Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, November 21, 2013

South Asian Politics: Dynastic Feuds

I have just finished reading Fatima Bhutto's reconstructed memoir of her father Mir Murtaza Bhutto, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir, published in 2010 by Nation Books. I read the book because I wanted to read what she had written about her grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was prime minister of Pakistan from late December 1971 until July 1977 when he was overthrown in a coup d'etat by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. I also wanted to see what she wrote about her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister from December 1988 until  November 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996 and who was assassinated while campaigning for a third term in December 2007. I had earlier read Benazir's own memoir, Daughter of Destiny aka Daughter of the East. I was disappointed because this contained little about her father's term in office or his personality. I am still disappointed.

Fatima Bhutto's memoir is divided into roughly three parts. In the first part she gives a very party-line rendition of the accomplishments of her grandfather, with no acknowledgement of any political mistakes. Most of what she writes about her grandfather as a man is about the fatherly devotion that he paid to his children through his letters of advice while they were studying at universities in the West. She then writes about her father's struggle to avoid the execution of his father by Zia ul-Haq, which was also the focus of the first part of Benazir's memoir. Her father and uncle Shahnawaz then formed a resistance organization, Al-Zulfikar (the sword), to combat against the Pakistani military regime from Kabul, Afghanistan. The second part deals with her childhood as an exile in Damascus from 1984 to 1994 after her uncle's mysterious death in France, and her father's eventual return to Pakistan a decade later after being elected to parliament in 1994. The final third deals with her father's party political career as the leader of a small splinter party from her aunt's Pakistan People's Party. It ends with her father's murder along with six party workers by police in Karachi in September 1996, which she insinuates was ordered by her aunt. 

From reading this long (441 pp.) memoir one will learn very little about Pakistani politics and very little that is reliable about the main figures of the Bhutto family. Anatol Lieven in his excellent Pakistan: A Hard Country writes that the formula for understanding Pakistani politics is P2K with P being patronage and K kinship. Pakistani politics is about local landlords mobilizing those dependent upon them economically and then mobilizing kinship ties and obligations. There will always be members of the family who will be in disagreement with the party head about political strategy, ideology, or patronage. There is not much in the Fatima Bhutto memoir about ideology or policy. Her aunt took control of the Pakistan People's Party in the early 1980s from Fatima's grandmother, Nusrat Bhutto, while Mir Murtaza and Shahnawaz took the armed struggle route in Afghanistan.

The value of this reconstructed memoir, based on her father's diaries and interviews with her father's friends, is literary as a study in the life of a Third World political exile. The description of a life of privilege leavened by fears of assassination by agents of the enemy regime. The association with other exiles while attending special schools. Fatima makes little of the fact that all the regimes (the Communist regime in Afghanistan, the Kaddafi regime in Libya, and the Assad regime in Syria) that gave her father and uncle generous refuge based on sympathy with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's anti-American politics have either been overthrown or are under siege by their populations. She is too busy denouncing Benazir as a sellout to the Americans and corrupt.  Early on she charges Henry Kissinger with getting revenge of her grandfather for Pakistan going nuclear. She fails to explain that Kissinger was no longer in power when Bhutto was overthrown and executed and that Jimmy Carter, who was president, had pleaded with the Pakistani government to spare his life. It does not occur to her that possibly Zia ul-Haq wanted to establish his independence from America as much as her grandfather did.  Fatima demonstrates with this memoir that she is a loyal daughter, not that she is a competent journalist. 

In 1980 when Sanjay Gandhi "committed suicide" in an flying accident,  Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi drafted her eldest child Rajiv, who was a professional pilot with little interest in politics, as his successor as her heir. Sanjay's widow Maneka was angry about this and challenged her mother-in-law. She ended up carving out an independent parliamentary career for herself as an environmentalist after staging a high-profile walkout from the Gandhi family home. She went on to twice serve as a minister in Indian governments after the assassination of her former mother-in-law. Indira Gandhi feuded with one of her aunts during all of her political career.

Fatima Bhutto implies that her aunt Benazir was guilty of the murder of her father and uncle. It is much more likely that her uncle was murdered by an agent working for the Pakistani government--possibly his wife who failed to go to his aid once he was poisoned and was found guilty of violating France's good samaritan law. Mir Murtaza was probably murdered not at the orders of his sister the prime minister but rather as a warning to his sister. Benazir Bhutto as prime minister had no control over the military, foreign policy, nuclear weapons, and very little control over the police. In Pakistan today civilian governments have about the same powers that civilian governments had in the ABC countries of South America in most of the last century.  

Murtaza Bhutto's hero as a youth was Che Guevara: a man who helped to put in place a vicious dictatorship in his adopted country and then ended his life battling in another country without accomplishing much there. Murtaza's armed struggle was a pinprick that never really threatened the Zia regime. The major accomplishment attributed to it, a hijacking of a PIA flight to Kabul, was probably a provocation by the Pakistani regime rather than something organized by it. Like Guevara, Bhutto was a child of wealth, who accomplished little positive with his life. And like Guevara he died for his beliefs without any concern about living an easy life. 

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