. . . . . .  

Exactly thirty years separates the two occasions. In November 1992, the late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto (then out of power) attended a function at a four star hotel in Lahore. Last week, at the same hotel, her son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (now Foreign Minister) presided over the closing session of the Asma Jahangir Conference. I was present at both events.

In 1992, Ms. Bhutto had come to participate in a panel consisting of four prime ministers – herself, Mohammad Khan Junejo, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, and Mian Nawaz Sharif (then incumbent prime minister). They were to be interrogated by an ambush of senior journalists, including Z. A. Suleri, Najam Sethi, and I. A. Rehman.

She was the only one of her group who had the courage to show up. She sailed into the hotel auditorium to a cacophony of slogans from loyal jiyalas and occupied the main seat, with practiced ease.

The topic under discussion was The Emerging Political and Economic Scenario in Pakistan, but it soon became apparent that she would be expected to answer for her performance as prime minister (1988-1990). She began by acknowledging her gender. “You can see that I am a woman,” she told the audience. “But I am told that Nawaz Sharif is a mard. If he is a mard [her lips curved into a sneer], then why is he not here?” That is all it needed for her audience to erupt into a Vesuvius of cheers. 

After that, she was clearly in command. She deflected every rapier of a question for the sharp-tongued editors with a reply that had little to do with her PM-ship or her husband’s dubious business practices. At the end, she asked them whether they were satisfied with her replies. Before the others could respond, Mr. Suleri (who in 1979 had written a damning obituary of her father) assured her obsequiously that he had found her responses completely satisfying.

Once, while she spoke agitatedly, her veil slipped off her head, exposing her top-knot chignon. Her party stalwarts (including Ch. Aitzaz Ahsan) reacted by putting their hands over the lenses of the press’s cameras to prevent her being photographed bare-headed.

Less than a year later, she replaced Nawaz Sharif as prime minister.

I felt a sense of déjà vu when, thirty years later, at the same hotel, I witnessed the entry of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari into a crowded marquee. No pop idol could have received such a rapturous welcome. He had to battle his way to the stage through raucous PPP loyalists and disruptive PTI opponents.       

His fellow panelists included former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal (a pained voice from beleaguered Balochistan), and a PTI MNA Ms. Munaza Hassan who had the invidious task of defending her party’s government during its three and a half year stint in office (1998 – 2022).  

The topic should have been The Role of Political Parties in upholding Democratic Rights. Inevitably, Ms. Hassan (the opening speaker) recited a litany of her party’s achievements when in power. This might have been more convincing, had she not adopted a format of presentation more suited to a school mock U.N. debate.

Mr. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari heard her and subsequent speakers with commendable patience. Invited finally to the podium, it took him some time to settle his adoring admirers. He emphasised with a genuine conviction that the removal of Imran Khan from the prime minister-ship had been the first such act which was entirely constitutional. The change had been within the National Assembly, not through forcible removal, nor resignation under duress, nor fear of Gate 4 (a euphemism for military intervention using Islamabad-based 111th Infantry Brigade).

The bulk of Bilawal’s speech focused on the effect of the recent floods which had left 33 million of our people homeless, bereft of their livelihoods. He emphasised in various words that rather than debating constitutional niceties, Pakistani political parties should unite and confront this national disaster together.

If the new generation of PPP jiyalas had come to hear him lambast Imran Khan, the PTI or its PML–Q ally in the Punjab, they would have left the marquee disappointed. If they came to convey their conviction that he would be their next prime minister, they did so with a fervour that will, when called upon, mature into votes.

For the time being, Mr. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari seems content to be tutored in politics by his sagacious father while playing second fiddle to PM Shehbaz Sharif. That he has aspirations to succeed his mother one day as prime minister is embedded in his DNA. She became prime minister first at the age of 35. He is 34 years old.

He is in no hurry.  He would prefer to be a living hero than a dead martyr. 



[DAWN, 27 OCT.2022]

27 October 2022
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