First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

First As Tragedy, Then As Farce
Karl Marx wrote that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice; the first time as a (grand) tragedy, the second time as (rotten) farce. The quote was rooted to similar phrases written by Hegel and Engels.

Looking at the appearance of two Bhuttos; i.e. Zulfikar A Bhutto and Bilawal Z Bhutto on the Pakistani political horizon, the value of the quote is evident.

ZA Bhutto was a charismatic leader who began his career as the well-educated scion of a feudal family but largely unknown outside the social circle of his family and friends. Yet, when his time came, he made his mark on the internal politics of the country, orchestrated and led the regional alliance of Muslim nations, hosted second OIC heads of states conference and organised strategic defiance to Western and Indian hegemony. His career spanned a difficult time for the nation that had been traumatised by division of the nation and where democracy had crumbled under two successive juntas.

In his socialist streak, he gave voice to the ordinary labourers, peasant farmers, industrial workers, petty artisans, poor vendors and lower-class employees. He made them members of legislatures, taught them dignity and made them stakeholders in the future of the nation. He was praised by Mao Zedong and Bertrand Russell. In fact, he was the last foreign guest that the aged and frail Mao agreed to meet.

On the national front, he created institutions like the HMC Taxila, PAEC Kamra, Kahuta Nuclear Program, Islamic Ideology Council, Federal Flood Commission, Port Qasim Authority, Pakistan Steel Mills, Pakistan Academy of Letters and the Engineering Council.

In the educational field, during the first four years of his government, 6,500 primary, 900 middle, 407 high, 51 intermediate and 21 degree institutions were built. New universities at Multan, Bahawalpur, DI Khan and Khairpur were established. He also started the Open University. Allama Iqbal Medical College Lahore, People’s Medical College for Women Nawabshah, Chandka Medical College Larkana, Bolan Medical College Quetta, Khyber Medical College Peshawar and some more, all commenced during his government. He established Institute of Theoretical Physics, Quad-e-Azam University Islamabad, some cadet colleges and many institutions of higher education.
Bilawal is a far cry from the stature of his grandfather; an al-Amin to an al-Rashid, a Commodus to a Marcus Aurelius, a Muhammad Shah to an Aurangzeb. He doesn’t even play the role well

Bhutto implemented passport reforms. For the first time since independence, the passport became a civic right and not a bureaucratic privilege. He initiated the system of the National Identity Card. Through his personal influence with the Middle East leaders, he opened up market for workers in the Muslim nations of Middle East and North Africa. That lowered poverty, raised living standards across the country and reduced the income gap. He introduced old age benefits and pension schemes for industrial and office employees in the private sector.

Mao Zedong receives Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Contrary to Indian expectations, he played cool and let the world opinion build in our favour on the tricky issue of 90,000 POWs in Indian prison camps and nearly 10,000 square kilometres of West Pakistan land under Indian occupation since our capitulation in December 1971. Finally, the prisoners came home and territory was released without agreeing to any more severe Indian conditions.

Bhutto gave us a meaningful constitution; one that has been held in abeyance several times but never abrogated. The constitution had held the country together and is the only hope left for its survival.

No doubt ZA Bhutto erred on many fronts; but he was a leader and like any leader, he had strengths and he had weaknesses. He was an Achilles with an Achilles' heel. His massive nationalisation policy was an economic and educational disaster. His dictatorial tendencies harmed democracy, which he should have strengthened for his own and the nation's good. He conceded too much ground to religious parties; strangely forgetting that it would only sharpen their appetite.

His life ended in a tragedy. It was a grand tragedy that the politics, judiciary and the military of this nation have not been able to overcome. It's like a bone stuck in the throat, an unbroken nightmare and an upswept mess. One cause of this tragedy was his overestimation of his own cleverness that allowed his detractors to corner him. When he was forcibly dethroned by the praetorian guards, he had lost much of public support; the bedrock of his strength. His high-handedness, suppression of dissent and undemocratic behaviour brought him down. Three of his children, including Benazir, the brightest of them, too died later in violence. His wife suffered incarcerations and police brutality. No doubt, his life was a tragedy.

As predicted by Hegel, Marx and Engels, the legacy of the tragedy has given birth to a farce; a rotten farce that masquerades as the grand tragedy but fools no one.

Bilawal is a far cry from the stature of his grandfather; an al-Amin to an al-Rashid, a Commodus to a Marcus Aurelius, a Muhammad Shah to an Aurangzeb. He doesn’t even play the role well. He is a pampered child turned into a pampered youth – groomed for high offices where he can contribute nothing. As foreign minister, his achievements have been his costly jaunts on official aircraft to God knows how many countries, with little to show for them.

ZA Bhutto was a rare orator who could cast a spell over the learned and the powerful. Bilawal Bhutto is not taken seriously – least of all by the illiterate or the ignorant that he so patronizingly addresses in stage managed political events in his native, interior Sindh. While the original tragedy could speak extempore for hours, to the literate and the unlettered alike, switch randomly from economy to politics or from history to philosophy, mesmerising his audience with his command of the subject, the mimicking farce on the other hand reads out prepared notes. His facial expressions don't match his words, his stresses are at the wrong spaces, his smiles are odd (perhaps his notes say “smile”) and his demeanour is fake.

This author was privileged to hear Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in person twice: once in a public gathering where he electrified the crowd and second in an official function where he left the audience awestruck. The author also heard Bilawal in a public gathering at a hotel and felt sorry for him and wished that he had been allowed to lead the life that his cousin of the name Zulfikar is living. I doubt that either of them is cognizant of the legacy thrust upon them.

ZA Bhutto had the undefinable x-factor. He had charisma and his intellect radiated in every gathering he attended. Bilawal Bhutto is the playacting foreign minister in the cabinet of a playacting prime minister in a playacting government, supported by a playacting parliament. In official functions, he appears as though he were chirping, standing beside a bumbling clown.

ZA Bhutto had rare intellect that floated on the surface and illumined his surroundings. He could be hated or loved but never ignored. There is nothing in Bilawal to hate or love but there is plenty of emptiness for him to be ignored. ZAB was never under anyone’s shadow even when he was in the cabinet of Ayub. Bilawal at the ripe age of 35 has yet to prove that he is his own man. The senior Bhutto could be maligned for much but never for financial corruption; the junior on the other hand is smeared with sleaze, if not of his own doing then certainly of the ‘weight of another kind’ that he is born with.

Marx also wrote that there are conditions which enabled "a grotesque and mediocre personality to play a hero's part." Elsewhere he wrote that "[...] Every giant [...] presupposes a dwarf, every genius a hidebound philistine [...] The first are too great for this world, and so they are thrown out. But the latter strike root in it and remain." How apt it seems, when one thinks of a giant followed by a dwarf (intellectually) or a genius followed by a hidebound philistine. Tragically for this nation, the grandfather was feared by the powerful establishment and thrown out, and his party has been cut down to the size of his grandson, who is a puppet in the hands of the same establishment.

Pakistan has been unfortunate that it has failed to produce any leader that kept his own well-being subservient to national good. It was said of the British that they always produce the right leader for every critical moment. Whether or that happened, it is certainly the case that our own country came to many crossroads – and each time it was led on the wrong path. This is a nation that learned no lessons from the East Pakistan debacle and from the terrible losses suffered during the Soviet- and US-led Afghan wars. For every critical phase in our history, we unfailingly produced the wrong leader.

May God have mercy on us and instead of making us die a slow painful death, as with Sudan and Yugoslavia, perhaps it would be better if he blessed us with a quick death to enable us to start afresh.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: