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Liaquat’s singular contribution – today is the 61st death anniversary of Liaquat Ali Khan

Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan was, of course, the Prime Minister of Pakistan from August 15, 1947, onwards, but it was only in the wake of the Quaid’s demise that his leadership capabilities were put to test. And it is during the next three critical years (1948-51) that his multi-faced and compelling personality emerges the most conspicuously.

To say that Liaquat was the first Prime Minister of Pakistan means saying a great deal. It means that he enjoyed Jinnah’s confidence to the hilt – a no mean achievement in itself. His confidence meant that Jinnah had found him sincere, able, hard-working and true to the cause he stood and struggled for. Hence Jinnah’s description of Liaquat as his “right hand” man and, by implication, his political heir, which was demonstrably reflected in his being chosen as Prime Minister.
It also means that except for the Quaid himself, Liaquat stood foremost in the galaxy of Muslim leadership in India at that forking point in history. Jinnah had picked out Liaquat in 1936 when he got him elected as General Secretary of the All India Muslim League (AIML) at its Bombay session. This office Liaquat held for eleven years, the most critical period in Muslim India’s history since 1857. He was also the longest serving General Secretary of the AIML, even out-serving the legendary Sir Wazir Hasan.
This was, however, only the beginning of his career as an all-India Muslim leader. He would become Deputy Leader of the Muslim League Party in the Central Assembly in 1940, member of the Committee of Action in 1943, Chairman of the Central Parliamentary Board in 1945, and leader of the Muslim League bloc in the Interim Government in October 1946, before being named as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in August 1947.
These were some of the highest offices a Muslim could occupy in pre-Partition India. More remarkable, Liaquat could fill them in with singular success and distinction. The 1937-47 decade was, however, a period of apprenticeship for him, a period when his crisis-management abilities, his intellectual prowess, his integrity, and his steadfastness to the cause he avowedly stood for, were tried and tested. And he did make the grade. That’s why he was catapulted to the highest executive slot.
In terms of his political acumen during this apprenticeship period, three major events stand out. First, at the Meerut Divisional Conference in March 1939, he propounded partition as the most rational solution to India’s constitutional problem. Coming on the heels of the Sind Provincial Muslim League Conference’s resolution of October 1938, this came as a shot in the arm to the proponents of partition. This because, in a more concrete sense, Liaquat represented Central League’s thinking on India’s daunting constitutional problem, and Jinnah himself was present at the Meerut gathering. Second, in his interview with Sir Stafford Cripps in December 1939, he proposed three options – the provincial option (ie, each province be given the option to join in an Indian federation or not), a loose confederation with a limited centre, and outright partition between Hindus and Muslims. Remarkably though, these three options constituted the basics of the three major British proposals during the 1940s – the Cripps Plan (1942), the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946) and the Mountbatten Plan (1947).
Third, in his talks with Bhulabhai Desai, leader of the Congress Party in the Central Assembly in 1944, he proposed a parity between Congress and the League in any future set-up at the Centre. And it became the core point in the Desai-Liaquat formula. This was the first time this cardinal principle which the League had demanded in any coalitional set-up since 1938 but was stoutly denied, had been finally conceded by the Congress at any level. Once lifted beyond the pale of controversy, this key provision became the basis for the quota of seats for Hindus and Muslims/Congress and the League in the subsequent Wavell Plan (1945) and the Interim Government (1946) proposals. Thus, Liaquat’s contribution, though little appreciated at the time, assumes a milestone status in getting the principle of parity accepted, when evaluated in terms of political developments in the 1940s.
Jinnah was reportedly a little “unhappy” about Liaquat having contracted the “Pact” behind his back (since he lay ill at Matheran). But since Jinnah was fully alive to both its significance and its long-term implications, he accepted Liaquat’s “explanation” and exonerated him of any “breach of trust”, which Sir Yamin Khan alleges in his Nama-i-Aamal. This was in sharp contrast to the treatment that Bhulabhai Desai, leader of the Congress in the Assembly, had received at the hands of his Congress colleagues. Though blessed by Gandhi in his talks with Liaquat at the time, and despite Desai’s critical contribution in the INA trials (1945) and in getting the prosecution charges of “treason” quashed, Bhulabhai Desai was even denied a Congress ticket in the 1945-46 elections. Soon after, Desai, despite his great services to the Congress, died, broken-hearted – unwept, unsung, and unhonoured.
All said and done, the acid test for Liaquat came in the wake of Jinnah’s death in September 1948. Some American circles, for instance, speculated whether the desire for a separate existence among Muslims would survive the catastrophic event. Even George Bernard Shaw wrote to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on September 18, 1948, “I am wondering whether the death of Jinner [Jinnah] will prevent you from coming to London. If he has no competent successor you will have to govern the whole Peninsula.”
Unassuming all the time, never seeking the limelight and content to work behind the scenes under Jinnah’s towering shadow, almost no one thought that Liaquat could bring to the fore the sort of leadership qualities which he did during Pakistan’s greatest crisis caused by Jinnah’s death. But the deft manner in which Liaquat tackled problems, and consolidated Pakistan surprised almost everyone and won him recognition, both at home and abroad. “No one played more successfully the role of Cavour to his leader’s Mazzini,” remarked The Times of India (Bombay). “He guided the fortunes of his country with a certainty which amounted to genius,” wrote The Statesman (Calcutta).
During the next three years, Pakistan was confronted with some new problems, besides the old ones. First was to belie the assumption that Pakistan would collapse once it had to face the continuing partition problems without the guidance of the Great Leader – the assumption that provoked Dawn to proclaim “Quaid-i-Azam is dead: Long live Pakistan”. Though by no means easy, Liaquat ably filled in the vacuum caused by Jinnah’s exit from the scene.
Second, Jinnah’s exit emboldened India to go on the offensive in a big way. Within twelve hours of Jinnah’s burial, it got an invasion of the Hyderabad state mounted, and had it occupied within five days. In September 1949, New Delhi imposed a trade embargo, putting Pakistan to a severe economic strain since India was at that time the largest buyer of Pakistani jute, the country’s premier cash crop. Early in 1950, the Indian Prime Minister threatened to use “other methods” in East Bengal, and Indian troops were amassed within the striking distance of West Pakistan, in order to pressurise Pakistan into accepting New Delhi’s diktat on the minorities’ question. Again, in July 1951, India amassed her troops on West Pakistan’s borders. Each time Liaquat stood his ground, took effective measures to counter the Indian moves, each time he showed courage, determination and statecraft. And as a direct outcome of his stance, at once bold and extremely consequential, each time he was able to galvanise the nation as a solid phalanx, forcing New Delhi to climb down.
Meantime, Liaquat consolidated what had been accomplished during Jinnah’s life-time, enlarged upon it and carried the onerous process of building Pakistan forward. Thus, he accomplished a good deal in making Pakistan a going concern and a growing enterprise. Internally, Pakistan was politically stable, and, though still short of resources, economically buoyant.
Simultaneously, he initiated policies designed to enable Pakistan to play her due role in the comity of nations and world fora. He strengthened Pakistan’s still tentative links with several Muslim countries, extended support to liberation movements in Indonesia, Malaya, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Nigeria, called the first International Islamic Economic Conference in February 1951, which was attended, among others, by the Grand Mufti of Palestine, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, and Abdullah Usman of Somalia. He used diplomatic skills to garner support abroad in Pakistan’s disputes with India, especially on Kashmir. Likewise, he was extremely successful in selling Pakistan’s viewpoint during his extremely rewarding official visit to the United States in May 1950.
Thus, internationally Pakistan was able to carve out for herself a place in the comity of nations. It was courted by the big powers, as indicated by Liaquat being invited by both Moscow and Washington for an official visit.
“Three years of Liaquat Ali Khan’s leadership,” said Sir Olaf Caroe, one-time governor of the then NWFP, “carried Pakistan through difficulty and crisis to the achievement of a degree of political stability rare in any democratic country… of economic prosperity beyond her rosiest dreams, and of an honoured place in the affairs of nations.”
(The writer is HEC Distinguished National Professor, has recently co-edited Unesco’s History of Humanity, vol. VI, and The Jinnah Anthology (2010) and edited In Quest of Jinnah (2007), the only oral history on Pakistan’s founding father)