January Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Thrust into Pakistani politics after the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s political ascent is reminiscent of his mother’s own entry into politics. She assumed the chairmanship of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) after her father was hanged. Now, just 19, Bilawal, Benazir’s firstborn, assumes the chairmanship of the party.

Born September 21, 1988, Bilawal came into this world just three months before Benazir took her oath as prime minister for the first time. In her autobiography, Benazir referred to Bilawal as “the most celebrated and politically controversial baby in the history of Pakistan.” While the first decade of his childhood was spent in the country, at the age of 11, Bilawal went into exile with his mother and sisters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa, in April 1999, while his father, Asif Zardari served a jail term in Pakistan. In Dubai, Bilawal enrolled at the elite Rashid School for Boys, where he completed his high school education. During his time there, he became vice- president of the student council.

It was not until 2004 that Bilawal and his sisters were reunited with their father, who had been absent from the crucial years of their adolescence. Bilawal, who until then had been kept away from the spotlight and media, finally shared his thoughts in a series of interviews with different newspapers and magazines. The then 16-year-old, in an interview with Dawn, shared the impact the absence of his father had had on him and his sisters. “I have gone through lots of things and he wasn’t there. At the time when we needed him, he was taken away. We were denied a normal life.”

Only three years after the return of one parent, Bilawal lost the other, who for the most part had been the central figure in his life. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Victoria Schofield, a close friend of Benazir Bhutto said, “He was devoted to his mother, there is no doubt about that.” While it is a shattering loss for Bilawal, it is the devotion for his mother that will enable him to keep strong and carry on with his mother’s legacy. “He will be so emotionally connected to what his mother has suggested that there will be no question of him doing anything different,” added Schofield.

And so, Bilawal is determined to complete his education before taking over the chairmanship of the party on a full-time basis. Studying at Oxford University seems to be the norm for the Bhutto family. He is currently a student of Christ Church College at Oxford University, enrolling in fall 2007 to study history and politics. Christ Church is known to be the most aristocratic college in Oxford and has produced 13 British prime ministers.

It also has a Pakistani prime minister to its credit — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Benazir’s brother, Mir Murtaza also attended Christ Church College, while she attended Lady Margaret Hall at the same university and went on to become president of the Oxford Union in 1977 — the first Asian woman to do so. Following her example, Bilawal too has joined the Oxford Union.

Those who know Bilawal say he is an avid reader. Mahnaz Malik, a close friend of the family, in her memoir in The Daily Times fondly remembers the days she would accompany Benazir and the children to Russell Square where he and his sisters bought Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel comics. From the then “shy, bespectacled teenager” as Mahnaz recalls, it seems that Bilawal has grown into a young and diverse individual. Keen on sports, he is a blackbelt in Taekwondo and enjoys squash and horse riding.

Luke Tryl, president of the Oxford Union, told The Globe and Mail that Bilawal seems to be coming out of his shell. “He seems very worldly and aware … he’s good at making friends with new people.” Tryl also describes him as a confident and eloquent speaker, an inheritance from his grandfather and mother.

Pakistan heard this young man speak publicly for the first time at the PPP press conference on December 30 after he was declared the new chairperson of the party. With this declaration also came the change of name — Bhutto was added to the names of Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Aseefa. In his brief speech, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari vowed to continue “the party’s long and historic struggle for democracy with new vigour.” According to him, only the restoration of democracy would avenge his mother’s death, as she believed that “democracy is the best revenge.”

This first public appearance made him even more popular than he already was as Benazir Bhutto’s son. Thousands scoured the Internet to find out more about the new leader of the PPP. Soon there were rumours about his Facebook profile. People searched and added him to their lists, only to find out later, as published in The Lede, a blog on The New York Times, that the Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Facebook was a fake — an impersonation by an Internet prankster calling himself Tonay.

“Since this is basically the first time the guy has come into the public eye, nobody has made an account for him, so I quickly registered one, and just been addin [sic] stuff to the profile,” Tonay stated.

Meanwhile security arrangements are being made for Bilawal’s return to Oxford. With the collaboration of the Thames police and intelligence services, the university will devise adequate security arrangements for him. They already have experience in providing security to high-profile persons: Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill Clinton, and Nicky Blair, son of Tony Blair, have both attended the university.

In addition, Scotland Yard’s specialist protection branch, SO1 will also make a risk assessment, according to a report by The Times, based in London. SO1 protects the prime minister, government members and foreign dignitaries visiting Britain as well as high-profile people under threat by terrorists. Instead of the university offering a familiar refuge, Bilawal returns to a whole new life of uncertainty.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.