As general elections in Pakistan are expected to take place within two months after dissolution of the National Assembly due on 16 March, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 24, will get increasingly involved in politics. He officially stepped in on 27 December 2012, on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s death. That day, Bilawal was holding his first political rally at Larkana in Sindh. He stood a few yards from the tomb of his mother. Thousands of PPP supporters were listening to him. “Jeeay Bhutto! Jeeay Bhutto!” shouted Bilawal as he started addressing the crowd. In his speech he kept referring to the legacy of his mother and his grandfather. He knows that the Bhutto dynasty is PPP’s only glue. Nobody has forgotten how his mother died five years ago. Since then, Bilawal has been discreetly groomed to become the next Prime Minister.
On 27 December 2007 Benazir Bhutto was back in Pakistan after having spent eight years in Dubai. As the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), she was widely seen as General Musharraf’s main contender. When she reached Rawalpindi to attend a rally, huge crowd of supporters cheered her. They all shared the same hope – Bibi will sweep the next general elections in spring 2008. Isn’t she the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister who sacrificed his life for democracy?
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979 after a military coup. He was popular with his promises of roti, kapra aur makan to the Pakistani underprivileged. Infact, during the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was considered by many as ‘protector of the working class.’ When Benazir took over as the PPP chief after her father passed away, she walked in his footsteps and pursued his socialist agenda. She inherited her father’s charisma and managed to partly retain support of the deprived classes. That came to an end on the fateful 27 December. As she waved to a crowd from the roof top of her SUV, a teenage boy dressed in black approached the vehicle. He pulled out a gun and fired two bullets before detonating his explosives-rigged belt. Bibi became ‘Benazir Bhutto shaheed.’ She was 54.
PPP became headless following Benazir’s death. Her son Bilawal was nominated as the party chairman three days later – he was only 19 and had grown up in exile mainly in the UK and Dubai. He could barely speak Urdu and even less Sindhi. His father Asif Ali Zardari became a transitional leader and took over PPP as co-chairman. Seven weeks later, PPP won the general election, and on 6 September 2008, Zardari was elected as the President of Pakistan. Bilawal went back to England to complete his studies at Oxford’s Christ Church College.
Over the last three years, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been travelling between England, Dubai and Pakistan. He has started learning Urdu which he speaks well albeit with a British accent. To groom him, his father has been taking him to some official visits abroad. And Bilawal has been attending many meetings between his father and the PPP’s coalition partners, especially the MQM, the ANP and the PML-Q. Bilawal Bhutto is not very talkative. “He prefers to listen and asks questions during meetings,” explains Murtaza Solangi, the director of Radio Pakistan who meets Bilawal from time to time. “Whenever you meet Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal is never far away. His father is his mentor,” adds former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. As one of the most senior PPP leader, Gilani is a part of a circle that Zardari has set up to prepare Bilawal. Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Washington Sherry Rehman is said to brief him on foreign affairs. And Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira teaches him how to speak with the media and in public.
Bilawal is keen to come up to his father’s and PPP’s great expectations. He is only 24, but is impatient to be in charge. On 24 December 2012, he attended dinner with a Christian community in Karachi. Catholic minister for national harmony and minority affairs Paul Bhatti asked him, “You look young. Aren’t you afraid of being assassinated like your mother?” In response Bilawal said, “It is in our blood to fight for democracy. Your brother Shahbaz was also murdered by the Taliban. You and I are in the same situation. We have to work together to eradicate terrorism and fanaticism in Pakistan.”
But can Bilalwal deliver? Possibly yes. Take his 27 December speech in Larkana. During the first few minutes, the crowd of PPP supporters seemed unmoved. But as the speech moved on they became more and more enthusiastic. Young PPP supporters were fascinated. Among them was Farhad Jalal, 24 years old. He is in charge of social media activity in the PPP youth wing and followed every moment of Bilawal’s speech on TV. The headlines were published on various social networking websites by him. “That speech was amazing. He looked like his mother. He had the same body language. Bhutto’s blood runs in his veins,” he claimed. The Bhutto dynasty remains popular in some parts of the society, notably in Sindh. So in order to build up his popularity, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari repeated his grandfather’s and mother’s old slogan: roti, kapra aur makan. Although the country has been hurt by the global recession, the heir assured the audience that Pakistan’s economy was standing on its own two feet. Alas, this looks like a deceptive comment!
Faisalabad is an example of how daily life has become increasingly hard over the last couple of years. Referred to as the ‘Manchester of the East,’ Faisalabad is one of the top three Pakistani business cities. Its textile industry provides jobs to two million people. Most of them earn between 9,000 to 15,000 Pakistani rupees which is around 5,000 and 8,000 Indian rupees. However, this is when gas and power is available – it is not the case most of the time. According to various businessmen from the Pakistan Textile Exporters Association, many factories came to a standstill up to 160 days the year.
Asghar Ali, CEO of Zafar Fabrics, is fighting hard to keep his company running. This joyful character exports cotton items like bed sets, curtains and kitchen towels to Europe. “Every day in winter we cope with six hours of power cut. We have not received any gas for the last two months. So I can only pay my employees 50 percent of their usual salary.” Asghar Ali runs a diesel generator to get by with little gas and electricity. And he runs a huge wooden oven to produce steam. Made of red bricks, it looks like something that dates back to the nineteenth century. The heat is so intense that despite winter cold, they are sweating. Ayaz, a man of 50 remembers, “During the general elections in 1988 and 1993, Benazir Bhutto promised us food, clothing and shelter. Today I can barely feed my six children. Inflation is running so high.” Another worker confesses that many among them love the Bhutto family. He adds, “Bilawal is Zaradari’s son, not Benazir’s. Zardari only works for the rich.”
There have been many corruption cases against PPP leaders since 2008. Zardari is still nicknamed ‘Mr. 10 Percent’ because of the kickbacks he used to grasp when he was a minister in the 1990’s – a charge he has always denied. And Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has been accused of taking bribes when approving power generation projects as Minister for Water and Power in 2010. He too has a nickname of ‘Raja Rental.’
Meantime, the bulk of the population is struggling to make ends meet. Many suffer the heat in summer because of load-shedding and the cold in winter because of gas shortages. PPP’s populist discourse has become an empty shell. Most of Faisalabad’s private companies are on the brink of bankruptcy. Naseem Bharara who runs a small enterprise says, “Three years ago, 150 people were working for me. Now only 23 are left. I had to sell my stitching machines few months ago because I had no more cash flow. Banks don’t give loans anymore. Workers are desperate. How long will they sustain this situation? Maybe five years. By Allah’s grace we will fight to survive,” Naseem replies anxiously.
God may be of little help to the PPP. The party has started losing support of the working class. “I don’t think we will win the next election,” admits a federal minister as he sits in his office in Islamabad before adding, “Look at what is going on outside. People are losing their jobs because of the energy crisis. Terrorist attacks continue unabated.” A petrol pump stands few miles away from his ministry. CNG is available for the first time in three days and drivers are rushing to purchase gas. Dozens of cars are waiting in long queues on Constitutional Avenue which leads to the Presidency. They’ll have to wait four to six hours. Never have the local people experience this sort of rationing in Islamabad.
As the election approaches, Bilawal remains PPP’s only chance to get a new face and regain popularity. The key to the next election is also wooing the youth. In Pakistan, 52 percent of the population is less than 30 years old. But, can Bilwal come up with the party’s expectations? PPP MNA Palwasha Khan who used to work with Benazir recalls, “He was very close to his mother. When the family was living in Dubai, Benazir was spending a lot of time to raise him. She was tutoring him every Friday. I think he will implement the socialist policy.” It is indeed too early to say what kind of reforms Bilawal has in mind for his party and for Pakistan. “We don’t have many choices. The young generation needs hope and Bilawal can cater to that,” says Paul Bhatti. There is still a long way to go. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has not achieved anything yet. He seldom gives interviews and cannot run for the election untill he is 25. His father has built a lavish mansion named Bilawal House on a 14 acres land in Lahore rumored to have cost 270 crore Indian rupees. Isn’t the prince far away from Pakistan’s harsh realities?