191121 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Image Credit: Supplied


  • Forty years is too brief for a country to be fully in control of its fundamentals and its present and its future.
  • Forty years is enough to form a picture of the actions taken, mistakes made, lessons learned, paths chosen, price that was paid, power paradigms that jostled, shifted and solidified, and rules of ruling Pakistan that were written and re-written so many times the exception became the norm.

On April 4, 1979, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in the dark of night. History would describe that hanging as a judicial assassination. My mother used to watch his speeches on television, and supported his politics. Without grasping the meaning of politics, elections, government, parliament, opposition, election results and rigging, the elementary school, precocious me became interested in the words of people I saw on television. My fascination with politics began with Bhutto’s electoral victory in 1977 general elections. One of my uncles, running on Bhutto’s party ticket, won. The celebratory fireworks were my only memory of the summer of 1977 in my village.

Bhutto’s first arrest on July 5,1977 after the opposition’s unwillingness to accept the results of 1977 elections, in which his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) gained majority, and he became the prime minister, opened the door to a Pakistan that rewrote its laws, its ethos, its principles. General Zia-ul-Haq’s midnight coup on July 5, 1977 is the gigantic shadow on Pakistan’s political dynamics. The coup happened under a justification that was as flimsy as Zia’s promise of holding free and fair elections in Pakistan after he self-placed on his head the thorny crown of chief martial administrator.

The two warring parties, Bhutto’s PPP and opposition’s Pakistan National Alliance, had “found a way out of the crisis, which could have served as a pretext for disruption of constitutional life.” Zia thought otherwise. He “insisted that he had intervened to save the country from bloodshed and chaos.”

Unbeknownst to the stakeholders, the uneven fight between democracy and dictatorship became a permanent feature of the complex and controversial power paradigm of Pakistan.

In September 1978, Bhutto wrote from his jail cell: “More than my life is at stake. Make no mistake about it. The future of Pakistan is at stake. If I am assassinated through the gallows...there will be turmoil and turbulence, conflict and conflagration.”

A loved leader

Chillingly prophetic or politically farsighted, Bhutto’s words are the encapsulation of Pakistan’s political history from 1979 to 2019. Forty years is too brief for a country to be fully in control of its fundamentals and its present and its future. Forty years is enough to form a picture of the actions taken, mistakes made, lessons learned, paths chosen, price that was paid, power paradigms that jostled, shifted and solidified, and rules of ruling Pakistan that were written and re-written so many times the exception became the norm.

Zia having hanged, arguably, the most loved political leader in the history of Pakistan, remains to date the longest-serving ruler of Pakistan. His single-man reign lasted from 1977 to 1988. It could have gone on for much longer, who is to say. Zia died in a plane explosion on August 18, 1988. The very unfortunate death of Zia remains a mystery to date: who was behind his assassination?

A mourner chanting slogans in favour of late Pakistani President General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq who was killed in the air crash with the high ranking officials and US Ambassador shortly after the take off. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

On December 2, 1988, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, 35, became the first female prime minister of Pakistan. She was also the first female Muslim prime minister in history. Democracy had won its first battle.

Benazir Bhutto Image Credit: AP

The long-time ally of Zia, the new president of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, empowered with 58-2(B), dismissed the government of Benazir on August 6, 1990 on accusations of “corruption, nepotism, and despotism.”

Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League, Zia’s political protégé, and Punjab chief minister after Zia’s party-less 1985 elections, having beaten Benazir’s party, became the prime minister on November 6, 1990.

Apparently, President Ishaq Khan did not think too highly of the blue-eyed boy of his deceased leader. On April 18, 1993, using the omnipotent 58-2(B), he dismissed Sharif’s government. The allegations against Sharif were an echo of accusations against Benazir: “corruption and mismanagement of the economy”.

Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif who went to London on bail for medical treatment, was declared 'absconder' for violating the bail terms. Image Credit: Reuters/file

Sharif stated in a televised address that his removal was a conspiracy of Benazir and ‘drawing room’ plotters: “I wanted to clear the debris of the past...but the enemies of progress did not like this...They tried to stop my hand by conspiracies...My heart is full of secrets. If I reveal all, a multitude of people will take to the streets in expression of anger.”

No ‘secrets’ were revealed, and no one took to any street in support of Sharif.

Benazir became the prime minister again on October 19, 1993. Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari was the new president, one of the most respected PPP leaders, a minister in Bhutto’s 1975 government, and fiercely loyal to Bhutto. A different Pakistan, perhaps? Not so fast.

President Leghari of PPP dismissed Benazir’s government on November 5, 1996.

The Khan factor

The accusations against her were “Karachi killings, disregard for federal institutions, ridiculing the judiciary, and corruption.

Along came Khan.

In April 1996, former cricketer and philanthropist, Imran Khan formed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Khan announced a movement against poverty and corruption. Not much attention was paid to Khan or his party. Fate winked.

Imran Khan cricket
Imran Khan Image Credit: Archives

And before you could enunciate civilian supremacy, Sharif won the new elections, and became the prime minister for the second time on February 17, 1997.

Benazir went into her second self-exile. She returned in 2007. She was assassinated two months later. The first time was after her father’s judicial assassination. She returned in 1986 to a historic response.

Then happened General Pervez Musharraf to Pakistan. Two decades after Bhutto’s hanging on the unproven accusation of conspiracy to murder of his political opponent, Mohammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri, then Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf overthrew Sharif’s government on the accusation of conspiracy to hijack his plane after removing him from his COAS post. It happened on October 12, 1999.

Pervez Musharraf

Sharif was awarded life imprisonment. Musharraf’s ‘government’ approached the Sindh High Court to change that to death sentence. What happened next was the signing of a deal. The shadow of the hanging of Bhutto became the deciding factor or there were other imperatives in play, who is to say. The Sharifs accepted the deal, left Pakistan and went into self-exile in Saudi Arabia. They returned in 2007.

Eleven years of tenuous democracy, Pakistan was back to single-man authoritarian rule. Musharraf did his ‘best’ to rewrite rules of dictatorship, unofficially headed Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, and went on ruling, upending Pakistan’s Constitution as and when it suited his power dynamics, until Benazir’s devastating assassination on December 27, 2007. Pakistan went into a state of collective shock and grief.

Benazir’s PPP, now headed by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, came to power in February 2008 elections. Musharraf resigned from his presidency on August 18, 2008. Zardari became the next president.

Asif Ali Zardari

Musharraf’s self-exile lasted from 2008 to 2013. He returned to contest in the elections to save Pakistan from its ‘corrupt’ rulers. “My heart cries tears of blood when I see the state of the country today. I want to restore the Pakistan I left.” Outside Facebook, there were not many takers for his leadership.

Musharraf charged

In March 2014, in a twist fit to be in a Machiavellian plot, Musharraf was charged by court for treason. He was the first army chief to face that kind of a trial. Musharraf was “accused of unlawfully suspending the constitution and instituting emergency rule in 2007.” His plea is ‘not guilty’. His stance is consistent: the accusations against him are politically motivated. Reportedly, he could face the death penalty if convicted. He is still in self-exile.

Yousaf Raza Gillani was the new prime minister. In June 2012, Gillani was removed by court “for his government's refusal to write to authorities in Switzerland asking them to re-open corruption cases against the president [Zardari].” His government survived.

Swamped in accusations of bad governance and massive corruption, the 2008 PPP government became the first one in the history of Pakistan to complete its term.

Nawaz Sharif became the prime minister again after the May 2013 elections. Third time lucky? Time would tell. And time did.

On July 28, 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Sharif in the Panama Papers case. His government survived.

The allegation of corruption has been a constant motif in removal of prime ministers. The point to be noted: not a single prime minister of Pakistan has finished his or her full term.

In July 2018, a few weeks before the general elections, Sharif arrived from London with his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and was jailed.

On July 25, 2018, Imran Khan, triumphant after twenty-two years of political failure, secured a narrow victory against parties of Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari. Khan became the new prime minister. He formed government in Islamabad, Punjab, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for the second time.

Once sworn in, Khan reiterated his years-long stance: no corrupt leader would be spared or given an NRO.

Sharif remained in jail. NAB cases against opposition leaders made varied headlines. Some calls the process delayed but necessary justice. The opposition and their supporters call it political victimisation. The war of justice and victimisation wages, as Pakistan wrestles with economic instability and its unfortunate consequences, inflation being the main one for millions of Pakistanis.

Musharraf on his departure from Pakistan in 2016 said: “I am a commando and I love my homeland. I will come back in a few weeks or months.” His arrival is still awaited. He is said to be suffering from serious health issues.

Zardari is facing a NAB investigation, is under custody, and is reportedly suffering from serious health issues. He has not been charged, granted bail or released so far.

Sharif allowed to travel

Sharif was moved to a government hospital in October 2019 after his health deteriorated. Due to a dangerously low platelets count, he was given bail and allowed to go abroad for treatment.

Khan government asked for a seven billion-rupee surety bond to allow Sharif to travel abroad. On November 16, the Lahore High Court dismissed the government’s demand. Sharif was given permission to go without posting any surety bond.

A special court announced earlier this week that the verdict against Musharraf would be read on November 28 in the treason case.

Pakistani rulers and courts continue to do their macabre tango.

On November 19, 2019, Sharif in a chartered jet, described as an ICU-fitted air ambulance by Sharif’s chief physician and his party spokespersons, flew to London. The image of the opulent interior of the jet created a pandemonium on social media.

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Barely slept, having spent hours googling dates for various victories, dismissals, coups, jail and exiles, as I think of getting up to have some breakfast, I feel exhausted. A new prime minister, a new government, a new Pakistan, a new hope, a new today, dare I dream? My humanity wishes Nawaz Sharif all the best for his health. The Pakistani in me asks many questions.

When would the system be ‘normal’? When would be the vote the only way for change? Who would be the first prime minister to finish his/her term? When would the process of accountability be fair and transparent, applicable to all? When would the rulers not have to leave Pakistan to save their lives? When would the rulers not flee Pakistan to save their political prospects and their assets? When would the rulers be accountable for their misdeeds without it being labelled political vengeance? When would the law be the same for all Pakistanis? In a Pakistan where countless wait for their appeals to be heard by courts, and many die without getting justice, why is the political elite treated differently?

Prime Minister Imran Khan, on November 18, 2019, reiterated his vow: “Those who looted the country will be held accountable. No one can buy me, and I will not give NRO to anyone.”

Forty years later, Pakistan is still broken.

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