The Bilawal factor – Fahd Hussain

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BILAWAL Bhutto-Zardari’s interview to BBC has set social media ablaze. The PPP chairman said he was surprised by PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif’s naming of the chief of the army and ISI as those responsible for stealing the 2018 elections. He said at the All Parties Conference everyone had agreed to not name names but use the broader term ‘establishment’ when criticising those who placed PTI in power. But Bilawal also said Sharif would not have said the names unless he had proof.

Does this amount to Bilawal cleaving the opposition alliance PDM and sabotaging PML-N’s anti-government campaign? Is the Bilawal factor finally kicking in?

Bilawal Bhutto finds himself in a curiously interesting and genuinely precarious situation. In a ring full of political wrestlers body-slamming each other, he’s practising Shaolin Kung Fu. In a battlefield booming with heavy-calibre guns, he is fighting with the finesse of an Olympic fencer. And yet, one wrong step, one mistimed duck and dodge, one little stumble or miscalculated pivot, and he could be knocked right out of the ring.

And what place better to watch him do his thing than his latest stomping ground: Gilgit-Baltistan. High above the world so high, in the lap of mountainous grandeur, he has crisscrossed every single constituency in a bid to win the Nov 15 elections. According to people in Gilgit and Skardu, Bilawal has almost single-handedly galvanised electoral activity in the region and fired up his support base. “The campaign trail was fairly cold here,” says a seasoned journalist and activist from GB, “but Bilawal has charged people and brought them out of their houses.”

When all eyes are on Imran Khan and Maryam Nawaz, Bilawal may be the man to watch.

If the PPP wins the GB elections and forms the government, it would be Bilawal’s single biggest political achievement since his launch as the heir apparent to the Bhutto legacy. In such uncertain times however, Bilawal is exuding cautious aggression. In PDM, he is balancing the no-holds-barred approach of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Maulana Fazlur Rehman with a more nuanced line of attack. While the others are primed to play the resignations card, he continues with his guarded choice of words. In fact, he is juggling competing agendas rather skillfully.

He handled the Karachi embarrassment maturely and firmly. When the Sindh police broke into the hotel and arrested retired Capt Safdar, PDM faced its first real challenge. The initial reactions from the Sindh government and the waffling from officials in the afternoon seemed to bear down heavily on the nascent alliance. Then Bilawal saved the day — and possibly the alliance — by delivering a passionate and charged press conference calling out the army chief directly to look into the affairs of the ‘federal agencies’.

Then there are the optics. Bilawal is way ahead of other politicians in terms of saying the right things for the right reasons. At a time when progressive causes seem to be fading out of fashion, he continues to trend them. Minorities’ issues, women’s rights, media freedoms — you name it and Bilawal is on the forefront. Not that he has much competition in this area — regressive as the current crop is — but still he has been admirably consistent in words and deeds.

Little surprise then that a lot of people — including many important ones — are taking a fresh look at Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.

But wait. Not so fast.

There are issues. He runs the risk of being perceived as running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Among the three main parties of the PDM, his is the only one with a stake in the present system. This makes him cautious. It may also make him pliant. Which may make his allies cautious.

Speaking of the Sindh government, Bilawal has another problem: the Sindh government. It may have displayed dynamism under Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah in the early days of Covid-19, but not by a stretch can it be called a governance success. Maryam Nawaz can get away by talking the big talk because she doesn’t have to walk this talk, but Bilawal does. He needs to put his governance where his mouth is.

But beyond these one-liners, Bilawal is weighed down by the same thing he is scaled up by: his legacy. Between martyrdom and malpractice lies a wide Bhutto-Zardari spectrum. Bilawal will struggle to find his place within these two ends. This is but natural. And yet the contradictions ingrained within the spectrum manifest themselves every so often in what Bilawal does, and what he does not; in what he says and what he says not. The vicissitudes of his political being — from lofty rhetoric in parliament to criminal apathy in Thar, from a global value system to a feudal belief system, from the deferential swings of maternity to the perceptional swings of paternity — all these rage inside him like a modulated storm struggling to break free on the horizon.

Cleverness repeated over and over does not translate into wisdom. Bravado done again and again does not transform into courage. Bilawal finds himself situated between two extremes. He cannot match the obsessive rigidity of Imran Khan and he cannot compete with the steely resolve of Nawaz Sharif. It may be hard for him to find his moorings when the absolute certainty of the two sides makes everything uncertain. Where do you anchor amid stormy waves?

Bilawal Bhutto may not need to anchor if he has the smarts of his mother and the wits of his father. He has room to manoeuvre and space to pivot; he has time to buy and a path to build. But before this he must look at the desolation of lands his party governs, and the rejection of lands it used to govern, and answer one thing: what does he truly stand for?