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Bilawal Bhutto: Pakistan's Twitter warrior

February 19, 2014 16:46 IST

Bilawal Bhutto

Bilawal Bhutto’s political inheritance is his biggest asset as well as the biggest liability as he tries to make his mark in Pakistan politics. Challenging the Taliban militants is part of that strategy, though it matches with his political ideology. Shahzad Raza profiles the son of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari

His mother, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was tech-savvy and a Blackberry lover. Communicating through emails and BBM was her forte. Militants cut her life short before she could best utilise the latest social media tools like Twitter. Taking a step further, the son has made Twitter his harpoon to fish in the world most dangerous ideological waters.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been challenging Taliban militants and ridiculing their sympathisers. His favorite victim is chairman of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf Imran Khan, considered by many a political shill.

The entire Pakistani nation stands at a very decisive crossroad. The centre-right government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz seriously mulls dialogue with Taliban amid apprehensions of failure. Bilawal and ilk are calling for drastic action against those who orchestrated cold-blooded murders of more than 50,000 innocent Pakistanis.

His father, Asif Ali Zardari, was an accidental President. He was a textbook case of becoming a political patriarch from a political pariah. When assassins of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan killed Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007, Zardari was babysitting the kids in Dubai. Three children of the ‘daughter of Pakistan’ were completing their studies with no immediate inclination of jumping into cesspool of Pakistani politics. Even Bhutto kept her children from the harshness of reality.

Bhutto’s assassination changed many lives forever. Zardari realised the gravity so as the opportunity. He had two options -- stay away and let the party wither away or hold the sway to secure the political future of the party and the family. He chose the second option and earned the honour of patronising the first elected government in the history of Pakistan to have completed its five-year constitutional term.

At the time his mother was assassinated, Bilawal was just 19, six years shy of being allowed to contest the elections or head any political party. He used to speak in broken Urdu -- something reminiscent of his late mother when she returned to Pakistan in the mid-1980s to launch an amazing struggle against military dictator General Zia-ul Haq.

One common tragedy both Bhutto and Bilawal underwent was losing someone they loved the most. In 1979, General Zia orchestrated judicial murder of Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It was callous darkness in the death cell, where Bhutto had last conversation with his wife and daughter, just hours before the hanging. It takes great deal of courage to read the description of that meeting in Benazir’s first book Daughter of the East. The final words the dying father told his distraught daughter were: “Until we meet again.”

Bilawal never got that opportunity. He was thousands miles away when his mother breathed her last. The entire family flew back to perform the last rituals. The entire nation was in a state of shock. And the entire world was watching.

After burying his mother in family graveyard, in Garhi Khuda Bux, Bilawal stood up to face countless mourners. His eyes were red, swollen. His voice was coarse with grief and anger. He concluded an emotional speech saying “democracy is the best revenge” -- the sentence he borrowed from his mother. And democracy did take revenge.

In 2008 general elections, the pro-Pervez Musharraf parties faced reality. The Pakistan People’s Party won the elections and cobbled an alliance with the PML-Nawaz to form a coalition government. Bilawal stayed abroad to finish his studies like his two sisters. It was evident being the only male scion of Benazir Bhutto, he would inherit reign of the party.

General Musharraf’s grip on power was slipping since March 2007, when he fired Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The streets of every major metropolis were buzzing with anti-Musharraf protest.

Bilawal assumed the role of ceremonial patron-in-chief of the party with little say in its administrative affairs. Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur ran the party sidelining some close associates of Benazir. Bilawal kept a low profile and went back to finish his history degree at Oxford University. He returned to Pakistan in 2010 to take active role in politics.

With little role in public or party affairs, Bilawal might not be blamed for what transpired in 2013 general elections. The PPP faced wrath of the voters, who were fed up with the stories of massive corruption and bad governance. Besides, because of stark warnings from Taliban militants neither President Zardari not Bilawal could run a countrywide public campaign.

The Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N won the 2013 elections. The PPP shrunk to the Sindh province. In the backdrop of this scenario, Bilawal commenced his political career.

Now over 25, he can run for Parliament. There was speculation of him contesting the by-elections to become member of the national assembly. He decided not to. He is primarily focusing on the 2018 elections. The most important tasks for him are to reorganise the party, win back the voters’ confidence and take the risk of life to go public. The Taliban militants repeatedly vowed to kill him just like his mother.

The threats to his life are genuine given his vociferous and bold stance against the forces of doom and gloom.

Late last year, a government-sponsored all parties’ conference approved holding of a dialogue with Taliban militants. The spineless attitude of the country’s political elite was reflective in the joint declaration that referred to Taliban as “our own people.”

The PPP, led by Bilawal, was a signatory to the joint declaration. Within months of release of that ‘apologetic piece of paper’, Bilawal started questioning the entire process. To him it was farcical to sit with those who had proudly killed more than 50,000 innocent Pakistanis. He called for military action against the Taliban disassociating himself from other prominent politicians who were pushing for talks.

Bilawal used death anniversaries of his mother as a springboard. Politically, it was a smart move given the emotional attachment of people with the Bhutto dynasty. Every year, on December 27, people witnessed a more refined, more aware and more vocally fluent Bilawal. On the 6th death anniversary of his mother, last year, Bilawal delivered the best speech of his political career. The words were flowing so as the thoughts. The world was listening.

He nailed his political opponents, especially the PTI chairman. The PTI chairman is a strong advocate of dialogue with the Taliban. He is on the forefront in American bashing and its drone war. Bilawal nicknamed him buzdil (coward) Khan on Twitter. He even created a hash-tag incurring abuses and threatening messages from the PTI followers and Khan’s lovers.

Bilawal’s demeanour earned him more foes than friends. Another interesting character of Pakistani politics is Rana Sanaullah, who holds the portfolio of Punjab law minister in Shahbaz Sharif cabinet. He regularly throws tantrums about Bilawal.

“Instead of giving a message of reconciliation, Bilawal always prefers to make personal attacks on political leaders. Zardari (his father) must hire a political coach for Bilawal,” snapped Sanaullah. He said the speeches of Bilawal were full of controversies.

The PTI spokesperson, Dr Shireen Mazari, criticised Bilawal of demonstrating political immaturity whenever he speaks. “He knows nothing about the basics of politics. He must learn to use decent language.”

Several political analysts in Pakistan often compare Bilawal with Rahul Gandhi. They tend to advise Bilawal to learn from Rahul Gandhi, who maintained a low profile in first few years of his career in order to learn the art and sensitivities of politics.

Bilawal political inheritance is his biggest asset as well as the biggest liability. His mother and grandfather were two magnificent Bhuttos. People adored them. However, Bilawal’s father’s reputation has been tarnished owing to corruption scandals in the 1990s. He languished more than 10 years in jail, but the charges were not proven. Some of the cases are still pending. Generally, not many people respect Zardari for his past and his political shenanigans.

Now Bilawal is trying hard to establish his own mark. Challenging the Taliban militants is part of that strategy, though it matches with his political ideology. Recently, he organised a grand Sindh Festival, which he believes is a bulwark against growing extremism in the Pakistani society.

Bilawal who rarely misses an opportunity to grab headlines, demanded that the Indian government to give Pakistan back the “Dancing Girl” of Mohenjo Daro. The priceless statue is two of the most precious discoveries from the ancient civilization -- the other being “Priest King” that is in possession of Pakistan.

Shahzad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist.

Shahzad Raza in Islamabad