi and filed my stories. The one about two prime ministers had an unusual impact. In the first week of March, I was in Dacca covering the reaction to Yahya Khan’s postponing the assembly meeting. I received a call that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League leader whom Yahya already had proclaimed as the next prime minister of Pakistan, wanted to see me.

I met him at his residence-HQ at No. 32, Dhanmondi residential area, a place that was alive with people, family, politicians, reporters, youth leaders, and simply hangers-on. Mujib ushered me into a darkened living. We were alone, the only time I was alone with him. He wanted to know what Bhutto said about two prime ministers.

“if that is what he wants,” Mujib said with a shrug, “I agree.”

I thought I had a great story: Pakistan’s two major leaders agree to a two-prime-minister solution to their power stalemate. I went from Sheik’s living room to the cable office to file my story. No sooner did I go from the cable office to my room in the Purbani hotel next door, then the phone rang.

An unidentified voice said, “Sheikh says you have to stop that story!”

I demanded to talk to Sheikh Mujib. “You misquoted me,” he said.

“You know damn well I did not misquote you,” I said. He then said, “that story will hurt me in the west,” a reference to the support he was getting from west-based parties that opposed Bhutto.

Here was the man who might be the next prime minister. I did not want to get on his bad side.  I told him I would return to the cable office to try to retrieve the story. But If it had gone to our London HQ, I was not going to call it back.

I walked next door to the cable office. It was closed. The employees were on a protest strike. I had no idea about the fate of the story. The next morning, it was broadcast on All-India Radio, widely heard in East Pakistan. Mujib denied the All-India-Radio story, not the Arnold Zeitlin story, a gesture for which I was grateful. Otherwise, I might have become a pariah in East Pakistan.

Of course, two prime ministers was a key to the solution that led to the independence of Bangladesh, but only after the killing of hundreds of thousands and the dispossessing of millions. “had Pakistan’s two most legitimate leaders combined forces,” Bennett-Jones writes, “to limit the power of the army, the history of the country might have taken a different course….Zulfiqar did not see the big picture….it was a missed opportunity.”.”

Otherwise, Bennett-Jones tends to skim past Bhutto’s role in the events leading to the independence of Bangladesh. The same is true in his quick description of how Bhutto replaced Yayha Khan as president and chief martial law administrator. He gives the role of the junior army officers who swung the leadership in Bhutto’s direction a single sentence: “….pressure from junior officers was a significant factor in securing the transition from a military ruler to a politician.” Bhutto later was to betray these men, forcing them to retire and court-martialling one of their leaders.

The real story of Bennett-Jones’s book is not a tattered, two-generation Bhutto dynasty but the stream of corruption, incompetence, vengeance, mediocrity, drunkenness, conspiracies real and imagined, military arrogance and greed, coups, deceit, betrayal, nepotism, outright theft and personal aggrandizement that flows like sewage beneath his narrative.  Pakistan in more than 70 years has never experienced a visionary, inclusive rule.

The closest Pakistan came to the ordinary good government was the three-month, one-day (from 18 July 1993 to 19 October 1993) caretaker government of Moeenuddin Ahmad Qureshi, a former senior vice president of the world bank. According to one list, this is what he accomplished in less than 100 days:

“”He initiated a process of “payment culture” that targeted the tax evaders and loan defaulters. He also ordered the publication of the list of taxpayers that showed that the country had a small tax base and only a few paid taxes. He devaluated the national currency and increased the prices on food and common items.] He also inaugurated the National Library and highlighted its importance in the political culture of the country. Qureshi passed the decree that made the State bank of Pakistan an autonomous body with a view to keep the bank’s business operations free from political interference. He downsized the administrative machinery and abolished the discretionary powers of the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers which allowed them to a lot residential flats and plots to their “favorites”. The state television, PTV, and Radio Pakistan were made independent and were given the opportunity to air elections. He made a serious effort to recover Government dues.”

He also presided over the 1993 election that brought Benazir Bhutto to power for the second time.

Bennett-Jones does his best to present both Zulfiqar and Benazir as specially endowed political creatures. “both Zulfiqar and his daughter Benazir walked willingly and bravely towards their deaths,” Bennett-Jones says, a remark that might have amused, if not shocked, the elder Bhutto.

“Zulfiqar’s self-confidence dazzled his colleagues,” Bennett-Jones claims,”….the young Sindhi was quite plainly more impressive than anyone else at the top of Pakistan’s politics.” To balance his appraisal, the author adds: “His ego knew no bounds. in his speeches he spoke a lot about himself….this self-regard was coupled with intolerance of criticism….”

As for Benazir, “her study of politics at the world’s greatest universities (Harvard and Oxford) prepared her for office….she had aristocratic command.”

But in office, her father, despite initiating reforms, passing a liberal constitution, and setting the country on its nuclear course, eventually failed, the PPP slogan, “roti, kapra aur makaan” (bread, clothing, and shelter)  mocked. Benazir flopped twice. they were no different than those who came to rule before them and those who have taken office after them. there were complications, of course, the military being number one. in Z.A. Bhutto‘s came, a second complication was the opposition of business interests to his nationalization policy.

The two hardly make a dynasty, as Bennett-Jones contends.  The presidency of Asif Zardari, Benazir’s husband, was not the extension of a dynasty. As for Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari or Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, he seems amiable but now at the age at which his grandfather was Pakistan’s hottest politician, he seems unlikely to extend a dynasty.

In Z.A. Bhutto‘s case, the price he paid for failure was judicial murder, hanged on a trumped-up charge of murder. My friend, G. Mueenuddin, once told me that Genera Zia ul-Haq, who overthrew Bhutto‘s government in a 1977 coup, was told either he must get rid of Bhutto or he would be gotten rid of. Who might have made this threat is murky? Bennett-Jones sheds a bit of light on the possibility when he writes that Aga Hassan Abedi, founder of the notoriously corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). “was aligned with the Establishment against Zulfiqar.”

Abedi had much of the military and civil service on the bank’s payroll. “Benazir once said,” Bennett-Jones, reports, “Abedi conspired against her father helping to persuade Zia to go ahead with the hanging.

Up popped Ahmed Raza Kasuri, a National Assembly member, who survived a 1974 assassination attempt in which his father died. He told police that Bhutto initiated the attack. I knew Kasuri, a tall, Bhutto wannabe, whom Bhutto rejected. His father was a mild-mannered man uninvolved in politics. The younger Kasuri was a publicity-seeking boor.  Once Bhutto was out of office, he was charged and quickly convicted of the murder of Kasuri’s father.

I last saw Bhutto the night before I left Pakistan in March 1972 for a new assignment in the Philippines.  He invited me to the President’s House in Rawalpindi for a handshake and advice: Don’t trust the Filipinos; they are morally corrupt.  I thought to myself: He is telling me they are morally corrupt.

From Manila, I sent Bhutto a large, carved gift box of Filipino cigars, Back came a painted cigarette box. That was my last direct contact with Bhutto.

Bhutto did not deserve to die the way he did. While not suggesting he was the victim of his own machinations, Bhutto, like so many other Pakistani leaders, was determined to play in his “wild west.”