June issue 2018

By | Cover Story | Published 6 years ago

Any political development that leads to consolidation or perpetuation of hereditary leadership bears a foreboding not dissimilar to that surrounding an omnipresent threat of military intervention. Yet in the 71st year of its existence, these appear to be the only two doors open to Pakistan’s political future. The choice could hardly have been poorer with its only sad consolation, if any is to be found, lying perhaps in the promised brilliance of the political theatre that is unfolding as scions of two of the country’s largest political houses, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, lead their respective parties into the next general election, a battle that will pitch them against each other. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: the country will be plunged in a cesspool of hereditary politics.

Perhaps one way to explore which direction Pakistan may swing in the impending electoral shootout is to look at the politics of the two key figures holding hereditary flags, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif. But be warned: it could be a heartbreaking exercise.

Maryam Nawaz first, and it is not easy to decide where to begin. As with any culturally conservative elite Punjabi family, be it landed, industrial or commercial, or as has been the case of late, a combination of all three, the family’s women are never quite the public face of the politics behind their fortunes. Neither was Maryam Nawaz. But her days in exile seem to have been well invested in engineering quite a dramatic change, transforming herself from a shy, nondescript and domesticated person into a fiery and visually stunning public figure — a change that may have been impossible to imagine had it not actually happened for it is not just a cosmetic change.

Every time she takes the dais just ahead of her father in a public meeting, every expression, every gesture and every word she employs reflects the sheer hard work she has put into making this change happen.

For those working with her since before she went public as her father’s principal political champion and defendant, the change may not seem as dramatic as it does from the outside because she was perhaps one of the busiest politicians in her party long before she decided to go public. First she was kept busy by her father with cash-rich but politically debatable responsibilities, such as managing the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme, where her principal role was to lean on public banks to disburse billions among youngsters in unsecured loans — a job that earned her the reputation of a banker’s nightmare. She became deeply disillusioned with the vaporous utility of her background efforts as her father’s reckless political nemesis surrounded the federal capital in an anti-government campaign that was to last for over four months. 

It was during Imran Khan’s dharna, it is said, that Maryam Nawaz became convinced that she needed to take centre-stage. Miffed at what she privately described as her party’s lacklustre response to Imran Khan’s aggressive politics, she started banging together a social media team that could at least be as aggressive in cyber space as Imran Khan was on the ground. Irrespective of the money at her disposal, and without any comment on her social media etiquette or taste, it goes to her credit that she was able to generate, in very quick time, a social media team of champions and trolls that soon began to rival the juggernauts previously boasted only by Imran Khan and, perhaps, the army.

It was to serve her well as Panama was soon to provide her with an opportunity to step out from the shadows. As the contentious Panama verdict drove her father out of office and a split bench set up a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to posthumously find something that could stick better than the flimsy iqama on which its verdict rested, Maryam Nawaz was unveiled.

Flanked by her brothers and her husband, she walked confidently up to the media on July 5, 2017, after appearing before the JIT, and set herself a standard of public appearance that she has continuously improved upon since. She spoke calmly, confidently and with conviction, holding up her hand every time she was interrupted by an impatient reporter, saying “let me finish” without raising her voice and leaving after saying what she had planned to without taking any questions. It was clearly a heavily rehearsed performance.

By this time, her father’s decision to take the Panama verdict head-on by taking to the streets had set the stage for her. Starting with a series of indoors conventions, she made her first public appearance at a mass rally in January this year at Kot Momin and once again, it was obvious how well practiced it was. Addressing the public , asking them questions, keeping them engaged, throwing in a calculated sentence in Punjabi, marking her speeches with anecdotes from her court appearances and tweetables such as “Mian sahib, I love you, rok sako tau rok lo” (stop us if you can) and “vote ko izzat do” (respect the vote), she even honed it down to catchwords like mohabbat (love) and yaari (friendship) to describe the feelings of her party’s followers and “saazish brigade” (conspiracy brigade) to cleverly hint at the uniformed shadows behind her father’s travails.

It wasn’t all form. As her confidence grew, so did the harshness in the substance of her speeches. Carefully maintaining the repetitiveness of her father’s “mujhe kyun nikala” narrartive, she kept upping the ante with every public appearance, asking the crowd in Sargodha if they could hear Imran Khan crying to warning the judiciary in Mansehra that “if you use Imran Khan’s language, be prepared to be answered in a similar tongue.”

Even her body language evolved visibly, from the tense girl with a steely resolve at Kot Momin, to a relaxed and confident public speaker only a few months later, skillfully repaying her supporters’ slogans with a reserved smile, to a politician enjoying every moment of her public life with the subtle rhythmic nodding of her head every time her speech was broken by a party tarana. From sarcasm “wah, wah, wah, wah, what justice!” to love “wah, wah, wah wah, well done Faisalabadis,” Maryam Nawaz now comes across as a public orator perhaps better trained and more skilled than any of her adversaries.

In comparison, Bilawal clearly lives in a different universe. Wrenched from the anonymity of university life while still a teenager, he found himself publicly accepting the leadership of his party’s volatile political fortunes. “Democracy is the best revenge,” he shrieked, as a horde of international journalists grimaced at the spectacle of a 19-year-old spurting into a hereditary leadership position and that too in a place like London, the seat of a political system that is known as the mother of all democracies.

Unlike Maryam Nawaz, he never had the luxury of polishing his personal or political skills in the privacy and comfort of a wealthy exile. Each and every word he uttered, every gesture he made, his personal inclinations and political statements were minutely dissected by a content-starved media and immediately compared to a very dominant and politically demonised father. Unlike Maryam who sprang to the fore less than a year ago, Bilawal has been at the game for almost 10 years. It must have been a terribly hard journey, even if judged only by his painful public oratory, a curious combination of his grandfather’s fire and the sheer absurdity of Altaf Hussain’s arrhythmic sing song. The cool self-assuredness and control with which he speaks to the international media, be it at the World Economic Forum or the BBC, is nowhere in evidence as he bawls at his public gatherings in Urdu, a language that is as alien to him as it is native to Maryam Nawaz.

The only thing common between Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif is their sense of entitlement but even there, the nature of it is diametrically opposed between the two. From Maryam, her sense of entitlement to power comes across as a claim to a personal right, From Bilawal, it feels more like a claim to a political right. And that is where any similarities between the two come to a dead stop, their respective political narratives resting in two mutually exclusive spaces.

Maryam Nawaz plays on the victimisation of her family, her adversaries clearly identifiable at individual as well as institutional levels. There is a defined group of devils in khaki and mufti that she says she is battling, the entire apparatus of a state loaded against her with a seemingly unwavering public support for her father as her only ally. Pakistan too seems only to be a theatre in which her personal story must play out, the moral of the story having little to do with the country’s fortunes. In that respect, she bears a striking resemblance to the Benazir Bhutto of the late 1980s, a woman full of scorn for her detractors, tripping over herself to get to the prime minister’s house and angry at the opposition to her ambition. 

Meanwhile in what seems to be a parallel universe, Bilawal appears to be battling a system which completely separates his political lexicon from that of Maryam. For her, daddy’s crowning achievement is development as evidenced by megastructures and megaprojects. For Bilawal, his party’s relevance stands on provision of clean drinking water to the masses, more micro-level healthcare projects, streamlining canal irrigation, poverty alleviation initiatives and women empowerment. As he talks of concepts, the catchwords in his political lexicon include federalism, constitutionalism, provincial autonomy, battling the sense of real or perceived deprivation between provinces and the curse of sectarianism. Maryam’s political dictionary leans more towards the personal with words like victim, me, father, rivals, conspiracies, fear, victory, judges, trial, generals and iconography mostly centred around her father. 

While Bilawal too speaks of his mother and his grandfather, his recollection of history seems to be marked by events vastly different from those in the mind of Maryam Nawaz — the 1973 constitution, the 18th Amendment, the National Finance Commission Award, the merger of FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Islamic Summit. For Maryam, the more visible milestones are repeated ousters, motorways, CPEC, power plants, accountability, false allegations, back-stabbing, skullduggery and intrigue.

The biggest difference between the two perhaps stems from their sense of time where their politics is concerned. Maryam Nawaz appears to be a woman in a hurry, driven by a fear that her first hurrah may be her last if she doesn’t pull off a miracle. Deep down, she knows she is not just fighting Imran Khan but a deeply irked army that seems to have turned against her father at an institutional level. Her only shot at keeping her political ambitions alive is to ensure that her party is not routed through internal fractures and external intrigues as it was in the 2002 election. In a way, she is already having to fight to save a political career that has barely begun. In comparison, Bilawal has little reason to attach any special significance to the impending elections. “Imran Khan, this may be your last election but it will be my first. That is why I am thinking of the coming generations instead of being fixated on one election,” was how he summed it up in Multan this year.

Irrespective of the merits of their respective narratives, there is no denying that they are the only political narratives that exist in today’s Pakistan. Imran Khan may appear to be a key player at the moment, but he is more of a cult than a narrative. Regardless of how he fares in the next elections, his political legacy is unlikely to be any different from the fate of the Pakistan cricket team that fell to bitter internecine intrigues soon after the world cup winning captain’s retirement. This brings us back to the poor choice or more accurately, the dilemma Pakistan faces ahead of the next electoral battle. Hereditary politics may be anathema to democracy but for now, it is also its only hope.