People & Society

Bilawal Bhutto: Heir he comes

Updated 21 Oct, 2018 03:12pm
Photo by Reuters
Photo by Reuters

There is a particular term used by the kinder variety of teachers when describing a pupil from whom great things are expected but who (in the teachers’ eyes) has not quite fulfilled the promise he carries. When writing the report cards for such a student, the teachers – after careful and hopefully constructive criticism – cushion the cautions with a concluding observation that the pupil ‘has potential’.

Bilawal has potential: he is young, and while that is not in and of itself something positive, youth does carry the promise of positive growth and evolution, provided the right lessons are learnt from the various trials life has to offer. He has also inherited (along with a few billion rupees) a political legacy that – love it or hate it – cannot be ignored. The name Bhutto is one that still evokes great passions, whether negative or positive. It is a name to conjure with or to curse but it is not one that can be dismissed even if its power has been dimmed by hollow repetition.

He says the right things too, whether it is about a sit-in at Faizabad by religious activists or other hot button topics that many more seasoned politicians would prefer to avoid. More significant perhaps is what he has not done and said: thus far he has notably not commented on the personal lives of politicians and has not accused his political opponents of blasphemy or treason (the occasional “Modi ka yaar” notwithstanding).

It is unfortunate that not resorting to gutter language or dangerous slurs is considered remarkable. It is more an indictment of what passes for political debate than it is praise for Bilawal. Still, it is laudable that, in this at least, he has shown more maturity than many far more senior politicians. He has also held his own in most interviews, whether with the local press or foreign. Indirect proof of this is that his many opponents choose to mock not what he says but how he says it, focusing their criticism on his diction and accent instead.

Illustration by Zehra Nawab
Illustration by Zehra Nawab

But it is not enough to just talk a good fight; at some point one expects to see results along with the rhetoric — something that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) as a whole has struggled with, to put it mildly. Brand Bilawal has had countless political ‘launches’, each of which has ended with him being put back on the shelf. This has been accompanied by shouts and whispers that there is a serious divergence between what is seen as Bilawal’s vision and the realpolitik of his father and aunt, one that has resulted in an on-and-off conflict between the heir apparent and the party’s ancien régime. Now, when no outward rift can be seen, some speculate that father and son have settled into a practical dynamic: one in which the son says the right things while the father engages in the cut and thrust of back door deals and politics.Sometimes even that breaks down, as when Bilawal called for investigating the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud in a police encounter while his father praised Rao Anwar, the police officer involved in the same encounter.

Whatever the truth may be, with Bilawal’s entry into the National Assembly all but certain, his foray into practical politics is about to begin and with it will come more serious yardsticks by which to measure him. Legacy can be as much a bane as a boon and he has his work cut out for him: the PPP’s near eradication outside of Sindh, its tattered image and its rather poor governance record hang like an albatross around his neck. But he has time on his side, and – as clichéd as this is – it is time that will show whether the son shall rise or whether this shall be yet another false dawn.

*The author is the host of a talk show on Dawn News. He has worked with daily Dawn, The Express Tribune and various TV channels. *

This was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.