Before I begin, I have a question. Do you think when Bilawal Bhutto Zardari made a speech at BB’s death anniversary this past Thursday, he was speaking impromptu from the heart, or was it from a carefully memorised script?
Well, if he was speaking off the cuff, then given his limited Urdu proficiency and the past record of ridiculously hysterical public outbursts, I must say I am impressed.
On the other hand, if he was speaking from memory, then given the length of the speech and the range of Urdu words used, I must say, I am impressed even more.
After all who doesn’t remember Bilawal’s earlier attempts at public speaking? While researching for this column I came across quite a few of them on the Internet and, despite being inherently empathetic towards young people trying to prove their mettle in the grown-up world, my reaction at each video clip was an involuntary cringe.
And trust me, the bad video links and derogatory titles given to those speeches aren’t helpful either. (This is what happens when you ban Youtube). One such example is the one he delivered on August 4, 2009, where his heavy accent and hysterical screaming makes even the most sympathetic of us wince.
Well, the wincing happens for this particular speech as well, particularly after the opening lines and the strangely rhythmic Asalaam o Alaikum. ‘O no, please somebody make him stop’, you think sort of feeling embarrassed for the poor kid, and cursing whoever is advising him to imitate the trademark Bhutto intonation through his heavy British accent. Why don’t they just let him be?
If Bollywood can embrace Katrina Kaif’s accent and make her their own, then why can’t we embrace BB’s son’s accent and make him our own? In fact I personally find his lilted references to his mother as Be-Nazeeyar, quite endearing. Why can’t his advisors let him retain his individuality and be himself?
But then Bilawal moves on from the initial strangeness and things dramatically improve. There is a little stumbling and a little code switching every now and then, not to mention the gender confusion between ‘takht’ and ‘taaj’ while he quotes from Faiz’s iconic ‘Hum dekhain gai’.
But listening to his 30-minute talk in which he doesn’t consult a piece of paper even once, I am convinced that either the kid is taking Urdu lessons or he is really practicing hard in front of the mirror.
Or maybe he is doing both.
But whatever it is, the fact remains that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is trying. And he is trying very hard. So let’s give him credit at least for that.
If you ask my opinion then based on the seamless flow of rhetoric and a wide range of Urdu vocabulary used, I personally think that there is a brilliant writer at work, and whoever has been given the responsibility of making a Bhutto out of Bilawal, has sure come a long way.
From blatantly emotive opening slogans to the rhetorical questions asked from the audience, from quoting Faiz Saheb’s poetry, to the PPP’s hallmark third person references to unknown forces, the whole speech was a typical example of PPP discourse.
Plus it had a tightly cohesive structure, rich content, and evidence of extensive revision for brevity and punch. As a writer interested in the craft of writing, I am quite curious to know who wrote it.
But repeatedly watching the video, there are times when I doubt my own theory. For instance why would a person who can utter a range of difficult Urdu words like tahaffuz and aghaz-e-haqooq, among many others; not find suitable Urdu words for common phrases and words such as ‘domestic abuse’, ‘property dispute’, ‘1973’, ‘economic policies’, ‘global recession’, ‘inflation’, ‘worker’ etc.
Am I wrong? Was it indeed an impromptu presentation? Or was Bilawal ad libbing every now and then?
But even if Bilawal has mastered his Urdu and oratory skills I am convinced that it will be a long way before he can achieve the iconic status of his mother. And it is unfair to compare him to her, regardless of whether you are biased towards or against him.
For starters, Benazir was an original. Nobody was trying to make a Bhutto out of her. She was not a pawn nor the trump Bhutto card, but a leader whose life, as she herself said, had chosen her.
Her charisma was effortless, her words genuine and her presence always at the helm of affairs. Nobody planned her every move or carefully planted her whenever or wherever necessary.
While Bilawal says all the right things, makes the brave move of owning Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, shows disapproval for the judiciary, and comes out looking good in general, yet at the end of the day a non-partisan cynical observer of Pakistani politics is left with a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouth. Something somewhere doesn’t click.
Is it because these speeches give us a sense of a PPP that is fast becoming a mutual admiration club of the Zardari clan, where all they ever do is praise each other and make ordinary Pakistanis feel left out; or maybe it is the stink of self preservation in the image of white-haired PPP veterans endorsing the leadership of a twenty-something with a powerful family name just because they can’t be leaders enough themselves.
Whatever it is, there is one thing that is definitely making matters worse, and it is that grin on Daddy’s face as he sits there and watches.
No offence to Daddy’s grin, but somebody aware of the black holes this grin burns into the souls of the Pakistani people should advise him to contain it for a bit.
For the sake of his son’s career, if nothing else.
The writer is a teaching fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS. Email: adiahafraz@ gmail.com