Dissecting a Dynasty

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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South Asian politics is the politics of the family. And never before have we got such a view from the inside. It’s what gives this book its wider relevance.
Songs of Blood and Sword | Fatima Bhutto | Penguin Books | Rs 699 | 470 pages

To understand how rare a book this is, imagine Varun Gandhi writing about his grandmother and father’s role during the Emergency, or Rahul Gandhi facing up to the question of what his father did in the hours and days following Indira Gandhi’s death as Delhi burnt around him. It took courage and an honesty of purpose for Fatima to go and speak to Khair Bux Marri, the head of the Marri Baloch tribe. Her grandfather’s troops had killed over 10,000 Baloch separatists and she has to convince him, “I am not my grandfather’s keeper.” He shrugs and tells her his truth, a truth she reproduces in the book, “Bhutto was no different from Hitler.”

But that was not all there was to Bhutto, as the book also makes clear. For all his problems, he seemed to have a clear insight into the problems that ail Pakistan, however flawed his later years in power may have been. He realised that the feudal hold of a handful of families had to be broken, that the client-patron relationship with the US had hurt Pakistan far more than it had helped. This is a realisation as valid today as it was then, and not before or since has any Pakistani politician showed signs of acting on it. But in living out his politics, he also managed that unique Subcontinental feat: the founding of a political dynasty.

There have been political dynasties elsewhere as well, but elected dynasties other than the Kennedys seem to be peculiar to South Asia. Certainly, the parallels between the Nehru-Gandhis and the Bhuttos are far too many to be ignored, especially when you consider the post-Partition Pakistan of 1971 and the post-Partition India of 1947. And even if the reading of Zulfikar as a Jawaharlal who held the country together when it mattered the most is a bit of a stretch, the comparison between Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi is not. Similar in their beginnings and their ends, they also shared a disdain for institutions and an authoritarian strain that was focused primarily on preserving their hold on power.

Benazir was burdened, and I use the word because I think in the end that is how Benazir saw it, by a problem Indira Gandhi did not have to face: brothers. Mir Murtaza Ali, Fatima’s father, was the eldest son, and even if younger than Benazir, in the patriarchal culture of Sindh in which the family was rooted, he was the heir apparent to Zulfikar Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). But it was precisely because he was the heir apparent that Murtaza was forced to battle Zia-ul-Haq, the general who hanged his father, from outside the country. Benazir, seen as much the lesser threat, managed to remain within the country, and hence secured control of the PPP.

The battle between Murtaza and Benazir for their father’s legacy is at the heart of this book, and as William Dalrymple blurbs on the cover of the book, ‘If there is anyone born to write this story, it is Fatima Bhutto.’

As a child, she was close to her wadi bua, elder aunt. ‘We were friends, Wadi and I. We liked all the same revolting sweets—mint chocolate chip ice-cream, candied apple skins, and maron glace… We complained of the same problems, ear-aches mainly, and shared an eldest child’s self-importance.’

Fatima may have been close to her aunt, but she adored her father. Her parents were divorced when she was barely three, and her father was the centre of her world. The strain in trying to write honestly about events that concern him, given that she is anything but an objective narrator, shows up often in the text. At times, she unthinkingly echoes the patriarchal feudal structure that surrounds her, decrying the claim to the Bhutto name by Benazir’s children, but what should mar the book is actually its strength. We have never before in South Asia seen the politics of the dynasty written from the inside. From The Mahabharata, right down to the saas bahu serials that so obsess us on television, the family has been at the centre of our society and hence our politics. Whether it is the Congress, the DMK, the National Conference, the Akalis, the Biju Janata Dal or the Shiv Sena, the politics of India and much of South Asia is a politics governed by the dynamics of the family.

This makes for a polity where the reading of a bedtime story by a wadi bua to her niece can be an event of as much importance as a state banquet. As a political journalist, I know that to understand Punjab it is as necessary to understand the subterranean dynamics between Sukhbir Badal and his cousin Manpreet as it is to understand the impact of free power given to farmers. Similarly, in understanding Tamil Nadu, the struggle between Alagiri and his brother Stalin may count for more than any policy announcement.

For the first time we have an insight into this incestuous world of power and personal likes and dislikes. It does not seem to have come easy. Fatima has never ‘buried a loved one who has died of natural causes’, but for one so young, she has managed to put together a book that is not just vital to understanding Pakistan, but the politics of any part of the Subcontinent.