Driving down the Mall in Lahore, I saw a large poster mixing familiar faces with those that were less familiar. There was the current Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, wearing spectacles; next to him, but looming larger in the frame, his late wife Benazir Bhutto, her head covered with a chunni. Two others I recognized were the dynasty’s founder, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, broad-shouldered and bald; and the dynasty’s putative heir, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, young, fresh-faced, and confused.

These four faces dominated the poster; but who were the smaller, lesser, people who made up, so to say, the extras? Since the lettering was in Urdu (a language I do not read) I could not decipher their names. But from experience of similar visuals this side of the border I could make an educated guess. The lesser men in the frame must have been local, Lahore-and-Punjab-based, politicians of the Pakistan’s Peoples Party, obliged to put up posters of their leaders to proclaim their loyalty and thus provide legitimacy for their own names and careers. In this respect they were wholly akin to district and state level functionaries of the Congress party in India, who, before an election or when their bosses came visiting, make haste to install hoardings where their own faces, writ small, nestle behind and beyond the larger portraits of Indira, Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul Gandhi.

On my last visit to Pakistan I was often alerted to the similarities between their political style and ours. Thus, on successive days, I encountered evidence on the printed page that consolidated and deepened the impression garnered from that telling poster on the Mall in Lahore. I flew out of India on the 5th of January, which, coincidentally, was the 81st birth anniversary of the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party. That day’s Dawn newspaper had a piece entitled ‘Z. A. Bhutto Remembered’, and written by a Member of the Sindh Assembly. The writer said of the dead man that he ‘gave the people the courage to stand up to the high and mighty and confront any dictator and oppressor’; that he ‘was the architect of a new foreign policy which gave Pakistan a new identity among the comity of nations’; that ‘we have not produced so far anyone to match his wisdom, vision, commitment and achievement, [but] his daughter, the late Benazir Bhutto, was next only to him in her struggle for the rights of all the people of all the provinces of Pakistan’; that ‘his name remains engraved on the hearts of the downtrodden, and his voice is always recognised as the voice of the oppressed of Pakistan’; and that ‘the need of the time is to implement the democratic philosophy of Z[ulfiqar] A[li] B[hutto] to solve the existing problems. The Bhuttos are gone but their legacy will continue for ever’.

The next day, I read an even more fulsome tribute published in the Daily Times of Lahore, this written not by a lowly provincial politician but by a serving Cabinet Minister. In a signed article, extending over three whole columns, Sherry Rehman—currently serving as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Pakistan Government—extolled the life and legacy of one she referred to throughout as Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (or SZAB). She claimed that for SZAB, ‘people’s empowerment was a cause so important that he refused to make any compromises even when his life was at stake; that his ‘model for people-oriented political order opened a definitive chapter for Pakistan’s politics’; that he ‘drew an entire political class, from the darkness of the urban ghetto and the dirt-poor village, into the sunshine of public life’; that he ‘devoted all his energies to the implementation of the pledges he made to the public that voted him to power’; that his ‘contributions to an impregnable Pakistan stand tall in the form of major industrial, commercial and military establishments that still serve as the backbone of the country’s economy’; that he ‘gave Pakistan the strongest institutional foundations by drawing up the 1973 Constitution, and building the consensus so vital to democratic processes in its signing’; that ‘Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, two leaders of global stature, both snuffed out in the prime of their lives, continue to stand relevant to Pakistan’s politics’; that ‘the two Bhuttos brought a consistent strain of democratic politics into the tumultuous history of Pakistani politics’; and finally, that ‘it is the Bhutto ethos that has given our government the integrity, commitment and the courage to fight the onerous challenges in the way of a stable
Pakistan’.

There are serving Cabinet Ministers in the Government of India who have written (or spoken) in similar fashion about Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Any progress or achievement, modest or substantial, that India or Indians might have achieved in any sphere is attributed to their wisdom and foresight. On the other hand, no weakness or error is ever admitted. Fortunately, the field is not entirely filled with self-serving chamchas; writers with no axe to grind, no career to protect or advance, have given us their own, independent, assessments of these politicians and their legacies. In the case of the Bhuttos, we can thus juxtapose, to the paeans of praise above, some excerpts from Tariq Ali’s recent book The Duel. The author says of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s five years in power that ‘self-defense, self-love, self-preservation, and sycophancy became the overpowering characteristics of his administration’. He adds that ‘a personality-driven, autocratic style of governance had neutered the spirit of Bhutto’s party, encouraged careerists, and finally paved the way for his enemies. He was the victim of a grave injustice; his death removed all the warts and transformed him into a martyr… The tragedy led to the PPP’s being treated as a family heirloom, which was unhealthy for both party and country’.

As a student of modern Indian history, I can confirm that this chacterization can largely serve for the Congress and its first family, too. Indira Gandhi’s regime was likewise marked by sycophancy and self-preservation, the two coming together with deadly effect in the Emergency. Her style of administration was autocratic. However, these and other deficiencies have been retrospectively annulled by the brutal manner of her death. Her martyrdom permitted her politically under-qualfied son to succeed her; later, his own violent death at the hands of terrorists consolidated the claims of the family to the reins of the Congress, an identification which, here like there, has unquestionably been ‘unhealthy for both party and country’.

Like Bhutto and Benazir, Indira and Rajiv met violent deaths. However, while they encouraged sycophancy in their lifetime, they were perhaps not quite as consumed by self-love as the Bhuttos, father and daughter. Sonia Gandhi is nowhere near as base, vulgar, corrupt or malevolent as Asif Ali Zardari. And the jury is still out on Rahul (as it must be on Bilawal).

In terms of personal likeability the advantage may rest with the Indians. But in terms of structure and process the two parties, and nations, are wholly comparable. The parallels between the PPP and the Congress are at once striking as well as depressing. Here, like there, the ruling party and government is dominated by a single family. The political culture is thus steeped in a deference and sycophancy that sits oddly with nations proclaiming to be democratic and parties professing to be egalitarian and modern.