In Pakistan, Another Bhutto Joins The Risky Family Business
Originally published on Wed February 5, 2014 10:23 pm
His grandfather was hanged by a military dictator. His mother was assassinated. One of his uncles was slain by the police. Another died in a mysterious poisoning.
His father spent eight years in jail, yet later served a full term as president of Pakistan.
The Bhutto family history is a roller coaster ride, veering from prison, exile and corruption scandals to wealth, fame and power.
So it's reasonable to wonder why the 25-year-old son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto wants to step aboard that roller coaster, by venturing into the perilous, hair-raising world of politics in Pakistan.
Yet that is what Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is doing.
His political launch as heir to the Bhutto dynasty is gathering momentum. He stepped into the spotlight this past weekend, as host of a cultural festival in his family's political heartland, the southern province of Sindh.
A Coming-Out Party
The backdrop could hardly have been more photogenic. The Sindh festival's opening ceremony took place on a stage in front of an ancient archaeological site, a mound of ruins from a civilization that sprang up around the Indus River Valley more than 5,000 years ago. The place is called Moenjodaro, or the Mound of the Dead.
Thus, the Old World provided a launching pad for the career of a young man, eager to guide Pakistan into a new age.
Giant spotlights roved the night sky. The dust-caked ancient ruins glowed beneath the glare of shockingly bright red, green and purple lights. Thumping music — old and new — echoed across the fields.
Among the 500 or so invited guests were the top brass from the Bhuttos' Pakistan People's Party, including at least two former prime ministers; a multitude of policemen and security guards; and a small, cheerful, group of Bhutto Zardari's friends from his Oxford University days.
Bhutto Zardari arrived in a big convoy of black cars and wagonloads of armed police. He is a tall and elegant man, with the poised air of royalty. In his face, you can see his mother's looks.
Moenjodaro is deep in Bhutto country. The family mausoleum and ancestral home are only a few dozen miles away.
Constant Security Concerns
Yet, even here, security is clearly a major concern: Bhutto Zardari strode off to inspect the display tents at such speed that his accompanying shoal of armed security men, photographers and party aides struggled to keep up. He was finally stopped in his tracks when he reached the Sindh Police tent, and the band, in gold and tartan, opened up with its pipes and drums.
If they are to succeed at the ballot box, aspiring politicians everywhere must master the art of dealing with the media. Bhutto Zardari has until recently generally avoided publicity (though he is on Twitter).
Shortly before the festival's opening ceremony, he sat down to give some of his first one-on-one interviews to a handful of international correspondents, including me. Black-clad cops with Kalashnikovs were posted in Moenjodaro's gardens, scanning the horizon.
He was articulate, and in the circumstances, remarkably affable, as he spelled out his plans.
"It's time for me to start taking on more responsibility," Bhutto Zardari explained. "What that means is that I will be working very closely with the party, and focusing on party politics, on working with the grass roots of our party across the country — rejuvenating, modernizing."
I asked if, given his family history, he felt frightened about stepping into public life.
"No. Fear doesn't run in my genes, " he replied. "It's not a component. Yes, we have suffered assassinations. But it is those assassinations that drive me."
He continued: "It is the assassination of my mother that drives me. The very forces that people are scared of in this country assassinated my mother, so I am not scared of them. I want to defeat them."
I ask what his mother would have thought of his decision to join the political fray.
"She wouldn't have stopped me coming into politics," he said. "She'd just have preferred that I completed higher education, went on to do more education, got a job, earned a living, started a family. And then, if I was interested in politics, that would be a field open to me as well."
It's widely believed in Pakistan that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, in 2007, was masterminded by the Pakistani Taliban. However, the country's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, was indicted last year on the grounds that he failed to protect her.
At present, Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is pursuing peace negotiations with the militants in the hope of ending a conflict that's killed tens of thousands of people in the past seven years.
Sharif says he wants to give peace talks one last chance. The government and the Taliban have appointed negotiating teams, but the efforts of those teams to meet have so far been thwarted by delays and squabbles.
Bhutto Zardari believes this approach is wrong. In fact, he's emerging as one of Pakistan's most prominent advocates of the use of military force against the Taliban before negotiations can be held.
"You must break the backs of the Taliban, and then negotiate for the terms of surrender," he said.
A South Asian Tradition Of Family Dynasties
South Asia has a tradition of political dynasties. India's political stage has been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty since India gained independence in 1947. Power and fame have exacted a heavy price for that family, too: Indira Gandhi was assassinated; so was her son Rajiv; her other son, Sanjay, died in an air crash.
Dynasties and nepotism abound in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, too.
Yet winning power still requires more than a famous family name. To bounce back after last year's defeat at the polls, and to emerge triumphant from the 2018 election, Bhutto Zardari and the Pakistan People's Party (of which he is chairman) must find a way to reach out to a very wide spectrum of Pakistanis, from the young urbanites to a multitude of rural poor.
Can he do this? He is certainly has courage and charm.
But he's spent much of his life outside the country, moving among a wealthy elite in Dubai and in England, where he studied at Oxford University. He is still mastering the Urdu language.
I ask how someone with such an unusual and rarefied background connects with his fellow citizens? "Pretty easily," says Bhutto Zardari. "I am a Pakistani and I can relate to all Pakistanis."
"Various leaders in Pakistan's history have been to Oxford and are perfectly able to relate to the average citizen — my mother to start with," he says. "So going to Oxford doesn't get in the way of relating to the people of Pakistan."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
His mother, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated. His grandfather was hanged. Both were once prime ministers of Pakistan. His family story includes corruption allegations, mysterious deaths and lots of jail time. You'd think all this would deter a man from entering public life in Pakistan.
BLOCK: Yet, at 25, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is launching his own political career. He's stepping into the limelight by hosting a cultural festival in Pakistan's Sindh Province.
NPR's Philip Reeves went to the opening of that festival. He talked with the heir to the Bhutto dynasty about his venture into a dangerous world.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Everyone is getting ready.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
REEVES: Musicians set up on a makeshift stage. Waiters lay out cutlery in the catering tents. On a nearby lawn, a crouching man sweeps up every last leaf. We're in an archeological site in a place called Moenjodaro. The ruins here belong to a great civilization that sprang up along the Indus River Valley more than 5,000 years ago.
The old world is being used as a launching pad for a young man who wants to guide Pakistan into a new age.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)
REEVES: A convoy of black cars and police wagons sweeps in, lights flashing. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari steps out. He's tall and has the poised air of royalty. He's wearing a dark tunic and a slight smile. In his face, you can see his mother's looks.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
REEVES: Benazir lives on, they cry.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Benazir Bhutto.
REEVES: It's just over six years since Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, after returning to Pakistan from exile to compete in elections. Bilawal was 19. His mother's remains lie in the family mausoleum a few dozen miles from here near the Bhutto ancestral home. We're in rural Sindh, Bhutto country. Yet even here, Bilawal Bhutto is careful.
The 500 or so guests are by invitation only. They include the top brass of the Pakistan people's party, the PPP; among them, several former prime ministers.
Bilawal Bhutto strides off to inspect the tents. He's walking so fast that the shoal of armed security men and officials around him struggles to keep up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: A welcome parade by the Sindh police stops him in his tracks.
(SOUNDBITE OF A MARCHING BAND)
REEVES: When Bilawal Bhutto sits down to speak with NPR, for one of his first ever broadcast interviews, dozens of black-clad police with Kalashnikovs lurk in the surrounding gardens, scanning the horizon:
Aren't you frightened?
BILAWAL BHUTTO: No. Fear has not been - it doesn't run in my genes. It's not part of a - it's not a component. But yes, we've suffered assassinations. But it is those assassinations that drive me. It is the assassination of my mother that drives me. And the very forces that people are scared of in this country assassinated my mother. So I am not scared of them. I want to defeat them.
REEVES: Many here believe his mother, Benazir, was killed by the Pakistani Taliban. At present, Pakistan's government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is pursuing peace negotiations with the militants to try to end a conflict that's killed tens of thousands.
Bilawal Bhutto says that's the wrong approach. He says Pakistan's military should be sent in to defeat the Taliban before any talking starts.
BHUTTO: We're begging for peace. We're pleading for peace when actually I believe dialogue should come in at the point of a position of strength. So you must achieve that position of strength, you must break the backs of the Taliban, and then negotiate for the terms of surrender.
REEVES: Benazir Bhutto was 35 when she first became Pakistan's prime minister, and also the first woman elected to lead a Muslim nation. After her assassination, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, became Pakistan's president, serving for five years. Bilawal officially chaired the Pakistan People's Party though he remained behind the scenes, until now.
BHUTTO: Oh, it's time for me to start taking on more responsibility. And what that means is that I will be working very closely with the party and focusing on party politics; on working with the grassroots of our party across the country, rejuvenating, modernizing.
REEVES: The party was badly defeated in last year's general election. Bilawal's mission is to prepare for the next one in 2018. I ask what his mother, Benazir, would have thought of his decision to join the political fray.
BHUTTO: She wouldn't have stopped me from coming into politics. She just would have preferred that I completed higher education and went on to do more education, got a job, earned a living, started a family, and then if I was interested in politics, that would be a field that would be open to me as well, but not in the way that it happened.
REEVES: Half of Pakistan's population is below the age of 25, yet their leaders are overwhelmingly middle-aged or elderly men. That multitude of young voters is being targeted by another Pakistani politician, the 61-year-old former cricket star Imran Khan. Bilawal Bhutto is after those votes too, and has a big age advantage, though he resists being labeled as the face of Pakistan's youth.
BHUTTO: I don't approach it from that because it's my generation and I am part of that demographic. And I understand just like you can't target, you can't confine things, you can't launch youth schemes and youth programs and target them in a patronizing, general way like that. We are our own demographic that splits up in various ways just like any other age group.
REEVES: South Asia has a tradition of being ruled by political dynasties. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has played a major role since partition in 1947.
If Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is ever to win power, he's going to need to reach out to a very wide spectrum of Pakistanis, including many millions of rural poor. He's spent much of his life among a wealthy elite in Dubai and in England, where he studied at Oxford University. Security concerns severely restrict his movements. How can someone with such an unusual and rarified background, connect with his fellow citizens?
BHUTTO: Pretty easily, I am a Pakistani and I can relate to all Pakistanis. And various leaders in Pakistan's history have been to Oxford and are perfectly able of relating to the average citizen - my mother to start with. So going to Oxford doesn't get in the way of relating to people of Pakistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
REEVES: Darkness falls and Bilawal Bhutto's cultural festival gets underway. The ancient ruins are lit up by bright red, purple and green lights. Bilawal is in the audience. Soon his VIP guests are rocking in the aisles. As he steps up to embrace his role in Pakistan's turbulent history, Benazir Bhutto's son is still wearing a slight smile.
Philip Reeves, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.