It’s 4.30am and dawn breaks on the horizon. Bilawal Bhutto’s cavalcade is making its way back after yet another long day of driving through various cities, towns and villages of Pakistan in a procession. Being on the road for 17 hours at a stretch in the scorching monsoon heat and unbearable humidity for weeks on end can be challenging. Yet, it didn’t deter Bilawal or his supporters.
This is the ‘Karachi to Khyber’ campaign that Bilawal had announced for his debut in Pakistan’s general elections of 2018.
Bilawal’s rally commenced in Sindh, his home province. Given Sindh’s unconditional love for the Bhuttos, the massive turnout was unsurprising. The remaining provinces, particularly Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were the real challenge. Many speculated that a party whose popularity once swept across all provinces of Pakistan has now lost its charm and with the passing of Benazir Bhutto, it’s curtains for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). But Bilawal was not convinced. He commenced his campaign on June 27. Taking a rather unorthodox approach in Pakistani politics, Bilawal chose not to degrade or malign his opponents. “I want to set an example for the young generation of Pakistan,” he says. “I want them to know that fascist aggression and galum galoch ki siyasat (the politics of insult and abuse) is not the way to express yourself. Those politicians who are resorting to it are doing a great disservice to our society as impressionable young Pakistanis may emulate such behaviour. Surely we must be better role models than that.”
Bilawal’s cavalcade pushes its way through Punjab despite hurdles created by the caretaker government. Seeing a Bhutto in their midst, hundreds of supporters pour out into the streets. “My fight is not against any person or any party,” he screams into the mike addressing the swelling crowd. “My fight is against illiteracy; my fight is against unemployment, my fight is against those who deny women and religious minorities their rights, my fight is against extremism!” The crowds are jubilant! They chant with excitement! “Kal bhi Bhutto zinda tha, aaj bhi Bhutto zinda hai” (Bhutto (ism) was alive yesterday, as it is alive today!) “Wazeer-e-Azam Bilawal” (Prime Minister Bilawal!). Bhutto then explains his party’s manifesto. He talks about crop insurance and crop subsidies for farmers, land titles for women farmers, the successful ‘Benazir Income Support Plan’ for empowering women, educational institutes and vocational centres for students and employment schemes for the youth and plans for addressing the water crisis.
“I will fulfil my mother’s promises, I will save Pakistan!” On that note, his speech ends, and the crowd breaks into celebratory dancing and fresh roses rain down on Bilawal. Just as it was, almost 30 years ago, when a young Benazir returned to Pakistan to lead her father’s party.
Sense of ownership
Much like Benazir, Bilawal is drawn to people just as they are drawn to him. Against the will of his security chief, Bilawal often insists on stepping out of his car to be in contact with his supporters. The older women hug him, kiss him on the forehead and bless him with prayers of success and safety. The younger men and women scramble for a selfie and sometimes slip a job application in his hands. Someone hands over his or her child to be held next to Bilawal so they can take a picture and Bilawal happily obliges. As one onlooker observed: “They have a sense of ownership towards him as if he belongs to them.”
Adding to campaign woes, a terrorist attack on Haroon Bilour, a leader of a left-wing Pashtun party, killed him and injured his son. As a mark of respect, Bilawal cancels a public gathering in Peshawar and suspends his campaign for two days. Instead, he goes to condole with Bilour’s family. As we are about to leave for Malakand, a city which was once under the stranglehold of the Taliban and from where Bilawal is contesting, another dastardly terrorist attack, this time in Mastung, Balochistan, takes place at a campaign rally of another political party, killing more than 129 people. Bilawal announced that as a mark of respect for the victims and their families, he would cancel his Mastung gathering.
Although the youngest player in the 2018 elections, the hallmark of Bilawal’s campaign has been maturity, respect and decency, and for this he has gained immense praise and admiration from the media as well as his political opponents.
As a social media activist, Assad Zulfiqar, sums it up so perfectly: “As Bhutto inches his way to Larkana to round off his marathon election campaign, he has proven himself as a tireless campaigner, a staunch advocate for democratic principles and a voice of sanity and calm in these chaotic times.”
Alizeh Iqbal Haider is a barrister at law and human rights activist.