Wednesday, November 29, 2023

If Zardari isn’t taking Bilawal seriously then no one will

It is time for Zardari to not only repose confidence in Bilawal but also let the young lad lead the party

Peoples Party (PPP) Co-Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari and PPP Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are addressing a press conference, at Zardari House in Islamabad on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. — PPI
Peoples Party (PPP) Co-Chairman, Asif Ali Zardari and PPP Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari are addressing a press conference, at Zardari House in Islamabad on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. — PPI

Assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto (BB) once said about her political journey,” I have not chosen it, it has chosen me.” She knew the possible threat to her life before travelling to Karachi from Dubai on October 18th, 2007. So, she decided that her spouse and children would stay back and she would be welcomed by nearly half a million people alongside three suicide bombers, assigned to kill her. She survived the first attempt. The second was in Peshawar, but her assailants finally succeeded in Rawalpindi.

Bilawal, who was a student at that time and certainly was not ready to enter politics and take over such a responsible position and that too at a time when his mother was assassinated. Sindh was burning on that fatal day when Asif Ali Zardari, during the first Central Executive Committee (CEC) meeting in Larkana after BB's martyrdom, revealed her "will" to the party. He declared Bilawal the chairman of the party and himself the "caretaker" or co-chairman till his firstborn was ready to take the helm of the party.

Many of Zardari's critics raise questions about BB's "will". However, former BBC veteran journalist Owen Bennett Jones, in his book "The Bhutto Dynasty”, mentioned about the former premier’s last dinner with her husband in New York City, hosted by her key aide in the US, Hussain Haqqani.

“In the course of that meal, she said that she did not believe that Bilawal — still a student — was ready to run the party. Asif would have to lead until her son was in a better position to take over,” writes Jones. So, she knew what was coming up.

Zardari, during the course of the CEC meeting, had almost nominated the late Makhdoom Amin Faheem, the then President of Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPP-P) as the party’s candidate for prime minister but later during the press conference, he took a "U-turn" and said, the party would decide who would be the next PM after elections.

At that time many thought Sanam Bhutto, now the only surviving member among Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s children, would lead the party but despite her presence at Garhi Khuda Bux, she kept herself away from political matters. One wonders when will she "break her silence" as she has been the witness to many ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies in the family from Bhutto’s execution to her sister Benazir’s assassination, from her brother Shahnawaz's tragic death allegedly by poisoning to the cold-blooded murder of her another brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto and the sad demise of her ailing mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto. But, she kept herself out of political affairs within the family even when her sister Benazir and brother Murtaza Bhutto developed differences.

Zardari also belongs to a political family that was once anti-Bhutto — when his late father Hakim Ali Zardari was associated with the defunct National Awami Party (NAP). However, Zardari was never active in politics till he got married to Benazir in 1987. Bilawal, now 35 years of age, is his eldest and only son. He also has two daughters Bakhtawar, who like Sanam kept herself away from political affairs and Aseefa Bhutto, whom both Asif and Bilawal had confidence in leading the political legacy.

Bilawal was too young when he was named as chairman of PPP but even after nearly 10 years as chairman, it was surprising to hear from his father and former president of Pakistan that Bilawal was still "untrained" and in a way politically immature. It was not the first time Zardari had called him "untrained" during the interview with renowned TV anchor and journalist, Hamid Mir.

In 2015, Bilawal was formally launched to lead the party in full flow with a fiery speech at Jinnah Ground opposite Mazar-e-Quaid-e-Azam and challenged both his political rivals Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain. His outburst came at a time when Asif Zardari had other ideas. Therefore, in what looked like a "damage-control", exercise, he called Bilawal, "bacha" (a child) and immature at a workers’ convention in Lahore when party workers asked why Bilawal was not there.

Zardari at that time neither wanted "confrontation" with Altaf nor with Sharif, but Bilawal was of the view that the party's "friendly opposition" kind of relationship was damaging for the party. He was also in favour of challenging Altaf politically.

Months later in 2015, the party’s high command which gathered in Dubai for a marathon three-day meeting to discuss the causes behind the 2013 election defeat, conducted a complete "postmortem" in the presence of Zardari, Bilawal, Faryyal and other top leaders. Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, who attended the meeting once told me that he proposed that all veterans of 70 and above, including himself should take a backseat and let Bilawal run the party. Some other party leaders from Punjab in particular agreed with Aitzaz’s views.

PPP could not recover in Punjab after 2013 and many party leaders, workers and more importantly traditional party voters also switched from PPP to PTI for two reasons. One was PPP-PML-N friendly opposition, and second, the young voters were more attracted to the heroic image of Imran Khan and within the PPP there was no towering political personality after Benazir Bhutto.

Both the PML-N and PPP found it hard to defend the last 18 months of their government due to massive price hikes and are now trying to shift the blame. Bilawal, who was the foreign minister (FM) in the PDM government, only defended his performance as the FM but held the PDM government responsible for the whole mess.

Thus, he has not only been hitting PML-N hard, but at times his tone has been even much harsher against PTI, he also questioned why PTI was not getting a level playing field. He has even questioned the role of the establishment and once again Zardari decided to "clarify" a few things to counter Bilawal’s emotional outburst and to pass on the message to those who matter that his son was still not "mature" enough to lead the government.

His whole interview with Hamid Mir was not only aimed at presenting his political narrative but also at distancing himself to some extent from his son Bilawal’s political narrative. But as one of the veterans of the party requesting anonymity said, “Zardari sahab’s selection of words was not proper, particularly at a time when Bilawal was in full flow. Such matters should have been discussed behind closed doors, not in public.”

Shortly after the meeting, both father and son left for Dubai amid speculations of widening divides between them but the party sources confirmed that their presence was just a coincidence.

Perhaps, one of the reasons behind releasing the photograph of Zardari with his son Bilawal during the family reunion in Dubai was to give the impression that both father and son are on the same page. But, this is not the first time that such speculations and reports regarding the political differences between father and son have started doing rounds. They however are in force at a time when the PPP would be celebrating its 56th Foundation Day on November 30.

As far as the controversy regarding the "three P" or "four P" within the party, historically it is the three P (PPP) which has the election symbol "sword" — always seen and regarded as the symbol of the PPP since 1967.

First General Zia ul Haq and then General Pervez Musharraf tried to "finish" the party but failed. Zia through the Election Commission got the "sword" removed from the Election Commission's list of symbols. He also held elections on a non-party basis but failed to wipe out the party. Musharraf even had Benazir Bhutto disqualified. He also created PPP-Patriot. Thus, PPP’s leader Makhdoom Amin Fahim with the consent of Benazir launched PPP-Parliamentarians. But, neither the BB nor PPP ever surrendered its claim on three P while the four P formula was just temporary.

Since 2008, there has been an internal debate within the PPP that there is no need for PPP-Parliamentarians after the PPP was finally allotted the historic symbol, the "sword". Thus, it was surprising to hear from Zardari that BB had asked him to keep the status of PPP-P intact.

It would be interesting to see what position the party would take in the convention and perhaps the controversy and debate die down now with general elections only two months away but, like in 2008 this issue would remain inconclusive whether the party’s recognition is three P or four P. But, the people will not take Bilawal seriously after none other than his father called him untrained and politically immature.

It is time for Zardari to not only repose confidence in Bilawal but also let the young lad lead the party to bury the four P and revive the original PPP formed on November 30, 1967, in Lahore at the residence of Dr Mubashir Hasan. Zardari also has to control the damage he has caused by calling his son "untrained". Who will take him seriously if his father is not ready to?

The writer is a columnist and analyst at GEO, Jang and The News. He posts @MazharAbbasGEO

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this piece are the writer's own and don't necessarily reflect's editorial policy.