Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the eldest son of late Benazir Bhutto and grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB), has stormed his way into political prominence.
But unlike his grandfather and mother, Bilawal never went to jail for his political beliefs and actions.
His ‘street-cred’ – a vital badge to earn and keep by populist politicians in South Asian countries – was instead gained almost overnight by a fiery, rip-roaring speech that he delivered in the Bhutto family’s hometown, Larkana, on the sixth death anniversary of his mother (who was assassinated in December 2007).
Suddenly, the 25-year-old Bilawal, who till last November, was being seen to be nothing more than a harmless caricature of his family’s political legacy, roared his way into becoming the main news item on the evening of December 27, 2013, when during his speech in Larkana he pumped his fists, beat his chest and rolled up his sleeves (like his grandfather), and threw swinging sarcastic jibes at political opponents (like his mother), on his way to publicly ‘declare (his) war against religious extremism.’
His pumped-up declaration made him one of the few mainstream politicians in the country to openly castigate extremist outfits that have been accused of slaughtering over 50,000 Pakistani civilians, cops, soldiers and politicians since 2002.
The move to unleash radical anti-extremist rhetoric during a huge public rally was what Bilawal and his close aids believed would give him the opening he was looking for to become the Pakistan Peoples Party’s next big thing. The opening was successfully created. It was done by cleverly placing Bilawal and the future of his party on that side of the political/ideological landscape in Pakistan that has remained vacant for more than a decade now.
Ever since the 1990s the left side of the Pakistani political divide that was once firmly occupied by outfits such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the (now defunct) National Awami Party (NAP), had begun to be abandoned by most left and left-liberal parties that (after the collapse of the Cold War in 1991), began to move more to the centre, and even towards centre-right platforms.
Though ever since the conservatism of the 1980s a surge in politics based on theological assumptions and pretentions were already a growing phenomenon in Muslim countries, in the last ten years or so (or after 9/11), the societal and political shift towards the rightest sides of politics in Muslim countries saw a two-fold growth.
When Imran Khan and his once tiny party, the Pakistan Thereek-i-Insaf (PTI), suddenly erupted into prominence (and size) after a series of successful rallies in 2011 (especially in the Punjab), the rightest side of the divide became immensely cluttered.
On this side are not only the country’s two large centre-right parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the PTI, but also mainstream religious parties such as the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), and various smaller religious outfits.
On the other hand, the left-liberal parties such as the PPP and the Awami National Party (ANP), found themselves on shaky ground. They were not on the left side of the divide and certainly not on the right. They remained in a limbo of sorts.
PPP and ANP were coalition partners along with the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) during the last PPP-led government (2008-2013). They were also constant targets of religious extremists.
The third main party of the former coalition government, the MQM, also faced a series of brutal terrorist attacks by the extremists. But unlike the PPP, the attacks seemed to have pushed the MQM deeper into the left sides of the Pakistani political divide.
So what is this left side about? In the last decade or so, being on the left side of the political landscape in Pakistan has come down to mean holding left-liberal views on politics, economics and morality.
MQM has been placed here for quite a while now. So one cannot claim that this side was entirely empty before Bilwal decided to shift in.
But the MQM is a regional party, whereas the PPP is a federal-level party.
As terrorist attacks against civilians and military personnel continue to grow at an alarming rate, and the narrative of centre-right and religious parties begins to thin, the counter-narrative to this has started to find its way into the mainstream.
The centre-right and rightist narrative explains the attacks (by the extremists) as being the consequence of US drone strikes, Pakistan’s involvement in America’s War on Terror, or something being engineered by a ‘third force.’
The counter-narrative to this suggests that the proliferation of extremist thought and outfits in the country is mostly due to the follies of the Pakistani state/establishment, and of weak, appeasing politicians.
This counter-narrative first began to develop in the early 2000s on the fringes of the country’s intellectual circles.
The counter-narrative also seeks radical action from the military, the media and the government to depoliticize religion in the country and (if necessary) use force to eradicate the violent extremist and sectarian groups that have been emerging (many with state-backing) from the 1980s onwards.
After the mid-2000s, the first mainstream party to adopt the counter-narrative was the MQM along with the Pushtun nationalist outfit, the ANP. Though the PPP too agreed with certain sections of the counter-narrative, it opted not to use it to inform and design the policies it formed and followed during its last ruling tenure (2008-13).
The reason for this was that by the time the PPP, MQM and ANP managed to form a shaky coalition government at the centre in 2008, the centre-right/rightest narrative had been fully ingrained in the collective psyche of large sections of the country’s polity and society by the centre-right, religious parties and even by the electronic media.
Some believe that the Pakistani electronic media has been a major player in facilitating the proliferation of right-wing narratives in (urban) Pakistan.
However, things in this respect began to mutate at a rapid pace when centre-right parties such as the PMLN and PTI (allied with the fundamentalist JI), managed to dislodge the PPP, MQM and ANP from the centre, Punjab, Balochistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), during the May 2013 national and provincial elections.
But the violent extremist activity did not halt with the coming into power of parties that are sometimes accused of being ‘apologists’ of the extremists. On the contrary, there was actually a 40 per cent rise in attacks on military personnel, civilians and on members of non-Sunni sects as well as on some Sunni sub-sects and Christians by the banned extremist organizations.
[quote]PMLN and PTI are still not sure how much currency the counter-narrative holds in the mainstream[/quote]
Alas, by the end of last year, parts of the counter-narrative began to even echo in and around the PMLN government. The counter-narrative grew in strength in the armed forces as well where it had already been gaining acceptance and ground from 2012 onwards.
Though now under tremendous pressure to explain the recent unprecedented rise in militant and terrorist attacks, PMLN and PTI are still not sure how much currency the counter-narrative holds in the mainstream.
Both the parties are still unsure about the outcome of them fully adopting the counter-narrative. They aren’t sure whether by adopting the counter-narrative they might anger their main middle and lower-middle-class constituencies (especially in the Punjab).
This is a worry that does not bother the MQM because the nature of its main electoral centres – the urban middle-class and lower-middle-classes in cities like Karachi and Hyderabad – are somewhat different in this respect compared to those of their class contemporaries in the Punjab.
The majority of Karachi and Hyderabad’s middle and lower middle-class polities are not as vehemently right-wing as those in the Punjab, so this gives the MQM enough room to wholeheartedly weave the counter-narrative into its overall appeal.
Same is the case with PPP’s large vote bank in Sindh. The PPP is still the only party with the ability to win seats in all the four provinces of the country; but it was routed by PMLN and PTI in the Punjab and KP during the 2013 election.
The defeat is what led to the factors that played a major role in helping Bilawal to formulate his strategy to enter mainstream politics and rejuvenate the PPP by pushing it back towards the left side of the divide.
The three factors influencing this push are: (1) The party’s cautious approach towards the counter-narrative had left it sounding ambiguous, and this, coupled with its shaky performance as a ruling party between 2008 and May 2013, made the party seem rudderless and ideologically void; (2) No federal-level party was willing to adopt the counter-narrative even when the narrative finally began to make its way into mainstream media and the military after the recent rise of extremist militancy. (3) The left sides of the political landscape have begun to attract the attention from various sections of the polity, but this polity found only regional parties there (MQM and ANP).
Consequently, Bilwal decided to launch himself and rejuvenate the party by storming into the left sides of the post-9/11 political landscape.
The gambit has largely paid off because by the time he wrapped up his speech in Larkana, he found a receptive audience that has been steadily growing on the left side of the country’s political landscape.
As the clutter on the right side of the divide rapidly turns into confusion, the PPP, MQM and ANP are replenishing themselves on the left side. A side once abandoned, but now attracting the attention and interest of a growing number of Pakistanis perturbed by the rising cases of extremist and sectarian violence, and by the gradual erosion and possible collapse of the once well-entrenched centre-right and rightist narrative.
Bilawal has understood this is the side to be on to be on the right side of history.