The arrival of 24-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on the political scene of Pakistan comes at a time when Pakistan is about to go to the polls in a matter of months. It could not have been timed better.
His formal entry into politics comes through a rally that was held in Garhi
Khuda Baksh on December 27, the fifth death anniversary of his mother Benazir Bhutto. It drew crowds estimated at hundreds of thousands. Given the sagging fortunes of the ruling Pakistan People's Party ahead of the polls, Bilawal's appearance is probably just the kind of shot in the arm the party needs to win a thumping majority.
"There are a number of challenges the party is facing. In countering the rise in allegations of mismanagement and corruption, Bilawal is being used as a trump card," says political analyst Kamran Khan. But Bilawal is a shy young man who has barely stepped into the grind of party politics.
"In many ways, he is very new to the game. One expects that he has to learn a lot but I know it will be a steep learning curve," says columnist Talat Masood.
That Bilawal has been groomed to take over the party and lead it in the next polls is evident from the manner in which he spoke on Thursday. Until last year, Bilawal's Urdu oratory, a must for any serious politician in Pakistan, was atrocious. This time round, not only was it markedly better but many saw in him glimpses of not his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto but of his mother Benazir.
"It was as if Benazir had returned," remarked one supporter. Whether the delivery and mannerism were deliberate or natural is beside the point. For most Pakistanis, Bilawal is the heir to the Bhutto name. And they will vote for him in the same manner, say political watchers.
However, while he may get the party votes, what remains to be seen is whether Bilawal is a Bhutto - his own man - or a Zardari, the leader his father wants him to be. This week's speech by Bilawal was written by a party faithful but finalised by Zardari himself. People close to the family say that Zardari coached him on the speech and there was some discussion on the points to be made.
Without declaring all out war, Bilawal's first speech questions the role of the judiciary in present day Pakistan and also attacked militants directly. In the past, too, Bilawal has spoken out against militants and in favour of the country's religious minorities. This is somewhat different from Zardari, who usually sticks to the theme of democracy and the challenges posed to it.
The young Bhutto promised that he would not abandon party workers and at the same time that he was not scared of death. It was a reminder of how many of his family members had died owing to their politics. But also a reminder to the party worker that he was their next hope. There is growing discontent against Zardari in the party where some see him as hijacking the Bhutto legacy.
Bilawal stood firm in his resolve against extremism, evidenced by double references to the murder of Awami National Party leader Bashir Ahmad Bilour and the attempt on the life of Malala Yousafzai.
This comes as a source of strength for many in Pakistan who feel that the country's mainstream politicians are shy of taking on the militants. It helps enforce the left-of-centre leanings of the pro-labour party.
At the same time, Bilawal also drew heavily from his father's speech last year in which the president had criticised the judiciary. Without naming the Supreme Court or the chief justice, Bilawal asked about the fate of the Bhutto reference and Benazir's case. This showed that he is gearing up for a battle against the country's judiciary if need be. And in this he has the support of the people.
In the words of political commentator Mazhar Abbas, "If one compares Bilawal's political debut to that of Benazir's, she was luckier on many fronts. She received her political training from none other than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who always took her with him on foreign tours, including the one to Shimla, and introduced her to former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Benazir was even allowed to give interviews to Indian journalists."
But those times were different and Benazir had to fight with one of Pakistan's most repressive dictatorships. In comparison, when Bilawal came of age, the military strongman was General Musharraf who Benazir saw in a more favourable light and also ended up doing a political deal with. The politics has changed.
The question now remains where Bilawal will go from here. He may have the political support but will he be Pakistan's next prime minister? Or will he spend some time learning the ropes of politics?
In the larger scheme of things, Bilawal's entry means that the People's Party has a younger face. This comes as a reply to the younger image portrayed by Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the PML-N party of Mian Nawaz Sharif. In comparison to both these parties, the Peoples Party has a much larger vote bank especially in the Sindh province and also the southern parts of Punjab province. The party's main challenge seems to be to be able to move ahead on a unified platform. It has had some defections but these have been minor players. Some say that the bigger issue was the way Zardari is running the party and in this the entry of Bilawal helps soothe the nerves of the old guard.
As things stand, there is little chance that Bilawal will stand for elections at this stage. "He is too young to contest," says family friend and current minister Khurshid Shah. Instead, there are expectations that he will try and work towards reorganising the party and reenergising it. Others say that he will contest for parliament but stay in the background. Many agree that at this stage, the political heir to the Bhutto legacy will very much remain under the wings of his father.
"Make no mistake that at this stage it is not Bilawal but Zardari who calls the shots. And this will remain how things will be in the coming years," says one commentator.
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