By Lekshmi Parameswaran
The sense of precariousness that has ensnared Pakistan is difficult to overlook as the country gears up for national elections on July 25. With the upcoming elections being only the second time that power will be handed over in the country in a democratic manner, the importance of the occasion is not lost on anyone. In the characteristic race to power that precedes any election in a democracy, the rise of a 29-year-old man weighed down by family legacy and an entire party’s expectations has surprised many. The man in question is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the scion of the Bhutto dynasty and the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Bilawal Bhutto first came to the limelight in 2007 as a nervous 19-year-old unable to fathom the responsibility that had been put on his shoulders following his mother Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Appointed as Chairman of PPP, with no real experience in politics or even an understanding of the country’s complex political milieu, few would have thought that the Oxford-educated Bhutto - like his mother - would ever make a mark in a role that was thrust on him. A little over a decade since he assumed such an important position, his evolution as a leader who holds promise for a country in need of a sane voice is striking.
With his public rallies attracting large scale crowds and him being able to effectively engage the audience on issues that resonate at the local level, it is no longer far- fetched to draw comparisons with his mother’s fire-brand campaigning style. On the international stage too, Bhutto has made a mark with his display of political maturity. In the World Economic Forum held at Davos earlier this year, where he spoke about Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts, and his presentation of a reasoned critique of how sensationalism has overtaken real news in Pakistan reflected his political and intellectual evolution. Giving an interview to India Today on the sidelines of the summit, Bhutto articulated the message of peace between the neighbours while not once compromising on the nationalist narrative that he and his party stands by. In that conversation was seen glimmer of a leader who could approach the intricacies of bilateral relations without giving in to the sophism that characterizes international politics.
Perhaps it is too early to sound the trumpet and announce the arrival of Bilawal Bhutto on a stage occupied by his political opponents from Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The waning influence of Left parties all over the world coupled with the corruption allegations that was responsible for unseating from power the previous PPP government headed by Asif Ali Zardari are challenges that the young Bhutto will find daunting to overcome.
Founded by his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, PPP, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, seems to have long forgotten the very ideals that formed its basis. The principles of Islamic socialism and nationalism that gave the citizens of Pakistan a semblance of nationhood are no longer espoused by the party. The PPP of the present times is going through an identity crisis in a country where the far right and the military are ruling the roost.
In an article in Dawn, Zahid Hussain points out that though PPP has far more progressive ethos than other mainstream parties, its leadership is completely alienated from the “changing social, political and economic dynamics.” According to him, for the past glory of the PPP to be restored, it would need much more than “dynastical appeal and shrine politics”. This is an observation that Bilawal Bhutto can well imbibe if he wants to regain the populism that PPP once symbolized. Unlike leaders hailing from other dynasties, Bilawal cannot take shelter in his family’s legacy. He has before him the onerous task of righting the wrongs of his father and re-imagining his party’s future to make it relevant at a time when the voters have started looking beyond political idealism. Maybe Bhutto had this goal in mind when in an interview with The Economist he said, it is time to reclaim the “societal space and the cultural space” that Pakistan has ceded over time to those in power. With the novelty that he brings in the thought process of a country marred by multi-layered power and social struggles, the princeling might be instrumental in giving Pakistan its lost identity as well as new aspirations!
(The author is a Researcher, Society for Policy Studies and an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)