At Benazir Bhuttos’ death anniversary in Rawalpindi, her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, paid immense homage to his late mother. He also laid down his party’s political vision.

Imran Yaqub Khan

In his speech there was a charge sheet against the incumbent Pakistan tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) lead government, and a resolve for the country through the party manifesto of the Pakistan People’s Party.

In one short sentence, Bilawal laid bare the contradictory nature of the government’s claims of forming a Madina like welfare state, and its actions. “You cannot form the state of Madina while practicing the politics of Koofa.”

His speech took me back in time, to when the late and lamented Benazir Bhutto was alive. In her book, Benazir had written how she came to select the name Bilawal for her first born. She had written that the birth was premature, and as yet the family had not decided on a name. She had received many letters recommending that she name her son for her father, Zulfiqar. She herself was inclined to name her son Shahnawaz, after the young brother who had died mysteriously. But when someone talked of her unborn child as Shahnawaz, her heart sank, for an image of her brother’s lifeless body came immediately to mind. She knew that the name Shahnawaz would remind her of that terrible scene all her life, so she chose Bilawal, which means “unparalleled”. In Sindh, a holy man named Bilawal had waged a war against injustice. Asif Ali Zardari also had an ancestor named Bilawal. Finally, in its meaning, the name echoed her own. And so, she decided on Bilawal.
As she had hoped, Bilawal did appear unparalleled on that day in Rawalpindi, so reminiscent of his illustrious mother. Like the holy man he was named after, challenging cruelty and injustice, whether carried out in the name of accountability or elsewise.

A politician from Rawalpindi, along with others, loves to comment unfavorably, and in the most unacceptable words, on Bilawal’s accent and manner of speaking. These old men call him naïve, inexperienced and a child. Such comments never deterred Benazir and neither will they deter Bilawal. When she first came back from exile, Benazir held a massive rally in Peshawar where she addressed the taunts directed at her because of her gender.

“They call me weak because I am a woman,” she thundered down from the stage. “I am a Muslim woman and I am proud of my heritage. I have Bibi Khadija’s (RA) patience, the persistence of Bibi Zainab (RA) and the courage of Bibi Ayesha (RA). I am Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s daughter, Shahnawaz Bhutto’s sister and I am your sister too. I challenge my opponents, come face me in the battlefield of democratic elections.”

The crowd, 90% of whom were men, burst out into applause. She then shouted “Zia, go!” and the crowd echoed her, “Go, go go” the Pushto words rang through the air.

Back to the present times, and in Rawalpindi, Bilawal also gave a comprehensive summary of the government’s performance. He talked of raging unemployment, said that parliament was under lock, the judiciary was being attacked, provinces were being deprived of their rights, personal freedoms are threatened while crisis upon crisis were raining down.
“Those who said Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari will never come out, can you see now what has happened?” he asked.“They are both out of incarceration.” He also said that 2020 will be an election year.

In the current atmosphere of collision between state institutions, the government has shown its inexperience by not curtailing differences, which could lead to dangerous instability. Saturated with the desire for revenge, the government keeps on filing cases without proof, which then force the courts to give bails. Then the government reacts, knowingly or unknowingly, in a way which leads to further mistrust on these institutions.

Bilawal, meanwhile, intends to take forward his mother’s grand battle against non-democratic forces. History is being repeated, in the taunts he has had to face and the enemies he has had to battle. In him, his party and democratic forces have found young leadership that is cognizant of political history while being heir to their political wisdom and patience.

But, all these positives aside, the road ahead will not be easy for Bilawal. He has the dual challenges of making his party popular once again while getting rid of the baggage of the corruption charges leveled against his father and his aunt, Faryal Talpur. According to the stats compiled by the Election Commission of Pakistan, the PPP vote bank is continually shrinking after the 2008 elections. Will Bilawal be able to increase this vote bank just with his speeches? Will PPP be able to put up an exemplary performance in Sindh? Will Punjab once again fall in love with the PPP?

Every year on Benazir’s death anniversary, Bilawal also has to listen to criticism of how the PPP government handled the investigation into her assassination. Asif Ali Zardari sent a video message for the crowd, in which he said that Bilawal is standing at the same place where his grandfather and his mother were martyred by dictators, but where are those dictators now?

But are such statements enough to get rid of the impression that Zardari compromised with his wife’s killers to get yet another shot at governance? Or are the ones who ask these questions the same people who believe in the politics of revenge and indulge in it themselves?

The best revenge, then, may indeed be to bring the country out of the spiral of revenge based politics and implement true democracy in letter and spirit.

This article first appeared in Daily Dunya in Urdu.