Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s quiet exit to Dubai sometime last week could mean any of several things: business rendezvous, recreation break, sabbatical from security scares, brat tantrum. It could also mean a mid-campaign shove to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) by its recently anointed patron-in-chief.
Few in Pakistan are prepared to be convinced yet the prodigal Bhutto son has pressed self-eject following a dust-up with his presidential father and de facto PPP boss Asif Ali Zardari. Many are ingesting it with dollop doses of salt because Bilawal’s departure — and its circumstances — was revealed by an Indian wire service, the Press Trust of India (PTI).
This makes for an enigmatic pattern to blockbuster newsbreaks on Bilawal, whatever their worth or truth: they seem to originate not in Pakistan but pop up elsewhere in the subcontinent. Last September, the Blitz of Dhaka had front-paged a flaming, though fanciful, tale of illicit love between Bilawal and Pakistan’s glamorous foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar. It is still not clear what part, if any, Bilawal or Hina Khar had in it; the ISI most likely did. The appearance of the ISI’s by-line on it dealt the tale of the “fiery affair” a swift kiss of death.
But stranger things have happened in Pakistan than celebrity scandal; that’s commonplace for Pakistan’s influential and politically incestuous elite swim a small and crowded pond.
Believing doesn’t come easy, so much of Pakistan’s truth, and lies, come filtered through anonymous conspiracy servers.
Unbelieving can be a risk of equal measure for the unbelievable often happens.
Military generals have hung their political masters, or unseated them from airborne command posts and flung them into dungeons. Most top competitors for power in election scheduled for May have spent a fair part of their lives in exile, ordered or self-imposed. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who returned home last week to contest on a dare, has had the singular privilege of banishing adversaries abroad and getting banished in turn. The only exception is the Tehrik-e-Insaf spearhead Imran Khan, who anyhow spent long spells abroad, at play, and is cheerily daring the nightmare of taking guard on a minefield.
Pakistan is an incredulous place. Anything can happen, but never bet on it.
Inured to the spew of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, Pakistanis have learnt to negotiate the pendulum between believing nothing and believing anything possible. It is not for nothing that disreputable murmur still floats about an “insider hand” in the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
So when speculation swirls about Bilawal’s huffed passage to Dubai, there are bound to be many competing narratives at play. The most popular, though not necessarily accurate, one is that he has left fraught with frustration over his inability to seize control of the PPP and give it new direction.
Two, at best three, people best know what happened. Bilawal, his father Asif Ali Zardari, and the latter’s domineering Karachi-based sister Faryal Talpur. But in the absence of direct word from any of those, hearsay has flourished. Bilawal wanted to give the PPP a more modern outlook, he wished it to take a firmer stand against the Talibani attackers of Malala Yusufzai, against the sporadic anti-Shia violence, against those seeking rampant application of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws, which became ruse for the daylight assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard.
Zardari, it is said, has held Bilawal’s hand against making any change tack, any reform. Not in election year, the hardboiled politico father has remonstrated with his callow reformer son. The current temper of the Pakistani street isn’t amenable to imported notions of liberalism, such as Bilawal may espouse, having been educated almost exclusively in the West. Pandering to street sentiment might suit the PPP’s electoral prospects best, Zardari is said to believe, not proscription. The son, in turn, has been telling his father the PPP’s ways are old-fashioned, that Imran Khan is drawing the youth away. Unknown sources quoted Bilawal issuing his father an unverifiable threat. “If I were to vote,” irate son told unmoving father recently, “Even I wouldn’t vote the PPP.”
A senior PPP leader from Karachi confirmed differences to The Telegraph. “There has been talk of differences between father and son and between Bilawal and his aunt Faryal, who is powerful in Sindh,” he said, “But the difference in outlook is generational, it will sort itself out, the Bhutto-Zardaris are too smart to throw it all away because of internal differences.”
But if political differences are indeed the reason for Bilawal’s decision to leave, this may not be the best juncture for elections are round the corner. PPP spokesman Qamar Zaman Kaira allayed suggestions that Bilawal’s absence from the scene will impact the campaign. “He faces immense threat to his security and Bilawal was not meant to campaign anyway, he would be speaking to people through video-conferences and telephone lines, so it does not matter where he is physically. Even President Zardari will not be seen too prominently on the campaign trail for security reasons.”
But another PPP leader based in Islamabad wasn’t as sanguine. “Bilawal has been made leader only because he carries the Bhutto vote and the Bhutto mantle, after all,” he said, “If the Bhutto constituency senses he has been sidelined by the Zardaris, the PPP’s fortunes may suffer.”
Bilawal, currently six months short of the 25-year eligibility to contest polls, was crowned the PPP’s patron-in-chief at a rousing show of strength in the Bhutto stronghold of Garhi Khuda Baksh on December 27, the date of Benazir’s assassination. But those that thought he would assume real control of the party from his father have been disappointed; President Zardari, in the words of a senior PPP office bearer, remains the party’s “real daddy”. And, from all appearances, daddy remains keen on command. He is recently believed to have told Bilawal that there is “time yet” before his grooming for leadership is complete. Bilawal may just have chosen to spend some of that time away in Dubai.