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March 01, 2008

Pakistan's political heir

The mourning period of Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination has passed this week with a surprisingly calm election and Pakistanis will no doubt begin to approach her son and political heir Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in various ways to express their hopes and fears for the country. As one such citizen, I write this article at the eve of the publication of his mother’s notable book and also after a pivotal election victory for her party. You may ask why I write to give advice to a nineteen year old who couldn’t even run in the election? The answer is simple: reform is far easier to advocate to those who are new to the process than to those who are entrenched in entitlements of the old system. Perhaps that is why so many Americans are gravitating towards an inexperienced but youthfully optimistic senator named Barack Obama.

By Saleem H. Ali

The mourning period of Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination has passed this week with a surprisingly calm election and Pakistanis will no doubt begin to approach her son and political heir Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in various ways to express their hopes and fears for the country. As one such citizen, I write this article at the eve of the publication of his mother’s notable book and also after a pivotal election victory for her party. You may ask why I write to give advice to a nineteen year old who couldn’t even run in the election? The answer is simple: reform is far easier to advocate to those who are new to the process than to those who are entrenched in entitlements of the old system. Perhaps that is why so many Americans are gravitating towards an inexperienced but youthfully optimistic senator named Barack Obama.

As an expatriate, like Bilawal, I have much less at stake in the future of Pakistan than the millions who languish in poverty and despair or the elite who continue to benefit from an arcane system of privilege. Yet I cannot help feel the need to emotionally connect with the land with which I am most frequently identified by language, ethnicity and tradition.

Since Bilawal has accepted to carry forward the mission of his mother despite the risks entailed, it is important to get this message to him at the earliest. As he is immersed in studies at Oxford and perhaps insulated temporarily from the gathering storm of discontent in Pakistan, it is a time for the PPP to consider effectively what role he might play as a positive catalyst for change. I heard his first press conference in London, and was pleasantly surprised to observe relative composure in the face of some very tough questions from the media about his tender age and the perceived lack of legitimacy as a political force. There is little doubt that he has the potential to be a fine leader in terms of intellect and that should remain his forte rather than the Bhutto name. In this regard, he should seek to find some common ground with his cousin Fatima, who has quite emphatically called for the emergence of a culture of meritocracy in the country.

No doubt there will be plenty of people who will try to erode Bilawal’s youthful idealism and make him feel as if feudal politics are all that can work in Pakistan, including perhaps some in his own family. Let’s hope he is wary of such enticements that the establishment will try to seduce him with in various ways – perhaps by servile compliments or by elderly admonition. The only way to change the system of privilege in Pakistan is for the next generation of elite like Bilawal to move us out of this inertia.

True democracy will only flourish when each candidate can be evaluated on their merits and we can have a more equitable distribution of power across society in Pakistan. The most fundamental resource that the country has is land and until we are able to have a comprehensive land redistribution program our attempts at democratization will fail and so will Bilawal’s call for “revenge through democracy.” The Peoples Party has always prided itself for principles of social equity and under the leadership of a true reformer there is perhaps a chance that it will make comprehensive land reform a priority. Bilawal should endure the opposition that he may face on this fundamental matter with the same fortitude that he has shown since the loss of his mother. Land reform is always tough but as Pakistan’s neighbor India has shown in many states, it is indeed possible and once it is achieved, democracy can take firm roots. As a martial artist trained in Karate, the young Bhutto perhaps appreciates the importance of self-denial and leveraging power through efficient use of our muscles. Similarly, land redistribution, will be the most effective way to leverage power to move the Body Politic towards collective victory against poverty and deprivation. We are beginning to see the public move away from entrenched feudal politicians in some of the results from central Punjab in this election. However, the winners are still largely connected to old families of influence.

The question of religion will always remain salient in Pakistani politics. In this regard, Bilawal has an admirable manifesto from his mother in her posthumous book: Reconcilliation, Islam, Democracy and the West. There is indeed a way to reconcile Islam and modernity but that must be accepted within some clear parameters. Islamic societies are beginning to reform in many positive ways to allow for pluralism and the process will no doubt be generational as it was with its Abrahamic predecessor faiths: Christianity or Judaism. The power of intangible spirituality and benign religious practice cannot be ignored in societies just as the power of a good story remains timeless, even if it may be fictional.

There will certainly be attrition and conflict as we move beyond a literalist interpretation of scripture but moderation of Islamic doctrines is quite possible in an increasingly globalized world. Surely, Bilawal’s upbringing in the Emirates will have provided him with enough experiential learning in this regard on how to evolve a modern society within an Islamic context. Such proclivities for spirituality must be embraced so long as they are not exclusionary in implementation – a lesson which Benazir Bhutto clearly reveals in her book.

Finally, let’s hope that Bilawal appreciates that no one is indispensible and the human urge to govern has tremendous resilience across societies. However, as a student of political science, Bilawal might well consider the words of Charles de Motesquieu, which underscore the admirable insistence his late mother had to spend time with the public, and which he must aspire to amplify through action: “to be truly great one has to stand with people, not above them.”

Posted by Saleem Ali at March 1, 2008 08:12 PM

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