“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. This line from Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is often used to imply that the names of things or people do not affect their nature.
However, the heirs of the leaders of Pakistan’s two mainstream political parties, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif, don’t seem to agree with Shakespeare.
We witnessed this in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, when the country was in a state of chaos. At such a crucial time, when the country needed a leadership to bring it out of the quagmire, the PPP co-chairperson Asif Zardari held a press conference to announce that Bilawal Zardari was henceforth a ‘Bhutto’ too. Thus, the only prerequisite for Bilawal to take over the reins of the PPP was fulfilled.
Over to the PML-N in 2013, Nawaz Sharif’s heir apparent, then known as Maryam Safdar, dropped her marital surname to revert to her maiden name. After all, to stand with her father as the party’s leader-in-waiting, what more did she need than to be associated with brand ‘Nawaz’. Never mind that she had no political experience or political acumen. A mere switch in the surname, and she was good to go.
The fact that both Bilawal and Maryam modified their monikers reflects the unfortunate reality of dynastic politics in Pakistan. Even more disturbing is the acceptance of such an approach by the masses. The Mughals must be proudly watching us from above, seeing how we have upheld their tradition of dynastic rule in the guise of democratic norms.
Family politics has also been associated with the White House – with the names Kennedy, Bush and Clinton. But the dynamics of family politics is different globally. For example, in the US, a voter would not see family politics as a threat to democracy, primarily because the candidate in line is from a system that is based on meritocracy and policy, specifically local policies. The prime example of the US’ meritocracy system are the 2016 presidential elections where Hillary Clinton won the Democrats nomination on merit as per the party’s internal popular vote in competition to Bernie Sanders.
But why do we talk about the US’ dynastic politics, and why should we draw a parallel with Pakistan? Because the institutions in the US work independently and as per the constitution, while the people who are in the race have an equal opportunity to participate in politics.
However, in Pakistan, dynastic politics is one of the reasons why democracy has failed to strengthen and consequently deliver over the years. Our focus remains on serving individuals instead of promoting party interests. A recent example of this is the Panama Papers case. The entire PML-N geared its energies towards defending Nawaz Sharif.
How is it that out of hundreds of stalwarts in major political parties, including the PPP, the PML-N and the ANP, not a single member other than the ruling political family is worthy of leading the party? Should we trick ourselves into believing that leadership is exclusive to certain families only, and they will not give way to even the most competent political workers, merely because they don’t come from a certain lineage?
Both the PML-N and the PPP have become family enterprises where leadership is transferred from one generation to another solely on the basis of bloodlines. How can a surname, caste or tribe be an assurance of a person’s characteristics? How long will it take for us to evaluate a person on the basis of his/her political acumen, integrity and leadership skills?
The strength of a political party lies in creating leadership and building institutions. However, when a political party becomes subservient to the whims of a family or individual, a leadership crisis ensues. Be it ‘Bhutto’, ‘Sharif’ or ‘Khan’, no surname should be the sole reason to be entitled to leadership. After all, what’s in a name?