While the royal wedding of William and Kate was in full force, we had another kind of dynastic proclamation heading our way from London town. Pakistan Peoples Party heir apparent, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, conveyed a message through his staff that he had decided to ‘wait’ a while before entering Pakistani politics. So here is my short open epistle to the PPP co-chairman:
Thank you Bilawal, for your patience. I can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. All the speeches since your mother’s tragic assassination have been sadly full of unimpressive invocations to your family name rather than any meaningful ideas for improving your homeland. May I specially request you to move beyond the vacuous slogan “jeay Bhutto”? No doubt your family has incurred many sacrifices, and your mother was a particularly brave individual, but this country desperately needs to move beyond personality cults. You simply cannot let the PPP sycophants boost your ego to the point that you lose sight of all the ideas of liberal democracy and meritocracy, which you undoubtedly studied at Oxford. You may well prove to be a great leader but please, claim that fame through merit. I know your fans within the PPP try to excuse your lack of deep roots in Pakistan or your lack of Urdu facility through comparisons with Jinnah — but please, let’s be realistic. First, Jinnah was not democratically elected — he was appointed governor general. Second, that was a different time in terms of Anglophilia. Even your mother realised the importance of linguistic and personal connection. Spend a couple of years living in Pakistan and working on humanitarian activities. Mend ties with your cousin, Fatima. You could both learn from each other in different ways. Fatima could teach you some Urdu and a sense of direct connection to this country. You could teach her to not be so easily beguiled by anti-imperialist rhetoric. So that’s all for now, dear Bilawal. Keep in touch and start using Twitter like your sister!
Okay, now for the commentary on this epistle. According to one of his mentors, and current MNA Farahnaz Ispahani, Bilawal has a special interest in the youth wing of the PPP. That is indeed a promising sign. No doubt celebrities such as Bilawal can play an important role in galvanising the masses. But once they have done so, their aim should be to cultivate the best leadership based on merit and not abuse the power of populism. Such an evolution is also essential for the PPP itself, which no doubt has distinguished itself as a largely non-violent and bold stalwart of the democratic process in Pakistan. To mature, the party will absolutely have to go beyond the Bhutto name for leadership.
Yes, other countries have dynasties too — India has its Nehru progeny and America has the Bush bunch or the Kennedy clan. But political parties are not defined by those families to the same extent for sure. Unfortunately, in Pakistan’s case, feudal entrenchment is far more acute and we will have to move beyond it. Ironically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had initially recognised the importance of this through his efforts at land reform. Yet, he did not implement the programme with the level of care that was needed to make a political difference. Perhaps, Bilawal will revisit his grandfather’s 1972 attempt at land reform and see how best to implement it.
Dynastic politics and feudalism go hand-in-hand and lead to sterility in political development. That is why it is so important to wean ourselves off this tendency. Let’s hope that the next generation of the PPP will more substantively seek ‘democratic revenge’ in ways to vindicate the spirits of their martyrs that they so frequently invoke.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2011.