Serious politics eludes Bilawal

Published December 23, 2013
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. — File photo
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. — File photo

HE is, in his own telling, the hardest working young man in all of Pakistan. Just yesterday, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 25-year-old patron-in-chief of the PPP, tweeted, “Long since forgotten the meaning of ‘weekend’ #justanotherdayintheoffice #sunday #sibdhfest #PPP #Dec27”.

Accompanying the tweet was a picture of what appears to be Bilawal’s desk at home in Karachi. On the desk is an open laptop with a PPP-logo folder next to it, an empty ashtray and a coconut shell with a straw sticking out of it.

“He’s in touch with people from nine in the morning and as late as two at night often,” said Murtaza Solangi, who holds no party office but frequently communicates with Bilawal.

Hard at work the heir-apparent of the PPP may be, but what exactly is he doing? The PPP is running the Sindh government, leading the opposition in the National Assembly and leading the house in the Senate – but Bilawal has yet to dip his toes in serious politics.

Nor is he a parliamentary career imminent. Speaking to Dawn, Farhatullah Babar, a close aide of ex-president Asif Zardari and a mentor of Bilawal, confirmed that the designated PPP heir will not be in parliament until at least 2018.

“The decision taken is that he will not contest elections until the term of the present parliament expires. Even if a seat becomes available through a by-election, Bilawal will not contest it,” Babar said.

So what is Bilawal up to, besides tweeting at the rate of knots to his hundred-thousand-plus followers and preparing for a hastily put together Sindh festival next Feb?

Shahreyar Taseer, a close friend, said, “He wants to do things himself. This whole Sindh festival is his baby, his idea. He wants to learn how things are done. It will be a slow build-up to 2018.”

Sherry Rehman, one of Bilawal’s principal advisers, put it this way, “He told all of us, ‘I don’t want to start at the top, to just wear a hat that has been given to me.’ So for now, he’s finding space for old-slash-new progressive politics and reaching out to the youth. There’s no grand plan as such.”

Privately however individuals close to Bilawal hint at very different reasons for his high-on-visibility, low-on-substance style of politics.

An adviser said, “Right now, it’s just passion, no responsibility or authority. His father and his aunt (Faryal Talpur) are calling the shots. When anyone takes any matter of substance to him, he says that it’s his dad who makes those calls.”

Another adviser said, “Think of it as a slow, long transition between the old guard, who are still very much in-charge, and the next generation. Bilawal has plans to introduce a shadow government of sorts, to put young aides alongside the ministers (in Sindh), but it’s still a long way to go before he has real control. He has to be careful.”

Others however suggest the differences between father and son are less political and more about safety. “Security is something they have a different view about,” a Bilawal confidante said of the father-son relationship. “What Bilawal says can impact not just his own security, but of others in the party too, especially given some of his views.”

One arena in which Bilawal is free to express himself however is social media, where the PPP patron-in-chief’s youthful bravado and brashness are often on display in attacking leaders of rival parties and praising liberal politicians. Some among the party elders are squeamish about Bilawal’s edgy Twitter language, while other party leaders are pleased to have an energetic party leader who wants to engage the public.

Everyone agrees that doubts about Bilawal’s willingness and appetite for the world of politics have been largely dispelled. “Yes, there were issues before. Of security, with family members, but ultimately he’s got no choice. His launch into politics is inevitable,” an adviser said.

A higher public profile though does not mean that an uninterrupted journey to full-time politics. With the next scheduled general election more than four years away, a stint at graduate school is on the cards for Bilawal. He is believed to be leaning towards Harvard University starting next Fall.

And while Bilawal is expected to spend more time in Pakistan, advisers warned not to expect a full-time presence here. “He likes to go to Dubai because he can be free, without a hundred guards following him everywhere. And his father hates him being here (in Pakistan),” an adviser said.

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