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Old Sunday, December 30, 2012
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Default When a son rises

When a son rises
Ghazi Salahuddin

A son has risen on Pakistan’s political horizon. But will this brighten a landscape that is shrouded in gloom and uncertainty? Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who had already been anointed as chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, was formally launched on the emotionally-charged occasion of the fifth death anniversary of his mother Benazir Bhutto, and he certainly helped lift the spirits of the jiyalas. He spoke his lines with confidence and there was that Bhutto stamp of defiance and passion.
While the idea is that the 24-year-old leader will hold the reins of the party through the tumult of the forthcoming national elections, it is doubtful if he will be fully in charge. This is not to belittle the ability or talent of a person as young as he is to understand the problems that are confronted by us or to set the priorities that our challenges would dictate. As it is, the focus is very much on the youth and if Imran Khan is aiming to exploit this constituency, the PPP has its own superstar to show off.
The real issue is whether Asif Zardari, majestically ensconced in the President House, will call the shots or Bilawal be able to set the agenda, on the basis of advice that he seeks of his own volition. In other words, will he be inspired by the courage of his mother and his grandfather or will he submit to the expedient ways of his father? Should we expect, in the coming days, some shuffling of office-bearers at senior levels?
One headline on Friday described the occasion as ‘Bilawal’s tryst with destiny’. This is an affirmation of the thought that the torch has effectively been passed to a new generation that is raised in an enlightened environment and is motivated by modern ideas of freedom and justice. It would be nice to know that it was Bilawal who instructed Rehman Malik to lift the ban on YouTube. Even otherwise, the PPP would do well to give this impression.
Unfortunately, the speech that Bilawal delivered did not project the hope that his induction is a new beginning. His words echoed the thoughts of his father. He can still make a difference by living up to the statement that his father has also been making about standing up to the militants. After all, his party is now in power.
Perhaps I am being too wishful in suggesting that Bilawal’s political baptism is for real and not just to camouflage the dual role that the president is not supposed to be playing. It is certain that Bilawal is not well-versed with the wily ways of Pakistan’s politics. It should take time for him to know the top leaders of the party and form his own opinion about them.
There was this photograph published on some front pages in which the father is proudly raising his son’s hand, just as a trainer would rejoice in his protégé’s victory. But won’t it take something away from the stature and dignity of the young leader?
The irony here is that at the same time that Bilawal is Asif Zardari’s son, his legitimacy as the leader of the PPP must ensure that he has truly and justly inherited the Bhutto charisma. It is the survival of this charisma in Pakistan’s politics that baffles many observers. And the fact is that it remains a formidable resource, in spite of how it has been squandered by its present executor.
It was fitting that Bilawal be launched on his mother’s death anniversary because the trauma of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has repeatedly been reinforced by the rise of terrorism and militancy. The build-up to Thursday’s big show was impressive. No other party in the country is able to forge such a poignant personal bond of its followers with its leaders. This is what charismatic leadership is all about. There is obvious logic in expressing disapproval of dynastic politics. However, crisis-ridden societies somehow yearn for a charismatic leader and this charisma is likely to endure in a family. One need not go into examples.
Many questions can be raised about the impact of the Bhutto charisma on our politics. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who firmly laid its foundation with his revolutionary message to the poor and the downtrodden. Every ambitious politician must have secretly wanted to become another Bhutto, without understanding the social dynamics and the longings of our people.
Imran Khan alone had those charismatic credentials. Pakistan was lucky, for a while, that such a person was there. But he did not seem to have the intellectual attributes of ZAB and was unable to understand how a task left unfinished by ZAB had to be carried forward. It became a great tragedy for Pakistan that Imran Khan did not raise the banner of a more enlightened and somewhat left-of-centre policy to take the country into the modern world.
Benazir Bhutto inherited and transformed the Bhutto charisma. If she had been able to return to power this time, there was a strong possibility that – having learnt her lessons – she would have confronted the militants in a forthright manner. This is what her party has sadly not been able to do, despite its irreplaceable leader herself becoming a victim of militancy. Can the PPP muster enough courage now, when Bilawal is expected to exert some influence on its policy options, to resolutely take on the militants?
One knows that Bilawal had made a bold statement in London after Salmaan Taseer’s assassination, while his father had hesitated to defend his own governor. Another test for the present rulers to show the courage of their convictions came when Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban in October this year. And it was only last week when the brave ANP leader Bashir Bilour was assassinated by the same enemy.
Against this backdrop, the challenges that Pakistan faces at this time are frightening. We need strong (charismatic?) leadership to strike out a new path for the country’s survival as a democracy. Elections are approaching, though doubts have been planted in the minds of the people about how and when they are to be held. Tahirul Qadri has already demonstrated that he should not be taken lightly. We can imagine shadowy figures conspiring in the night.
So, what can a young leader, not old enough to become a member of the National Assembly, contribute to the vision and the strategy of a leading political party? Incidentally, the essential attribute of a charismatic leader is that he or she would alone be the arbiter of all decisions. That is not so in Bilawal’s case.

The writer is a staff member.
Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com
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