In late December, on the fifth anniversary of his mother’s assassination and with his family’s mausoleum in view, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari stood before a massive crowd at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, a village in Sindh province, and was anointed as the last great hope for Pakistan’s most prominent political dynasty.
Bilawal’s father, Asif Ali Zardari — Pakistan’s president and the co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) —informed the audience that his son’s political training has just begun. Bilawal, his father said, will not only be learning politics from his elders, but he will also be learning about Pakistan from the masses. Having lived most of his life outside of Pakistan, and, until recently, having been unable to speak any of Pakistan’s major languages — Bilawal has much to learn. That Bilawal has been chairman of the PPP for five years is incidental. The twenty-four-year-old was a mere teenager when his mother, Benazir, was assassinated in late 2007. He was brought into the limelight merely to ensure that no one else took his place.
Bilawal soon disappeared. With his father running the party, Bilawal was largely out of public view until he graduated from Oxford in 2010. An audience member at an Oxford University town hall discussion for Pakistanis complained that Bilawal made no effort to engage the Pakistani student populace, though he would one day be leading their country. Bilawal limited his public engagements to PPP loyalists, giving English-language speeches packed with Urdu slogans about martyrdom and sacrifice. In a 2009 speech that was widely mocked, Bilawal screamed that he and his party members will give their blood, heads, and lives in their supposed struggle for Pakistan’s masses.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Bilawal as a political joke. He has grown in the past two years. In the wake of another assassination — that of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who was killed by one of his bodyguards in 2010 because of his outspoken opposition to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws—Bilawal seemed to gain a voice. After Taseer’s murder Bilawal began speaking out against extremism and in defense of the slain governor. Though the speech was delivered in English and in London, it had none of the vagueness or verbal hedging characteristic that most Pakistani politicians use when speaking about radicalism. Subsequent speeches by Bilawal, including one earlier this month, have also been marked by a similarly unapologetic tone.
Can Bilawal develop into a strong voice for Pakistani liberals, an increasingly embattled lot? His speech in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh suggests that it’s at least possible. Speaking in Urdu, Bilawal painted an image of a polarized Pakistan. There was the Pakistan of those on the side of truth — the “martyrs” Governor Taseer, Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti, anti-Taliban minister Bashir Bilour, and, of course, his mother, Benazir. And then there was the Pakistan of the “liars”: the authoritarians and terrorists who opposed democracy, and the apologists afraid of calling terrorism by its name.