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Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari raises slogans at his mother’s grave in Garhi Khuda Baksh, Sindh | White Star
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari raises slogans at his mother’s grave in Garhi Khuda Baksh, Sindh | White Star

These are historic times for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). It is the third mainstream political organisation in Pakistan, after Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, to have completed 50 years of its existence. It is also the only party in the country to have come to power as well as act as the opposition four times across five decades. It has survived the depredations of a brutal military regime under General Ziaul Haq, one that overthrew its first government and hanged its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Its top leadership has fought off multiple trials, arrests and imprisonments – even exile – since 1977, including during the governments of its civilian opponents in the 1990s and the military regime of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf in the 2000s. It has lost hundreds of its workers and members to acts of terrorism over the last 10 years or so, the most eminent among them Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister and the first woman to head the government in a Muslim country. Along the way, the party’s political obituary has been written multiple times — only to be proven premature.

Over the last few years, PPP’s electoral fortunes have been sliding downwards outside Sindh — some would say irretrievably so. The party’s young chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and his father Asif Ali Zardari have been making strenuous efforts to stem its declining share of votes and support, especially in Punjab, but so far they have achieved only limited success. The obituary writers, meanwhile, have been out and active again. Will they be proven wrong one more time? Here, the Herald asks Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in a no-holds-barred conversation about the PPP’s past, present and future.

Herald. Who among the earlier leaders of PPP is your role model? Islamic socialist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, social-democrat Benazir Bhutto or the champion of grand national reconciliation Asif Ali Zardari?

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. I draw inspiration from all of them but naturally my mother [Benazir Bhutto] casts a long shadow on my thinking and ideology. Each of them represented the statecraft and politics needed for the times. My grandfather [Zulfikar Ali Bhutto] brought in a radical left-wing agenda when he saw Pakistan being choked by elite forces and he moved against them in ways the country had never seen before. He brought the vulnerable into the political mix and I am strongly wedded to the principle of defending the weak.

I spent the best part of my life watching my mother fight the forces of patriarchy and authoritarianism at different levels and this resistance to both has seeped into many layers of my thinking. It is really for others to decide how it has shaped my personality.

My father took the reins of power when Pakistan was burning with the fires of hatred and vengeance. His reconciliation drew inspiration from my mother’s last book and set of ideas where she argued for fighting fear and hatred with inclusion and courage. The country benefited from reconciliation in order to bring in big changes such as the 18th Constitutional Amendment which was a new social contract. And, really, none of our policies deviated from the PPP’s core values.

Herald. Your critics say that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is a child of privilege; that he has no experience of having successfully run anything; that he has faced no difficulties or hardships to have earned the post he is holding; that he has not undergone the trial by fire his mother had to experience while her own father was jailed and then hanged. What makes you the most suitable person to lead your party? 

Bilawal. People have a right to ask legitimate questions about my age and experience. All I can say is that fate and the PPP’s CEC [Central Executive Committee] conspired to take my youth away from me but that I too gave it away willingly once I saw the trauma and crisis Pakistan was in after my mother’s assassination.

Former co-chairperson of PPP, Asif Ali Zardari,  with son and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Former co-chairperson of PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, with son and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

I do think that with 60 per cent of the country’s demographics tilted towards people from my age group, I have a strategic advantage, if nothing else. Time is surely on my side.

Herald. Your party is often considered synonymous with corruption and misgovernance. Its commitment to democracy is routinely criticised as an effort in self-preservation and its parliamentary/constitutional moves (such as the 18th Constitutional Amendment) are seen as bringing no dividends to the common man. Is all this a failure of publicity or a failure of policies?

Bilawal. I won’t deny that the party has not been able to tell its evolving story too well, especially in and to Punjab. The province has been in the control of N League [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] whose leaders openly used state resources to conspire against PPP, to steal an election in my mother’s time.

Since then, they have used all state resources to take politics back to the past. The IJI [Islami Jamhoori Ittehad] was not our invention but, yes, we couldn’t capitalise on the open story of [its] blatant collusion with the military establishment to fund politics against us. The Mehran Bank scandal has just faded away and we have let N League run riot with its misrule and elite capture of power. This must change, I agree.

We must do more to counter propaganda. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not [to] ignore facts. The fact of the matter is, by restoring the 1973 Constitution we saved our federation; BISP [Benazir Income Support Programme] is our country’s first and only social safety net and proves that we actually continue to deliver at different levels on our slogan of Roti, Kapra aur Makaan. We initiated CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] by giving the Gwadar port to China, a historical achievement all parties now endorse. We took on violent extremism like never before [and] began clearing Taliban rule out of South Waziristan. Such historical achievements don’t get the credit they deserve. 

We have a lot of work to do but reinvention does not happen overnight.

Herald. Your party is criticised almost routinely for having made deals and compromises with the establishment. How do you respond to such criticism?

Bilawal. My actions will have to speak louder than words, won’t they? Also, please remember as we look at the 21st century, Pakistan is at a different place than it was in the 1990s. The country needs healing and our single biggest enemy, which I think is violent extremism, requires us to join forces with each other to fight the principle battle of Pakistan which is not only a military fight but a political and ideological one. We have always come into power in spite of the establishment, unlike all other parties that form a government because of the [establishment]. We have had to swallow many bitter pills in the larger interest of democracy. 

Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had to work with people who were allies of the man who assassinated her father. She made this personal sacrifice so Pakistan could become a democracy after ten years of Zia’s dictatorship. Similarly, my father’s government was the first in Pakistan’s history to complete its term.

A milestone for our young democracy. In order to do this, many sacrifices and compromises were made. We chose the right decisions over the popular decisions. History will praise us for this. The process may not be pretty but if the reward is democracy, it’s all worth it.

A family portrait of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari with a young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari  | White Star
A family portrait of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari with a young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari | White Star

Herald. Punjab has seen only right-wing governments since 1977. How do you plan to change this, especially since the Punjab-based media and intelligentsia remain largely opposed to your party and it also does not have government money to woo the voters either?

Bilawal. You are right, we don’t have government money, nor should we use that to woo our vote bank back. The PPP voters normally do not go to another party. They sit at home. Our challenge is to mobilise old voters and motivate new ones. It won’t be easy because we don’t take recourse to extremist forces, despite all criticisms and pressures. But I do think we have a message of inclusion and tolerance and equality for Pakistan which no one else does.

Herald. After 1977, PPP has never won an election in Punjab. What kind of electoral strategies do you have to reverse the slide? 

Bilawal. I will have to spend more time in Punjab. I will also have to reinvigorate our party organisation there with its new office-bearers and I do feel there is a big niche for a party which is basing its appeal on ideas and hope and not just on clans and biradaris. In long waves of de-politicisation during the Zia years, then later during the Musharraf years, the cosmetic panacea of development and urbanisation projects were substituted for policy, let alone ideology.

I realise that it’s going to be a long haul but, as I said, it will need a new kind of politics based on our old core values. The class struggle is alive and well in Punjab, in fact even more so. We have to find a way of channeling people out of their biradari comfort zones [so that they] vote for party ideology again. Only PPP is prepared to eschew the new model of de-political, conservative machine politics you see today in pockets of Punjab.

Herald. It was Punjab’s youth, workers, peasants and progressive writers, poets, artists and performers who propelled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to power; it was again the same sections of society in the same province that made Benazir Bhutto’s return from exile in 1986 one of the most momentous political events in the country’s history. What sections of society in Punjab will back you and why?

Bilawal. I feel that PPP has a natural alliance with the vulnerable and the weak, those that were excluded from the Sharif’s development model of supply-side politics [that] makes the rich richer so some trickle-down crumbs fall on the slum. People are looking for a party of the excluded. The peasants, the farmers, the factory workers, the women, the minorities, young people who don’t want to embrace the other two parties’ reactionary message. These are the swathes of people who need a new place to hang their hopes. 

Herald. Many commentators say Asif Ali Zardari is not allowing freedom to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari….

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari attends the Sindh Festival held at the National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi| Tahir Jamal, White Star
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari attends the Sindh Festival held at the National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi| Tahir Jamal, White Star

Bilawal. I am the central campaigner for the party and also now its chairman. We have a collegial form of decision-making and we listen more to the CEC and the core committee than other parties do. People are free to speak and they certainly do. That is our party culture. We are a big party and there are often more than one points of view in [our political] mix. My job is to judiciously lead, but after taking the party leadership’s advice — much like my mother did.

Herald. A major negative optic for your party is Karachi, particularly the state of its cleanliness. How do you plan to resolve the city’s problems? 

Bilawal. Karachi has suffered immensely due to political instability for decades. It was clear that parts of MQM [Muttahida Qaumi Movement] were involved in all kinds of criminal activities. Things are only now beginning to change.

Karachi is ranked as the seventh largest city of the world. Over the years it has developed its own politics and patronage networks. It is not easy to take them apart without causing mayhem. What I am very clear about is governance goals: Karachi must get its due share of resources and clean streets, sewerage, water, public hospitals and schools that work. I also do not appreciate criminality and violence as part of any work or city culture and am working to that end.

I am particularly impressed with the ownership our new chief minister [Murad Ali Shah] has given Karachi. The development work completed so far – including roads, bridges, underpasses – is impressive. It’s good to see public garbage cans back on Karachi’s streets. The public-private partnership model we have adopted has improved service delivery in many of Sindh’s hospitals.

Karachi’s NICVD [National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases] is the largest heart hospital in South Asia and it’s completely free for patients. The Edhi Line bus will be inaugurated soon. Work is happening. Karachi voters know this. That is why we’ve won two by-elections from seats our opponents had won in the general election.

Herald. There is a widespread perception that every contract and financial transaction in Sindh has a share that goes to the very top — to powerful ministers in Sindh and onwards to your father and aunt. Most public opinion surveys also show the Sindh government as the most ineffective and possibly the most corrupt administration in the whole country. How do you plan to change this? 

Bilawal. I could say your question is offensive, absolute fiction, but will defer to your right to ask. My father spent 11-and-a-half years in prison. Decades of [a] dictatorship’s propaganda went unchecked because our response was censored and ultimately he was acquitted of all charges. However, this lie has been repeated for 30 years. Tapes showing our political opponents blackmailing judges to convict my parents was proof enough that all the cases were politically motivated. 

I don’t accept this narrative of convenient patronage but I will accept that we have to do more in Sindh to get past courts that block everything. I am not surprised that you don’t ask about how the federal government is blocking all of Sindh’s projects. Because that is not the popular narrative.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addresses a rally in Lahore held to mark the 49th anniversary of the PPP’s foundation day | M Arif, White Star
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari addresses a rally in Lahore held to mark the 49th anniversary of the PPP’s foundation day | M Arif, White Star

It is our problem to tell our story better but, at the end of the day, let’s leave it to the people to decide. I have no quibble with the fact that we need to clean up the streets and do more for service delivery but I must also add that I have zero tolerance for corruption. If any proof lands on my table, I can address it. These are allegations and rumours. We know how that has worked in the past too.

Herald. What have you done for people in Sindh who face disruptive economic, social and environmental changes?

Bilawal. Our last government transformed Pakistan from a wheat importer to an exporter. We established food security. Despite the world recession, devastating floods and peak terrorism, we were credited with creating an agriculture boom. Today, our highest employer, the textile sector, is underperforming; mills are shutting down and moving to Vietnam. Compare this to our term. We did much better. This was no accident. It was the result of our policy.

Climate change is a global issue. Pakistan is the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change. Sindh has done more than any province on this front. We have invested more than any other province in wind energy. We have invested extensively in solar power, from solar-powered street lights to solar power RO [reverse osmosis] water filtration plants.

We have been working very hard on lining Sindh’s canals for water preservation. [It is] a revolutionary step, benefiting both the environment and agriculture sector. Access to drinking water is another challenge. Saline water is being made usable for agriculture in Thar. This is an initiative other provinces should follow.

We have set up more RO plants than any other province and are working on K-IV with the federal government [to provide more water to Karachi] but so much more needs to be done on this front. 

Water shortages are a very real problem. It is not just a Sindh problem. In PPP, we think for the federation, and what worries me is the water crisis Pakistan will face with its demographic count, shrinking groundwater and incredibly poor usage of water. According to global indices, Pakistan has one of the worst water-waste rates and if we don’t bring this into public discourse, we will be water-scarce in seven years. These are big issues but you won’t see them on TV every night. I am working with our policy committee on ways to maximise water conservation and find ways to use existing resources better by lining our watercourses and through other local solutions such as desalination and reverse osmosis. 

Pakistan is urbanising faster than any other country in South Asia and we need huge sanitation and municipal solutions. We will have to do more than just cleaning up our main boulevards and I know we have a long way to go. But we are working on hospitals, parks and water solutions in the near term.

Herald. Since Benazir Bhutto’s time, PPP’s politics in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been revolving around tribal chiefs and khans. What needs to change if the party wants to revive itself in these two provinces?

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari congratulates Yousuf Raza Gilani on his election as prime minister in 2008 | White Star
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari congratulates Yousuf Raza Gilani on his election as prime minister in 2008 | White Star

Bilawal. First of all, we need to recognise that Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa need attention but throwing money at the problem won’t do it, clearly. There was a time when shrinking resources and deprivations were identified as the fundamental problem [in these provinces] but [the situation is] far more complex than that. Resources are critical but equally so is how equitably they are delivered to the people at the bottom of the pyramid of powerlessness.

Water, schools, healthcare, housing, jobs and, of course, security from violence, will change the game. Delivering that is a challenge because it’s hard to get past traditional brokers of power but that will be the only way — services [delivered] directly to the people. We will need new solutions, perhaps spurred by technology, which bypass middlemen and elites, like the BISP. 

And, in reality, both provinces have suffered very different trajectories of trauma, including their experiences with modern terrorism. Their border gives them a huge degree of exposure and vulnerability to external challenges and that too must not be ignored.

The state must be seen as the welfare, caring arm of government, and not be remote. Such a state gains legitimacy to exercise monopoly on violence and we must work towards that via political and civil interactions.

Herald. Politics in Pakistan has given unelected institutions such as the military, the judiciary and, increasingly, the media, a lead role in shaping and directing the state and society. Do you have a plan that can put political and elected representatives on top of all other institutions?

Bilawal. Civil-military relations are a serious issue, with a fraught history. PPP is not genetically linked to the establishment so let’s not pretend we have had the same history or path to power that the two other mainstream parties have in Pakistan. At the same time, look at the time of crisis we face with challenges like terrorism and violent extremism redefining who we are as a nation. Let’s not reduce it to a tussle between binaries if we want democratic institutions to take root or get traction.

I firmly believe that civilian institutions need to be empowered to lead the way and that is not a pattern I see emerging today. A governance vacuum is fast taking away the modest gains we made in our government of re-building confidence in the democratic system despite huge crises and fault lines. PPP has always respected independent state institutions and will continue to do so.

On the other hand, the Sharif government has made a mockery out of our institutions. I fear that such a reversal will lead to a dangerous division in civil-military relations which we do not need at the moment. Look around you: there are very few military solutions to the fires raging in our midst, though some use of force is necessary. But it can only be sustainable if civil-military forces are working in tandem and speaking from the same talk-sheet.

Herald. What type of policy proposals should we expect from PPP in its coming election manifesto?

Bilawal. Before anything, we will have to address Pakistan’s multiple challenges, including a few [Ishaq] Dar-made crises, unfortunately. A country cannot make sovereign choices if its forex [foreign exchange] reserves are in the danger zone because of external debt and trade imbalances. I can’t understand why, with oil prices so low today, our exports are plummeting, especially textiles (Pakistan has lost 23 per cent of its global textile export share) which were doing way better in our government with much higher oil prices. A lot of energy and precious time will have to be spent in just rebuilding the economy and increasing the tax base. 

This N League government has swept through Pakistan like a bad tornado, wreaking havoc in its wake. So apart from fixing the mess they have made, which will take time, we will have to look at the state of the growing numbers of impoverished and food insecure people in Pakistan. We will have to find innovative solutions for public health, like we are doing in Sindh now with big hospitals like NICVD, where state-of-the-art facilities and doctors provide free services to those that can’t afford treatment.

We will have to look at reproductive health, child mortality and stunting. We will have to find teachers and train them to staff real schools, not just entities on paper. We will have to look at water conservation and take radical measures for rationalising its usage. We will have to protect minorities and women from the daily depredations they face. We will have to face down our foreign policy crisis, not with anger, but with rational policy that maximises Pakistan’s gains, not one family’s business interests. We will, of course, have to fix PIA [Pakistan International Airlines] and Pakistan Steel Mills, but not via underhand deals that leach these behemoths of money and cannibalise their properties.

Our manifesto will come out at the right time. The problems are all obvious. It’s the solutions that need focus, integrity of purpose and time — all of the attributes that democracy needs in Pakistan to be meaningful.

Herald. Why should young people care about a party that to many of them looks and acts like a 50-year-old, out of touch with contemporary realities and stuck in a past that it can no longer resurrect?

Bilawal. I don’t think we are out of touch. We just don’t speak the language of fear and hate. If that is the norm today, and that’s what sells, then I will recommit with even more vigour to the politics of civility and tolerance, to tackling deep, structural issues rather than the spicy rumour de jour. I honestly think that this kind of politics is taking Pakistan in a swing to the right which we really cannot afford. If you think that’s being out of touch with the need of the hour, then I will say good luck to you; you are entitled to your opinion.

This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.