On his drive to Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto must have realised he had underestimated the threat the military regime posed to him. According to several reports, Bhutto, immediately after the coup in 1977, even while he was in “protected custody” in Murree on the orders of General Zia-ul-Haq, was in high spirits and convinced that he would be able to intimidate his captor using his powerful rhetoric.

Bhutto, perhaps till this point, could not imagine that his handpicked army chief, promoted out of turn over six senior generals, this meek and timid looking man, could present a serious danger to him, the most popular and powerful man in the country, loved by the Muslim world, destined to lead it, along with the rest of the Third World. Perhaps he felt his undue favour to the army chief would be too much of a burden on the shoulders of his general.

Arrested on the charge of conspiracy to murder Ahmad Raza Kasuri, his former party member turned vehement critic, an attack that resulted in the killing of Kasuri’s father Nawab Mohammad Kasuri in 1974, soon after his release from “protected custody”, Bhutto was granted bail by the Lahore High Court, despite pressure from the military regime. The case against him was three years old and lacked evidence.

Having been disappointed by the High Court, Zia-ul-Haq took it upon himself to handle the case. Bhutto was arrested again to be tried by the military court. However, soon after, Zia-ul-Haq allowed Bhutto’s case to be heard in the Lahore High Court, where he handpicked a judge with a personal grudge against the former prime minister. The case was heard and Bhutto was found guilty and awarded capital punishment.

An appeal was made to the Supreme Court, but the charismatic prime minister must have realised he was running out of options. The military regime would not allow the judgement to be overturned. It was during this time, while his petition had been filed in the Supreme Court, that Bhutto made his final political move to outmanoeuvre his captor.

His legacy, in a letter

He had been in solitary confinement for a year and in a death cell for the last three months. In a long letter to his daughter Benazir Bhutto, who along with her mother was leading the struggle for his release, Bhutto made his final address. He knew he had lost this battle against Zia-ul-Haq, but he was now looking at another, this one for a legacy. He knew the dictator would do his best to tarnish his memory and his time in office, a prediction that was to come true. While Zia-ul-Haq might even succeed in shaping popular perception temporarily through his propaganda, Bhutto wanted his legacy to be evaluated in a historical framework. While the military regime might kill him, he was to be kept alive by history. The letter was written to his daughter, but it was to be read by the entire world.

Here, Bhutto took a cue from one of his childhood heroes – Jawaharlal Nehru. He had admired Nehru’s non-alignment (refusal to be drawn into a power struggle between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War) and his leadership of the Third World. In his time in power, Bhutto, it seemed, was shaping his legacy on Nehru’s model. It was a brave admission. Bhutto’s years in office were marked by a belligerent relationship with India. He was the architect of the 1965 war. His political shortsightedness led to the 1971 war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Rhetoric against India remained an important part of his political speeches. The modernisation of the army and the introduction of the nuclear programme was his brainchild to combat a more powerful army in the east. And yet here he was, expressing deep admiration for the founder of the modern Indian state.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (right) is remembered as the brightest star to have shone in Pakistan's political sky while Zia-ul-Haq is held responsible for its every vice. (Credit: STF / AFP)

Nehru and Bhutto

At the start of the letter, one senses this conflict within Bhutto as he insists he is not modelling himself after Nehru. It happens to be a coincidence that he is writing to his daughter, his political successor, from jail as Nehru once did. Nehru’s letters to his daughter, compiled in a book called Glimpses of World History, is a modern day classic, which Bhutto had read several times in his youth. Perhaps this conflict was not reflective of the India-Pakistan relationship but rather, Bhutto’s estimation of himself compared to Nehru. Despite his admiration for the statesmanship of the first prime minister of India, perhaps Bhutto felt his own political acumen was even greater than that of his role model. He does not say so. He does not need to. It emerges through the pages of the letter. He does, however, openly admit that Benazir Bhutto would be a greater stateswoman than Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.

Bhutto, in his letter, does not want to be seen as copying Nehru. Maybe his high self-estimation did not allow him to make such an admission. He wants to be known for his originality, explaining how he moulded Marxist ideology to a Pakistani context – Bhuttoism, as he calls it. Regardless of his insistence, the similarities are too obvious. A major part of the letter is an evaluation of global politics, similar to Nehru’s evaluation of global history. Whereas Nehru lived at a time of anti-colonial struggle, a theme that keeps repeating in his letters, Bhutto lived in a post-colonial period, where nation-states were not colonised any more but were still under the imperialistic hegemonic influence of the western world. His entire analysis of global political affairs is tinged with this underlining assumption.

In fact, Bhutto keeps alluding that it is this western imperialistic influence that has led to his downfall, which he regards as synonymous with Pakistan’s fall. He does not say it directly, but once again, he does not need to. Giving the examples of other deposed rulers of the world, Sukarno of Indonesia for example, he talks about how the corrupt military junta of a host country colludes with these imperialist powers to overthrow popular leaders. It is as if he is saying that because he stood up to the interests of the western world, they engineered his overthrow. This is also what several Pakistanis today believe.

While class struggle remains a central feature of Nehru’s analysis of history through his letters, it is this conflict between the military junta and a democratic regime that dominates Bhutto’s discourse on global international relations. He also attempts to bring in a Marxist interpretation but his discomfiture with the theory is too blatant. There are times when he disavows Marxism but then retorts to it at other times. While Nehru’s socialist ideology emerges clearly from his letters, Bhutto’s letter leaves a confusing image of his ideological bearings. In some parts, he seems to be writing to the “western” “imperialist” powers, arguing that a military regime is worse off for their political interests than a democratically elected regime. In other parts, the blame for the political upheavals in Pakistan and other Third World countries is laid on these political interests of the western world.

Different circumstances

Maybe these two distinct approaches of ideology, exhibited by Bhutto and Nehru in their letters, could be due to their respective positions. Nehru, when he wrote his letters, was the rising star of the Indian National Congress. He was still far away from becoming the prime minister of the country. It was, therefore, easier for him to be an ideologue when not in power. Bhutto, on the other hand, had fallen from the pinnacle. He had served as the head of the country for over six years. Perhaps power had diluted his ideology.

Reading Nehru’s letters, it becomes clear they were written primarily for his daughter. It was a father educating his daughter, not just to be his political successor but broadening her knowledge about the world. Bhutto’s letter, on the other hand, hardly has a similar tone. Right from the beginning, even when it starts with “My dearest daughter”, it is clear the letter is addressed to a wider audience. It is an evaluation of Bhutto’s legacy, a justification of his “controversial” decisions, and a listing of all his achievements. It is full of rhetoric where love of the people is described as the ultimate goal of any politician. While Nehru’s letters read smoothly and lay bare the soul of a politician, Bhutto’s letter reads like a desperate attempt of a politician hanging by a thread. It is not to say that it is not beautifully crafted, which it is. It, however, lacks the truth of the soul, which Nehru presents in his letters.

But then again, it is unfair to compare these writings. One was written in a colonial jail, which despite its brutalities followed certain procedures. The other was written from a death cell, in the most desperate of conditions, with the Constitution of the country in abeyance. Even if it lacked the eloquence of Nehru’s writing, it did achieve its purpose. It kept him alive in history, as history relegated Zia-ul-Haq to its darkest dungeons. Bhutto today is remembered as the brightest star to have shone in the political sky of the country, while Zia-ul-Haq is held responsible for its every vice. Zia-ul-Haq might have been successful in executing Bhutto, but it was Bhutto who, thorough his letter, won the final battle.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.