Bilawal Bhutto: The poster boy

Updated 19 Dec, 2016 12:56pm
Illustration by Aan Abbas
Illustration by Aan Abbas

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari met victims of the Quetta police training centre bombing on October 30. “I am no ordinary politician. I am the son of Benazir Bhutto. I am also a victim of this terrorism,” he said after the meeting. He wept as he spoke. An unusual display of emotion — but, as he said himself, he is no ordinary politician.

Carrying a weighty legacy – of both his mother and father – Bilawal had a hectic last month, travelling from one city to the next: meeting candidates for district and city councils, reorganising the party in Punjab and Sindh, launching a week-long celebration of the party’s 49th Foundation Day in Lahore (its birthplace) and giving speeches.

PPP was roused to action, fearing loss of relevance under its young chief. More likely, this was an announcement – and a welcoming, by party members – of the young Bhutto into the big league of Pakistani politics. The party has also annuonced that he may soon contest an election and become a member of the National Assembly. He was too young to contest the elections back in 2013.

The announcement has been met with approval by PPP leaders. Leader of the Opposition Khurshid Ahmed Shah said he would be happy to concede his role to Bilawal. “He is young and highly educated; he is groomed by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, who is an acclaimed statesman — and he feels the pulse of the common man,” Shah said.

Unlike his father’s cautious style of doing politics and making infrequent public appearances, Bilawal aspires to be more of a firebrand, closer to his mother and grandfather — at least in rhetoric.

However, the Zardari name that is almost synonymous with corruption – a perception the former president has never quite been able to shake off – often proves to be a liability for him. Zardari, who has been living in London and Dubai since last year following his daring comments about the establishment, recently said he has taken a “backseat”, in order to “give space to Bilawal”.

The two are said to have had disagreements over the handling of many issues in the past, with Bilawal leaving the country on occasion, in protest. For instance, he had been vocal about issues such as his father’s handling of Karachi and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

On the other hand, there is also the perception that through Bilawal, Zardari is able to say things he otherwise cannot say himself. Bilawal can say (or chooses to say) what older and more conventional politicians are afraid of saying such as being cheeky about Imran Khan and taunting towards Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain.

In a jalsa in October 2014, he also espoused a decidedly more liberal and secular ideology, mentioning subjects that other politicians – or anyone in the public eye – would never address: the Asia Bibi blasphemy case and the cause of Baloch rights activist Mama Qadeer, for instance. And while Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz were battling it out in Islamabad late in October this year, Bilawal was celebrating Diwali with the Hindu community at a temple in Karachi.

In recent months, he has increasingly begun to sound like a politician than an amateur orator. He has presented four demands to the government: that a parliamentary committee on national security be formed, that the opposition’s Panama bill be passed, that a multiparty resolution passed during the PPP government on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor be implemented and that a foreign minister be appointed immediately.

And yet, the Oxford-educated scion is often criticised for being cut off from the general public and the issues that concern it. This has been one of the main sources of criticism – as well as ridicule – directed towards him. He spends more time abroad than in Pakistan.

His critics say he represents the worst in Pakistani politics: nepotism, corruption, entitlement and even hedonism, as was displayed during the Sindh Festival in 2014. But he also seems to bring out the worst of prejudices in those critics. How he says something is given more importance than what he says; his poor Urdu, for instance, garners more attention than the content of his speeches.

It remains to be seen how the street protests and jalsas he has announced to hold for December 27, to hold the government accountable – or else the “arrow would aim for the lion” – will play out. What Bilawal represents at the moment is a facelift of his party. Whether that translates into change in PPP’s fortunes remains to be seen.

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.