BILAWAL Bhutto-Zardari seems to be the man of the moment, these days.
With the PTI in power and the Sharif family in a mood for quiet reconciliation, only BBZ seems to be within reach of the coveted spot of ‘man of the opposition’. Indeed, there is no one else who can compete with him to fill the space once dominated by Imran Khan.
He is there to speak eloquently in parliament (and outperforms the leader of the opposition whose speaking skills are not much to write home about after all these years in politics); he sounds convincing in his interviews to foreign journalists; and his political legacy is enough for many to vouch for a rosy future for him.
And above all, his recent fiery incarnation which culminated in his train march from Karachi to Larkana seems to lend more credence to this idea. For many, he has already become an eloquent anti-establishment politician, following in the footsteps of his mother and grandfather.
But is opposition politics simply about filling the airwaves at a time when no one else is? Isn’t that what Imran Khan did after the 2013 elections? While this may be true, there is more to the matter, in the particular context of the PPP. And as the head and heir of the party, Bilawal needs to pay attention to the challenges facing him.
Is opposition politics simply about filling the airwaves at a time when no one else is?
The PPP’s main challenge at the moment is its growing irrelevance in Punjab. Once a party which forced the military establishment to put together an alliance to stop it from sweeping the province in 1988, today the PPP has been reduced to a force which cannot even ensure the third place for itself in many electoral contests in Punjab.
The party may claim this is because of the uneven playing field and the rigging — which, of course, has been the excuse for any and every party’s perceived or real defeat. But there is also the largely prevailing perception that the party is corrupt and doesn’t ‘deliver’. In comparison to the PML-N, which is seen to do so — Shahbaz Sharif’s slogan of ‘kaam ko izzat do’ resonates with its voters — the PPP is not seen to be a party that is capable of traditional governance. For example, for Punjab, it is the party which gifted the province long, harsh hours of load-shedding, while the PML-N reduced the long hours to shorter, bearable ones.
And this perception has simply worsened since Asif Ali Zardari took over the party. He is simply not acceptable to the voter in the land of the five rivers. Many around BBZ realised this — and not just the ones from Punjab, as many assumed.
For why else were there leaks (deliberate or otherwise) in the earlier years about BBZ and Zardari not getting along. In 2013 came the story that the son left the country after arguing about tickets with his dad. Some years later, he missed his mother’s death anniversary, and it was reported once again that it was because he had fought with his father over party matters (this is around the time Zardari called him immature publicly). And during the father’s absence from the country, PPP leaders spoke (exasperatedly) of how the aunt kept a close eye on BBZ (implying that she did so at the behest of the father, who apparently was not entirely sure of his son).
In addition, an effort was also made to keep the father away when rallies were held to shore up support, especially during election time.
(That this was of utmost importance in Punjab was also obvious from the PPP leadership in the province, which was more vocal than their counterparts in Sindh that Zardari should abdicate in favour of BBZ.)
In other words, Bilawal faced two challenges — to emerge as a leader, but also one who was completely different from his father.
But the fake accounts case has shattered this hope of the two being two different brands. The case threatens not just Asif Ali Zardari, but also the government of Sindh. The trail from the accounts allegedly leads to government officials, right up to the chief minister of Sindh. And a jittery PPP has brought out its only blazing gun — BBZ.
He sits next to his chief ministers (past and present) to attack the accountability process and make cracks about militants being given an NRO. He threatens (or did he only hint) to bring down the government with a long march and he snipes at the ‘selected’ prime minister. And all of these issues were highlighted more than once during the train march.
He may have exercised the Bhutto charisma and shown his mettle at public speaking — but in the process, his attacks on accountability and the fake accounts case are simply bringing him closer to his father in the public perception. In recent days, no one has been able to argue that Benazir Bhutto’s son and Asif Ali Zardari are two different people with a different view and style of politics.
Perhaps, he feels he has no choice left. The PPP has little in its basket apart from Sindh and the cases now pose a threat to this. Perhaps Bilawal now has no choice but to defend the party, its government and his father.
This perhaps may not mean much in Sindh, where observers point out BBZ has always been seen as someone closely involved with the running of the province. But in Punjab, this can and will have implications in the long run.
The revival of the party, which was not easy to begin with, will be even more difficult because BBZ is now defending the party against corruption. The voter in Punjab will find it that much harder to believe in BBZ as a harbinger of change. Did those who are pushing the accountability campaign ever realise that this could be a major fallout of the fake accounts case? Perhaps we will never know.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2019