A new phenomenon is rising in Pakistani politics in the shape of 28 year old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and it is not because he is the scion of the most resilient political dynasty in Pakistan. It is Bilawal’s political astuteness that astonishes one as being beyond his years in politics. He has shown superior acumen in dealing with his chief rivals, Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif. Both are more than twice his age and have been active in politics decades longer.
Bilawal showed up for the All Parties Conference Nawaz Sharif convened on October 5th to address the Kashmir issue, at a time the latter’s leadership is taking intense heat over money laundering accusation post Panama leaks. Bilawal was the sole beneficiary of the post conference media limelight as Imran Khan did not attend the conference. He told media that his cooperation with the government is confined to Kashmir alone as the issue requires national unity. Having established that he is cognizant of leadership priorities, Bilawal then availed the post conference media time as Nawaz Sharif’s most scathing critic. He did not let his attendance at the APC appear as endorsement of Nawaz’s leadership by predicting that in the 2018 election, his party will be in power while Nawaz Sharif will be in jail over money laundering.
Bilawal thus had it both ways. He made his first appearance as a leader at a conference attended by all parties, and used it to emphasize his commitment to the cause of Kashmiri freedom from India’s bondage, (thus becoming the voice of the masses) while putting Imran Khan in the dock for choosing to stay out. He then availed the same podium for vociferous disapproval of Nawaz Sharif.
Yet another example of Bilawal’s shrewdness in dealing with his political opponents is the way he appreciated Imran Khan for mobilizing masses against corruption and went on to criticize the latter for not showing the “way forward” i.e., not announcing the date when the PTI will shut down Islamabad, as promised by Imran Khan at an earlier rally. Imran Khan took the bait and declared the date of 30th of October in haste, it seems, as the 30th of October happens to be a Sunday when Islamabad is closed anyway. PTI has since moved the date to November 2nd.
Bilawal used the information supplied by IK to preempt IK’s mass mobilization derive by starting his own earlier. In doing so, Bilawal has again come across as a shrewd player with the ability to read the political pulse of the masses. Politicians in Pakistan generally eschew political activity during Moharram, a month when Shia pakistanis take out mourning processions all over the the country and remember the slain grandsons and other members of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) family in the most emotive manner.
Bilawal utilized the ethos of mourning during Moharam for political mobilization by declaring the mass rally of October 16th as the commemoration of the martyrdom of Pakistanis who died during the terror attack on his mother’s welcoming caravan in Karachi in 2007, when nearly two hundred people died and many more were injured.
During his address at the rally, Bilawal merged his political narrative with the religious narrative of Moharram, referring to himself as the grandson of slain (shaheed) Bhutto, the son of slain (shaheed) Benazir, and the son of the soil, saturated time and again with his family’s blood. He then addressed not the people of Pakistan but Jinnah, the man who created Pakistan, and wailed that Pakistan had fallen way short of the dream dreamed by the great leader who created it. Bilawal then undertook to fulfill the dream of the great ‘Quaid” and asked people to support him in the process.
Politics is the battle of narratives. Bilawal has pitched his “Quaid’s Pakistan” narrative versus Imran’s “new Pakistan” narrative. Imran can not possibly take on the narrative that “Quaid’s Pakistan must be built” because this is a narrative whose sanctity is enshrined in Pakistan’s history.
Bilawal denigrated his opponents at the October 16 rally with labels that reflect public perception, instead of hurling baseless allegations as is the custom in Pakistani politics. Imran Khan, for instance, is described by his opponents as working on zionist agenda and as the enemy of Pakistan, a description so divorced from public perception that instead of harming Imran Khan, the criticism ends up depriving its very maker of credibility. Pakistanis know Imran Khan as a committed nationalist and a thoroughly honest person. This is an entrenched public perception of Imran Khan. His sagacity, however, is another matter.
A smart politician hits his opponent where it can hurt the most. Bilawal termed Imran Khan “immature” whose childish style of opposing Nawaz Sharif is actually benefiting the latter. Instead of using the word corrupt for Nawaz Sharif, (which applies to Zardari as well) Bilawal used the phrase “third time in PM office and yet thoroughly incompetent.” Thus, while dwarfing his opponents, Bilawal preempted the most likely criticism of his own self – lack of maturity in years and political experience.
Political shrewdness notwithstanding, Bilawal exhibits a “passion” that has hitherto been the unrivaled attribute of his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It is this passion that will draw masses towards Bilawal in numbers the precedence of which lies only with ZAB in Pakistan’s political history.
His pasty smile is the only thing one wishes Bilawal did not have when dealing with the public. His handsome young looks are charming enough. He does not need a smile of the kind his father wore his audience down with when he was newly sworn into office.
Twenty eight year old Bilawal is sure to be a “phenomenon” in Pakistan’s politics in near future. What is remarkable about the resilience of the Bhutto family in politics is the fact that the Bhuttos keep getting younger and younger as leaders of Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the dynasty, was forty two when he assumed office of the President in 1971. Benazir, his daughter, was 35 when she was elected to the office of the Prime Minister. Bilawal is 28 now and will be thirty if the general election takes place as scheduled. Young Bilawal is likely to reinvigorate not only the PPP but also Pakistan’s leadership scenario.
Pakistan’s military leadership should heave a sigh of relief at the rising phenomenon of Bilawal as they are in dire need of erudite nationalist leadership that can articulate a winning narrative to counter the narrative of Pakistan’s multiple enemies and keep the polity strong and united within.