As the year 2018 drew to a close, Pakistan witnessed a strong pressure on the freedoms of association and expression, the federal character of the state as defined in the Constitution and the requisite transparency in political and strategic decision-making. There is a popular discourse that systematically tarnishes the democratic political process and promotes corporate administrative solutions for long-standing political problems that have origins in our history and geography. The proponents of this discourse - a large part of the affluent urban middle class - believe that such solutions are not only possible but also the only option available.
The structural manifestation of the ideas and interests of this class lie in the exposed and latent actions taken by the permanent institutions of the state which are run by those who belong to the same class. Consequently, the 2018 general elections saw an uneven playing field being created for all those mainstream political parties that represent multi-class interests. On the other hand, the party that essentially represents the mindset of the affluent urban middle class was brought to power with help from the institutions that this class dominates.
At a broader social and cultural level, the long-standing policies of the Pakistani state have had a cascading effect on how communities, families and individuals view and treat religion in their lives. There was a time when we lived more cohesively as a diverse nation. We were always a largely religious society but we were also accepting of people belonging to other faiths who lived among us. What we see now is obscurantism in behaviour and radicalisation in thinking being widely prevalent and deeply ingrained at the individual, communal and institutional levels. If we take a recent example and discuss the text of the much celebrated court verdict in favour of the blasphemy accused Aasia Bibi, we will find that the judges had to go an extra mile to establish their own love for the Prophet of Islam and their belief in the finality of his prophethood. They quoted heavily from assorted religious texts to decide a case essentially falling under common law. Fear rules the hearts and minds of practising Muslims, let alone religious minorities, when it comes to matters of faith.
There are still many people in Pakistan who have some sense of the inherent regional, ethnic, economic and religious tensions that have always played out in the country's chequered history. They also have a bit of understanding of how our economy and polity will take shape in the coming years given how the world around us is changing. These people realise fully that the only way to survive and prosper is to create a democratic order where individual and collective freedoms are respected, where there is a just and trust-based relationship among the constituent units of the federation and where equal opportunities exist for the growth and development for all - irrespective of faith, ethnicity and gender. They similarly see the need for social and cultural reform movements at the grass-roots level while at the same time acknowledging that major structural changes can only be brought about by political action.
In light of all these circumstances and factors, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is the only head of a mainstream political party who represented, at least in theory, the ideas of democratic freedoms, federalism, equal citizenship and religious deradicalisation of the society in clear, consistent and coherent terms in 2018. He has taken the right positions at the right time, whenever the rights of individuals or groups were threatened, rights of minorities were not realised, women were suppressed, voices of dissent were muffled and civil rights activists were made to disappear. Currently, among the top leaders of all mainstream parties, he remains the most vocal advocate of the rights of women, minorities and working classes even though his detractors have never shied away from pointing to his own luxurious lifestyle, his huge assets both inside and outside Pakistan and his upper-class upbringing in a highly secluded and privileged environment.
He also showed how political conversations do not need to be indecent to be impactful. The campaign for the 2018 general elections saw disgraceful language being used for adversaries by political leaders, propagandists and spin doctors belonging to almost all the major parties - including, sometimes, by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari's own Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). He himself, however, made a point to stay away from all that mud-slinging. While he criticised those he was fighting the election against, there was not even a modicum of offensiveness in his campaign speeches.
Later, after getting elected to the National Assembly - a direct descendant of PPP's founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto having entered that house of Parliament after two decades - his famous first speech in the opening session stole the thunder away from anyone and everyone speaking on the floor either from the treasury or the opposition benches. He made it clear that in the larger interest of the democratic order - so that there remains a continuity in the electoral system - he will accept the new government's right to rule, despite being convinced that the elections were engineered. He was the first to remind the new government led by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) that its role has now changed and that it now needed to meet public expectations raised by its own rhetoric.
Since then, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has not only participated in parliamentary proceedings more than most other party leaders, all his speeches have also been focused on substantive issues and have been eloquently delivered. He attends the National Assembly sessions more regularly than many other senior political leaders, perhaps, in order to stress the pre-eminence of Parliament over other institutions. This is in sharp contrast to how Prime Minister Imran Khan has treated the legislature. He has seldom attended parliamentary proceedings - much the same way he did when he was in the opposition.
Critics, again, may highlight the numerous allegations of embezzlement of public funds and fraud that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari's father, former president Asif Ali Zardari, has been facing for more than three decades (and now the son himself is also facing). They contend that all his parliamentary eloquence and his campaigning for the rights of the marginalised are meant to save himself and his father from accountability. Now that his own name has been placed on a no-fly list along with his father's (and those of many members of his party's government in Sindh), Bilawal Bhutto- Zardari's politics is increasingly seen by his opponents as a face-saving mechanism. They dub his belligerent speeches as aggressive posturing aimed at hoodwinking public opinion and presenting the ongoing process of accountability as a politically-motivated witch-hunt.
Yet, some of his actions suggest that he may be genuinely believing in at least some of what he says. For instance, in matters surrounding the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which is seen negatively by parts of the establishment, and as well as the news media, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has shown more courage than the leadership of even Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party (ANP). While ANP has asked its senior leaders who supported PTM to resign, he is constantly asking the state and the government to listen to the movement's grievances and amicably address them rather than demonstrating high-handedness in dealing with them. Likewise, he raises the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan without mincing any words. Raising these sensitive issues will earn him few, if any, brownie points with voters anywhere in the political heartland of Sindh and Punjab.
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has also taken a clear stance on religious extremism. He seems to understand that Pakistan can only be successfully run as a federation - one in which every group of people belonging to every province, region, political opinion and religion has a defined stake.
One can hope that he lives up to the growing expectations about him and sustains his slowly but surely increasing popularity. Given that he is the only leader of any major political party whose age cohort represents the majority of Pakistani population (unlike most other political leaders who are all in their sixties), one also hopes that he can attract the political attention of his own generation.
The stickiest point will be the manner in which he deals with allegations of corruption, as well as the many question marks over the performance of the Sindh government. If evidence emerges to back the charges of corruption, his politics will go down rather than going up. Especially considering that the news media mostly loves to hate the Bhuttos - and now also the Zardaris - it will be particularly difficult for someone who combines both these surnames to survive the onslaught of criticism if even a modicum of truth is found in the accusations against him. He also needs to substantially improve the delivery of public goods in Sindh to be able to counter questions often raised about the PPP's track record in governance.
At the same time, we also have to see whether he continues to stick to his professed social and democratic ideals, and is able to resuscitate his party across Pakistan by leading from the front. As far as 2018 is concerned, he has certainly emerged as a political leader to watch out for and listen to in the coming years.
The writer is a poet, essayist and columnist.
This article was originally published in the Herald's January 2019 issue under the headline. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.