The news channels were crowded with talk of dynastic politics and its dangers after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and the obvious comparisons with the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty were drawn. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Benazir make up a grisly sequence of political assassination that invites generalization about martyrdom and subcontinental politics. And it isn’t just India and Pakistan: Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have had their share of dynasts whose claim to power has been underwritten by deaths in the family.
The comparison between the two ‘dynasties’ is useful not for any conclusions about dynastic politics in south Asia, but for the insight it gives us into the fundamental differences in the politics of the two republics. If you start with the patriarchs, Jawaharlal and Shah Nawaz, both of them studied in England and later achieved political eminence. The difference was that Shah Nawaz Bhutto ended his career as the knighted dewan of a princely state, Junagadh (which he tried, unsuccessfully, to lever into Pakistan), while Nehru finished as the first prime minister of the Indian republic.
Their successors, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi, can both be classified as populist political figures, but the category is misleading. Indira, however divisive and authoritarian she later became, came to power as the chosen leader of a political party whose legitimacy was based upon its anti-colonial credentials and its inclusive politics.
Bhutto’s early political career was based on opportunistic collaboration with Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship and his popularity as foreign minister, and later as prime minister, was wholly based on revanchism, first on the matter of Kashmir and later the nuclear bomb. “Roti, kapda aur makan” was a slogan used by both leaders to win election victories, but as the leader of a republic founded as a Muslim homeland, Bhutto’s populism was mortgaged to political Islam. This was evident even before he founded the Pakistan People’s Party, when, in 1966, he began distancing himself from Ayub with the slogan: “Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy.” This undercurrent surfaces when, as president, he approved a new constitution for Pakistan that made it an “Islamic Republic” and then again when he amended that constitution to declare Ahmediyas non-Muslims in response to fundamentalist pressure.
Mrs Gandhi’s flirtation with Hindu identity even at the height of the Khalistan movement was covert because India’s political nature had been consolidated by a pluralist nationalist movement and signed and sealed by its constitution. Because Pakistan was founded as a Muslim homeland, the question of how this Muslimness was to be incorporated into its republican identity constantly disrupted its politics. Bhutto used Muslim populism as a lever with which to unsettle Ayub Khan’s koi hai dictatorship, only for it to consume him, when militant mullahs and another military dictator outbid him in the auction for the ownership of Pakistan’s Islamic identity.
The reason the Bhutto and the Nehru/Gandhi families are different is on account of the contexts in which they achieve power. India became a stable democratic state because it avoided the politics of majoritarian identity. Nehru and his descendants sought power with a settled parliamentary system. The legitimacy, the hegemony of this system was such that even when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, it didn’t occur to the general staff of the Indian army to intervene. The Congress’s prestige and its tenure in power after Independence had settled the matter of civilian authority. The army was a subordinate arm of a parliamentary state, not its guardian. In Pakistan, however, the legitimacy of the State is vested in an inchoate Muslimness, not parliamentary institutions tended by substantial political parties. This Muslimness was opportunistically used by both the military and by populists like the Bhuttos to shore up their authority, but the idea they sought to use used them up in the end because the only people who had a definition for a Muslim state were fundamentalists like Mawdoodi.
The Bhuttos don’t, in fact, resemble the ‘dynasty’ that Nehru inadvertently founded. Bhuttoism and the politics of the PPP are a variant of Peronism, and the history of Pakistan resembles the history of one of South America’s uniformed republics more than it does India’s. For Peronism or its like to flourish you need generals in the foreground. Latin American republics like Argentina have traditionally featured populist politicians half opposed to and half in bed with powerful military establishments, with both politicians and generals hand-in-glove with the church. In Pakistan, traditional schools of jurisprudence with their ulema and powerful sufi silsilahs used to make up the religious establishment. But increasingly, the running in matters of religion is made by a feral fundamentalism that subverts every institution that tries to harness it.
Even the agendas that drove political assassinations in the two countries were different in nature. Both Mrs Gandhi and her son were killed by assassins acting on behalf of ‘nationalist’ movements for self-determination that wanted to secede from existing nation states, namely India and Sri Lanka. Benazir Bhutto, on the other hand, was killed by assassins who, regardless of who instructed them, were, in a grotesque way, internationalists, willing to die for a cause that seeks not to break up Pakistan but to annex it to a Caliphate that exists only in fundamentalist theory.
Asif Zardari and his son, Bilawal, are now the stewards of the PPP and it can be argued that this mirrors the Congress’s present circumstance, where Sonia Gandhi is the president of the party and her son, Rahul, is being groomed as the heir apparent. The difference lies in the fact that in India political assassinations haven’t derailed democratic processes, though they have influenced them.
Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto, despite the corruption and violence that tainted their careers, were seen as symbols of democratic possibility. In this lay their charisma and because of this, their ‘martyrdoms’ created huge amounts of political capital which their successors tried to use. But electoral democracy is normal in India; as a result, the idea of a bloody family altar at which the people are asked to worship, begins to deliver diminishing returns. The assassination of Mrs Gandhi saw her son sweep the polls. His death, however, delivered no such political dividend because Indian politics wasn’t a psychodrama starring generals and shaheeds.
The reason the Congress is a political party in decline is because its politics turn on the idea of an all-sacrificing First Family. In Pakistan, in contrast, given the aftermath to Benazir’s assassination, the dynastic principle seems alive and well.