An open letter to Bilawal

Published: May 10, 2011
The writer is Professor of Environmental Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His books include Islam and Education: Conflict and conformity in Pakistan’s madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009)

The writer is Professor of Environmental Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His books include Islam and Education: Conflict and conformity in Pakistan’s madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009) [email protected]

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.

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Reader Comments (40)

  • Syed
    May 10, 2011 - 11:41PM

    Superb Article !!!Recommend

  • hero marka
    May 10, 2011 - 11:44PM

    i have come to hate ppp and its sick policies. so bilawal i have no hopes with. i would rather wank than tie my hopes to him.Recommend

  • May 11, 2011 - 12:07AM

    Mr Saleem Ali, what on earth are you on about. Your article as it seems to me has taken for granted that Bilawal has a throne awaiting his arrival.
    There is no such luxury awaiting children of people who steal from Pakistan and spend in the west on more than just education for their children.
    Is politics a game only taught in the western universities? As far as i am concerned, Bilawal nor his father nor for that his mother were leaders of Pakistan.
    I dont care where his roots may lie, simply because he happens to be born a Zardari, not Bhutto guarantees him no place in Pakistani politics.

    This may be the last term of the PPP before it breaks down entirely, PPP as i have always known it has always come into power on the pretext of the Bechara. To hell with the Bechara’s. I couldn’t care less that Bhutto provided the constitution for he was also the man who like todays politicians allowed the break up of Pakistan for his own seat.

    Times have changed and Bilawal may very well find his father sitting on some island never to return to Pakistan once his term ends. I will not be surprised, however my sorrow will always remain why we let these looters go and live life in luxury of the western world.Recommend

  • Majid
    May 11, 2011 - 12:49AM

    Looks like “Javed Nama” :) Fantastic effort!Recommend

  • Humanity
    May 11, 2011 - 1:10AM

    Is Bilawaal the next best shot at leading this nation out of the abyss this country has to offer? Give me a break puh-leeze !Recommend

  • faraz
    May 11, 2011 - 1:20AM

    PPP has lost support in the upper or middle class or leftists or liberals, its entire vote bank now lies in the lower social class. Recommend

    May 11, 2011 - 1:56AM

    if bilawal zardari ever wants to enter Pak politics,first he should surrender all the black money his family has accumulated.with this baggage he wont make it too far in Pak politics.
    Also the writer talks about ‘sacrifices’ made by bilawal’s family..i jst wonder what these ‘sacrifices’ have accomplishd for the poor of this country?they have only given the worst of the worst their political milage i.e ‘our leader got killed,so we now have the licence to loot and plunder this country’.bilawal wont be any different.Recommend

    May 11, 2011 - 2:05AM

    i m also not particularly hopeful about bilawal zardari’ political future because its already been shot in the foot by the history of corruption of his everybody knows who his career coach will be..
    so he better stay there in oxford and spare usRecommend

  • May 11, 2011 - 2:24AM

    Well our parliamentary system allows him to get elected as an MNA just by securing enough votes in his home constituency. Who isnt going to vote for him in Larkana? Lets see what happens, Oxford has produced its fair share of colonialists, despots, authoritarians and dictators. Could go either way. Recommend

  • May 11, 2011 - 2:34AM

    I like this article. Its articute advise and concise style make it worthwhile… laikin something isnt rite …

    Professor Saleem, sir, you would know this is best, considering your pedagogic credentials … to influence (lead) you need to match (pace) the subject …

    this article, as good as it maybe, is like “bhains ke agay been bajana” ..

    “Bill” doesn’t care. In fact, we, the people of pakistan dont want “Bill” to care.
    As bad as we maybe, we are still better off without this bhutto-zardari.Recommend

  • Wasil Arain
    May 11, 2011 - 4:47AM

    Nice try, but it is not possible to milk a bull.Recommend

  • Ahmed
    May 11, 2011 - 5:27AM

    Who is bilawal?Recommend

  • Ijaz Khan
    May 11, 2011 - 6:24AM

    I laughed & laughed at the line that leadership on merit must be encouraged:of BILAWAL.
    Did this person writing, remember HOW Billoo Badshah is coming to seat?
    What pathetic standards!Recommend

  • George
    May 11, 2011 - 7:43AM

    Long live the dynasties of South Asia. Long live Crown Prince Bilawaal of Pakistan & Crown Prince Rahul of India..


  • KK
    May 11, 2011 - 8:41AM

    Please do people of Pakistan a favor and don’t enter politics. Recommend

  • Malik Liaquat Hussain
    May 11, 2011 - 8:48AM

    First of all Mr. Bilawal should return all money of poor people of Pakistan which his parents looted in save abroad then he must entered into politicsRecommend

  • HANA
    May 11, 2011 - 10:21AM

    What a pathetic article!
    It is okay for people like Nawaz Sharif to do politics, people who were created by ISI , and General Zia Ul Haq….Bilawal rightly said that if some one has a problem with him entering the politics, they should not vote for PPP, it is as simple as that. He is not going to hold a gun to your head and ask you to vote for him.
    Respect the people of Pakistan, and let them choose whoever they wantRecommend

  • No Hypocrisy
    May 11, 2011 - 10:24AM

    Thank you sir! I REALLY Hope for the sake of Pakistan that Mr. Bilawal reads this and more importantly heeds this!Recommend

  • Z Khan
    May 11, 2011 - 10:44AM

    Someone tell me this article is a joke, please! Recommend

  • Ali Bangash
    May 11, 2011 - 10:51AM

    Fantastic !!!Recommend

  • D. Powers
    May 11, 2011 - 11:06AM

    Countrymen, Bilawal is Zardari’s son………………………………what do you expect from him??? Recommend

  • Paras Vikmani
    May 11, 2011 - 11:31AM

    more than Bilawal i think Fatima is a better choice for Pakistan’s futureRecommend

  • parvez
    May 11, 2011 - 11:44AM

    Balawal will do what people like him do. No amount of Oxford, Harvard polish works, its what’s in his blood that matters. For the people of Pakistan his return will be a throw of the dice and upto now the dice has always been loaded, against the people.Recommend

  • Ali Nawaz
    May 11, 2011 - 12:17PM

    Nice Article. What people can expect from Zardari’s son??
    What Zardari has done so far in three years for the betterment of Pakistan?
    How a person can lead a nation who even don’t know how to speak his national language?
    A person who never lives in Pakistan for a long time how he can know the problems of Pak people?
    There must be some new faces to lead this nation and get rid of the crises.Recommend

  • M. H. Hussain
    May 11, 2011 - 12:21PM

    He can do nothing…..Like Teacher, Like Student and probably I dont have to remind you that who’s his teacher!!!!…….. He will most likely be a puppet with his strings in his teachers’ hands…Recommend

  • May 11, 2011 - 12:31PM

    “First, Jinnah was not democratically elected — he was appointed governor general”

    This is a de jure fact. He was de facto in power because of the mass support that he had gotten in 1945-1946 elections.

    I am afraid Saleem Ali has gotten his facts mixed up. Jinnah was not just another Dominion governor general holding the office of the representative of the Queen. He was the head of newly founded dominion which was given independence under Independence of India Act 1947. He became this head because the Muslim League won close to 87 percent of the seats it contested in the aforesaid elections.

    The distinction between an appointed and an elected office is not as important as the distinction between a popular politician and a bureaucrat etc.

    Jinnah had served as an elected representative from Bombay from 1910-1947 (with brief absences between 1921-1922 and 1931-1934 winning the election every 2 years…

    So those who are making the comparison are right – whatever that amounts to- because Jinnah was the leader of the second largest party in India and could not speak anymore than the tonga walla’s Urdu. Recommend

  • BruteForce
    May 11, 2011 - 1:11PM

    One thing about Dynasties in a Democracy is that the people wield the ultimate power.

    Democracy is designed to self-correct itself. No use talking negatively about it, as a result.

    We have to talk about individuals, rather than Dynastic politics as a whole.Recommend

  • Ammad
    May 11, 2011 - 2:37PM

    We know:

    His grandfather was executed. His uncle’s were murdered. His mother was assassinated. His father spent some 10 odd years in jail.

    You say:

    He has a wealth of appx. 2 Billion dollars.

    History suggests:

    Statistical inference would hint he will have a very short life!

    What he proposes:

    Vote for PPP to bring them in power

    Like someone already said, he’s not putting a gun to your head to grab the reigns of this nation. We sit behind the computer, without any sacrifice, announce our patriotism, vision, intelligence and strength of character and criticize everyone. Most of us are not even responsible for 10 people. I think we all need to look in the mirror. Recommend

  • Abu Abdullah
    May 11, 2011 - 3:10PM

    @ Saleem Ali

    very well written, thanks for giving words to my sentiments.

    @ Hana AKA Bilawal did the truth hurt?Recommend

  • Rana Sufyan Arshad
    May 11, 2011 - 3:40PM

    Let the people of Pakistan decide if they’d elect Chairman Bilawal Bhutto or not. It’s not in the hands of ‘Clicking Revolutionists’! Recommend

  • Policy Analyst
    May 11, 2011 - 4:52PM


    Can’t believe you’re actually talking to PPPPPPPP. I honestly believe PPP is beyond hope. Parties born out of revolution cannot govern and neither can PPP. Not now, not in the future. But I have no way of convincing my simplistic fellow citizens with tribal loyalties.

    I think PPP is a lost cause. Recommend

  • ahsan
    May 11, 2011 - 5:34PM

    ”’You may well prove to be a great leader but please, claim that fame through merit.””

    this just sums it all up, though sadly we seldom witness!!!!Recommend

  • May 11, 2011 - 6:26PM

    OMG, sounds so low … didn’t stick anywhere else so now trying to secure somethign for the future ???Recommend

  • Adnan
    May 12, 2011 - 12:26AM

    Nice Article: @ all critics above. How many of you people have come out to vote on Polling Day or made a practical effort to change the political scene of Pakistan? Just commenting on a nicely done article is all we you can do. Recommend

  • May 12, 2011 - 9:06PM

    Been there done that and doing it still.
    Voted for an independent who lost.
    Have finally started working with honest people making gutters for the poor people outside their houses which the current MPA’s and MNA’s wont do for their people.
    Hopefully will be standing in the next elections and hope to amass the educated class for a right to choose alternatives.
    Winning or losing is not the prerogative the idea is to give choices.
    I would sincerely advise some of us here to stop sitting around waiting for monkeys being written open letters and offer themselves for a public position.
    Winning is not part of the deal an alternative solution being present is.
    Think about it, some of us here are far better than most sitting in parliament. Recommend

  • Ammar
    May 12, 2011 - 9:13PM

    LIKE WRITER LIKE PUBLISHER! No respect for public openion, support, and decision :) what a shame!Recommend

  • May 12, 2011 - 10:25PM

    Who told you that Fatima Bhutto can speak Urdu? When Benazir died, a large section of the Pakistani media convulsed on her asking for statements and she was very hesitant to say anything—it was very clear that her Urdu was completely broken—on the other hand, she was very comfortable with foreign media. I am not sure what Fatima can teach Bilawal—her own understanding of Pakistan is quite wanting, not to mention extremely skewed. To the point that she will defend the Taliban as long as it means taking an anti-Zardari stance.Recommend

  • Eric Kumar
    May 13, 2011 - 12:55AM

    What a joke. Whta’s wronge with our brains. seems like we have beans left in our cranium. What do we think all the sons and daughters of our funky polticians are the only left to run our countries.Now we hear about Bilawal. Kid just finish his schooling and he has become Einstein and he has all the wisdom of universe to run Pakitan. He might not know how to clean his bottom but thanks to our brains we think he is our Mesiah.Recommend

  • Saleem Kashmiri
    May 13, 2011 - 7:48AM

    The stupid jialas will keep on shouting Jiaa Bhutto even if you sell their mothers I have still to come across a single truly educated person who cannot see through the antics of these so called jialas and yet these blind deaf and dumb jialas will be there on election day to cast their votes while we will continue to sit at our computers and vent our anger against them Recommend

  • PetrolPadri
    May 13, 2011 - 11:16PM

    Saleem saab good job, you really are one helluva TC expert. You have played a long innings, by banking on bilawal u might be able to gain some personal favors sometime in the futureRecommend

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