Staff Pick: Politics and Elections

November is the month of the US presidential election so our theme for this month’s Staff Pick is Politics and Elections. Read on for recommendations from Yale University Press London staff.


November’s Staff Pick – The Bhutto Dynasty

Key Accounts Executive, Philip Dyson, recommends The Bhutto Dynasty by Owen Bennett-Jones

After listening to Owen Bennett-Jones’ BBC podcast series The Assassination, I had to read his new book with Yale, The Bhutto Dynasty. Bennett-Jones has a way of pulling you right into the thick of the political intrigue, drama and backstabbing that makes you feel like you’re reading a thriller, but even more chillingly, it is all about real events.

Before reading The Bhutto Dynasty, I knew little about Pakistan other than that it partitioned from India in 1947 and a few other related details. The Bhuttos, never far from the seats of power, or from the development of Pakistan’s identity, provide a ‘good vehicle for telling the history of Pakistan as a whole’ and their complicated lives were the perfect lens through which to learn more about this country and its people. Not only did this give me a glimpse of a completely different part of the world, but it also brought to mind certain parallels with the current political situation in the US.

Bennett-Jones takes us through the whole history of the Bhuttos, focusing on key figures in the family. He begins with Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto who, in the nineteenth century, used his British colonialist counterparts to his advantage, enabling him to gain land and influence, as well as avoiding allegations of murder and corruption. The ascendance of Zulfikar Bhutto, who tried to push against colonialist and Western influences and was instrumental in creating the Pakistani constitution, is fascinating. He was eventually hanged by a military tribunal for crimes against the state and was replaced by a brutal, decade long military dictatorship under General Zia-ul-Haq. However, the most striking part for me was the section on Zulfikar’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, the first elected female leader of a Muslim county and at 35 years of age no less, who fought tirelessly for a new, democratic Pakistan that focused more on its poor than its guns, although struggled to do so against the backdrop of a deeply chauvinistic and aggressive elite – not that it’s that simple, of course, and among other things, Benazir has been tied to corruption charges and other nefarious situations. Until she was finally, there were numerous attempts, assassinated in 2007, she made a huge impact on Pakistani politics and the Islamic world in general. How that will play out in the longer term, it is still too early to tell.

While none of the larger-than-life characters in the Bhutto dynasty were without their faults, sometimes serious ones, what came across most clearly was their dedication to creating a democratic state that did not rely on military force for internal struggles and helped its poor. It’s a story of hopes constantly dashed, but a family that has shown resilience and defiance in the face of failure. One thing that constantly comes to play is the role of the military, and the authoritarian tendencies of many of the political players.

This made me reflect on the current US election, and the tools of voter suppression being used by Republicans to disenfranchise poorer and ethnic minority voters. What particularly raised hairs was the suggestion that voters in the US might need to present ID cards at the polling booths, a tactic used by Benazir’s opponents to disqualify her main power base, the poor communities of Pakistan. As Benazir Bhutto described her own situation in Pakistan, “while Zia had tried to disqualify candidates, his successors were disqualifying voters”. Similar tactics, such as Republican senator Greg Abbott’s move to reduce postal vote drop off points to one per county (which would include Houston, with a population of 2 million registered voters) and now upheld in the unbalanced Supreme Court are concerning. The story of Pakistan and the Bhuttos provides a chilling warning to these moves in the US and makes us conscious of how fragile our democratic values are.

But it also provides hope. Benazir Bhutto, who had been in exile from 1984 after being imprisoned numerous times, returned again to try force elections. She landed in Lahore on 10 April 1986. Her welcome by her party and its supporters was expected to be large, but it was far beyond anything even her supporters had expected. As Bennett-Jones describes it, “…[i]t is impossible to count crowds that big, but everyone could agree it was hundreds of thousands strong and even sober commentators wondered if it reached over a million.” If only Trump could have claimed the same for his inauguration. Likewise, despite voter suppression tactics, people continued to turn up to vote and her party won 38.7% of the vote – not enough for a full majority, but enough to stop another military dictatorship. In the US, I hope the increased publicity surrounding voter suppression will not only galvanise more to vote (and early indications show that voter turnout is likely to be higher than ever) but also remind us that the fragile values of democracy are not just there to be put aside when they are inconvenient, they are essential to a just and fair state.

The Bhutto Dynasty was a thrilling read but also a chilling one. From poisonings to land grabs, from constitution making to corruption, it tells the amazing story of the formation of a country and the struggle for its identity. It’s also a timely reminder that nothing is permanent, and if you don’t fight back, you can lose all you’ve gained.


Other Recommendations

Communications Manager and Publicity Lead, Heather Nathan recommends The Maisky Diaries edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky

As a publicist back in 2015, I worked on an exhilarating publicity campaign for the original hardback publication of The Maisky Diaries. As Soviet wartime ambassador to London between 1932 – 1943, Ivan Maisky assiduously kept a diary which grippingly documented the events surrounding the Second World War including the negotiations which led to the signature of the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact and Churchill’s rise to power. When this book first appeared on our schedule, the complete diaries spanning three volumes and edited and annotated by historian Gabriel Gorodetsky were already in train as part of Yale’s Annals of Communism series, but his editor Robert Baldock also saw potential in bringing together the most compelling highlights for a general readership.

And he was right –  Ivan Maisky was an utterly compelling diarist and the coverage The Maisky Diaries received extensive and laudatory – in his Sunday Times review Max Hastings said that Maisky’s diaries made “a significant contribution to the historiography of his time, for which his editor deserves congratulations”, and Nicholas Shakespeare writing for the Telegraph thought ‘its candid depictions of the British political and social scene . . . are a find of historic importance and fascination.” A very special book which epitomises Yale University Press’s mission and one that I felt incredibly fortunate to work on.

You can read a few extracts from our ‘Meet Ivan Maisky’ series here.


Academic Marketing Manager, James Williams recommends Whistleblowers by Alison Stanger

This history of whistleblowing in America came out last year just as the details of the whistleblower complaint against Donald Trump, which led to him being impeached for soliciting foreign electoral intervention, became public.  Author, Alison Stanger was fantastic to work with, always on hand to provide expert commentary on what was the major news story of the day.  The book is a fascinating read, covering everything from whistleblowers in the American Revolutionary War, right up to Edward Snowden’s revelations and the dishonesty of Donald Trump.  The concluding chapter of the book, Why America Needs Whistleblowers, feels especially relevant today.

If you are interested to know more about the US elections, please read here.


Rights Manager, Olivia Willis recommends How to Rig An Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas

Authors Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas draw on their personal experiences to show how elections can be sabotaged, and how effective it can be as a tool to undermine the opposition and retain control. I found it entertaining and frightening in equal measure! Also, loved both the hardback and paperback design. 

Watch Watch co-author Brian Klaas explain election rigging here.

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