TALL and handsome, he resembles his illustrious grandfather. His voice evokes the memory of his courageous mother who gave her life fighting for the people’s rights. But for 24-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari the mantle of leadership of the country’s most powerful political dynasty may have come too soon.
Just out of university and with little connection to the realities at home, Bilawal is now required to salvage the falling support base of the Pakistan People’s Party and lead it in the coming elections for a second term in office. An extremely arduous undertaking indeed for the young man thrust onto the political centre stage by the compulsions of dynastic politics. Can he deliver?
Unlike his mother Benazir Bhutto, whose political baptism took place fighting military dictatorship and years of solitary confinement, Bilawal was anointed more in the manner of the investiture of an heir apparent. His speech was certainly well-tutored and well-rehearsed. But, despite its fiery rhetoric, it failed to make a connection with party devotees who had thronged to the dusty field in front of the white marble mausoleum of his martyred mother and grandfather.
It was all about victimhood and alleged conspiracies against the government and less about what the party stands for. For a party that has been in power for the last five years, such rhetoric may not work to motivate the people on the eve of elections. The sympathy wave in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto already catapulted the party to power, and the victimhood card may not be effective again. It is what the party has done during the five years in power that really matters to the people.
Dynastic rule has dominated our politics for decades, but the elevation of Bilawal at such a young age to head the country’s largest party is unprecedented. He was chosen chairman of the PPP when just a teenager and barely out of school. It was indeed a decision taken for him and not by him. His nomination may have been dictated by the compulsion of maintaining party unity after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and a sense of entitlement.
It was also to provide legitimacy to Asif Ali Zardari’s assuming the party’s leadership that cleared the way for his election later as the country’s president. The third generation heir to the dynasty was placed under the tutelage of his father who is better known for political wheeling and dealing than for popular mass politics which has been the hallmark of the Bhuttos.
Over the next five years, Bilawal stayed in Britain finishing his studies at Oxford University completely insulated from Pakistani society. During his visits home, his activities remained restricted to the confines of the President House where he would meet party leaders and senior government officials calling on him.
It appeared surreal when elderly party stalwarts who had spent the greater part of their lives fighting for democracy were seen taking instructions from the young ‘prince’. What is most pitiable, however, is that this happened in the party which claims to be the most progressive political force in the country. This is what is often described as ‘democracy feudal style’.
Bilawal’s unelected position has not prevented President Zardari from seating his son beside himself in summit conferences and in important meetings with heads of states, in breach of all diplomatic norms. It is certainly not the kind of training the young man needed as he prepared to take his position on the centre stage of democratic politics. Such practice is unprecedented even in the dynastic political tradition prevalent in the region. This only happens in a monarchy or under a dictatorship and is certainly not expected in a democratic system.
Bilawal will be leading a party completely different from that founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto some 45 years ago or inherited by Benazir after 1981. It was a party for change and not a party of status quo as today.
A part of its ethos may still be more progressive compared to others, but it has increasingly degenerated into a family-dominated, rural-based party losing its support among the urban poor and middle classes which once formed the party’s backbone. It is now being run as a family fiefdom as its traditional mass appeal has been increasingly shrinking.
Five years in power have exposed the party’s ineptitude to provide good governance. Cronyism is at its height, and corruption has never been so endemic. The economy is in a shambles with the growth rate hovering around an abysmal three per cent for five consecutive years. Power cuts and shortage of energy have not only hit industries, but also affected lives of the common people triggering widespread discontent.
It is the first time in Pakistan’s history that a democratically elected government will be completing its full term and hopefully power will be transferred to the next elected government. The party will go into elections this time not on slogans for change, but defending its not so enviable record while in government.
There seems to be a marked change in the party’s election strategy with far greater reliance on the local influential families than on traditional party supporters. That has hugely transformed the party’s character stripping it of whatever ideological colour it had left. Some of the leaders who sat on the dais in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh spoke volumes for the changing face of the party under Zardari.
Although he is still not 25, the lower age limit to stand in elections, Bilawal is expected to spearhead the PPP’s campaign with his father in the background. It is undoubtedly going to be the toughest in the party’s history. But can he stir up the Bhutto charisma and galvanise the demoralised party voters? Will the voters warm up to the new Bhutto? This is going to be tough for an inexperienced and untested new heir to the Bhutto dynasty. For sure the party cannot rely on any sympathy wave this time.
The writer is an author and journalist.