Another Bhutto, another era

Bilawal Bhutto’s politics is a mix of the old and the new

Another Bhutto, another era


ver the last decade, several young leaders have emerged on the country’s political horizon. Most of them carry forward the old-fashioned politics of their elders. Others appear to chart their own political journeys. Leaders like Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, stand out because of their politics – a mix of his father Asif Ali Zardari’s preference for reconciliation; his mother Benazir Bhutto’s brilliance, bravery and resilience; his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s confidence in the power of the people; and his own views on good governance.

Prominent among Pakistan’s young leaders these days are Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Aseefa Bhutto Zardari from the PPP; Maryam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz; Maulana Asad Mehmood from the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl; Aimal Wali Khan from the Awami National Party; and Hafiz Naeem-ur Rehman from Jamaat-i-Islami. Each has a following of hundreds of thousands of people in their strongholds. However, Bilawal, some argue, has not only won the support of people in his party’s stronghold of Sindh but also beyond it, leaving footprints in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Punjab, Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir.

To understand Bilawal’s politics, one must study his life. As a child, he saw his mother running state affairs during 1993-96. After 1996, he witnessed his father going to jail and his mother appearing before courts across Pakistan.

Towards the end of 1998, this scribe saw Benazir Bhutto visiting her jailed spouse Asif Zardari in Kot Lakhpat Jail along with her son, Bilawal, and daughters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa. Soon after they left, this scribe met Zardari at the jail’s superintendent’s office. During the informal chat, he was asked about the sentiments of his children, especially Bilawal, on seeing him in jail. He responded, “When Bilawal meets me in jail, he tries to conceal his emotions behind his hand-held game, which he carries with him. He doesn’t like to show his weakness.”

Bilawal saw his mother leave the country in 1999 because she realised that Justice Malik Qayyum was going to convict her. It was painful for her and the children to leave Zardari behind in jail. However, Zardari persuaded Benazir to go into a self-imposed exile. At the time, Bilawal was just 10.

For almost five years, Benazir raised him single-handedly in Dubai. At last, Zardari was released in 2004 and joined the family in Dubai. Bilawal then had three years with his parents. In 2007, Benzair decided to return to Pakistan despite facing security threats. This would be her last trip to her homeland. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh. Bilawal’s attachment to his mother and the measure of personal loss in her death is reflected in his tearful eyes, whenever he speaks about her.

Bilawal had closely observed his parents’ politics. His keenness for reconciliation, derived from his father’s vision, is mirrored in his friendly gestures towards his rivals. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who had made a habit of insulting other politicians, was left embarrassed when Bilawal met and addressed him respectfully.

Bilawal Bhutto has shown the courage to challenge powerful quarters and make bold decisions like his mother and grandfather. Launching the election campaign this year was a daring step considering all other political parties were sceptical about the February 8 polls schedule. Bilawal was also facing threats from terrorist networks. Bilawal also challenged powerful quarters for supporting a rival party during the recent elections. His father tried to calm down the situation by famously saying, “He is inexperienced but will learn soon.”

The next day, in a rally in Quetta, Zardari placed his turban on Bilawal’s head, indicating that he was the ultimate decision maker in the party.

The young PPP chairman has been advocating the rule of law and human rights. His was among the few voices raised against human rights violations following the police crackdown in the aftermath of the May 9 riots. It has been argued that the PTI erred in failing to respond to his gesture.

As a statesman, he exhibited his ability as the foreign minister during the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s one-and-a-half-year rule. Bilawal’s resemblance – in his physical appearance and gestures – to his mother and grandfather worked well for him, especially in meetings with foreign dignitaries, who saw another Bhutto in him.

As a politician, Bilawal is trying to establish a strong connection with the masses and party workers. Sometimes, he is seen overruling his father’s decisions and pushing ahead with his own, for instance for the election of Ajiz Dhamra for a Senate seat in 2018 (when Zardari had decided to nominate Aqeel Karim Dhedhi, a business tycoon, as the PPP candidate).

There have been other instances of Bilawal managing to persuade his father to review his decisions. But while at it, he believes in consultation with the party’s leadership. This speaks of his political acumen.

Bilawal’s strong point is his vision of governance. He was the first leader of a major party to announce the party manifesto. Interestingly, like Benazir Bhutto, he personally vetted the manifesto. He is also close to the governance of Sindh and Balochistan and regularly interacts with the respective chief ministers. Some PPP insiders say that President Zardari had wanted to the change Sindh chief minister but Bilawal supported Murad Ali Shah.

Bilawal needs to revive the party in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. For this, he could employ a strategy used by his mother and grandfather – strengthening the party from ward to zonal level and empowering the office bearers.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. His X handle: @BukhariMubasher

Another Bhutto, another era