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A long journey ahead

IT is a small garden considering the address in Islamabad; in fact, the height of the boundary walls is more indicative of the inhabitants within. Alert men can be seen around every corner as one is led through a maze of doorways and entrances to the small lawn. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari sits on the sparse garden furniture in the middle. Clad in a blue shalwar kameez, with his trademark unruly hair, he gets up and meets his visitors, smiling widely.

Both the gesture of coming forward and the smile are unusual. The wide, unhesitant smile reminds one of his youth. It’s disarming and eager, hinting at an effort to reach out, to be liked — but whatever the reason, it is noticeable.

Read more:‘Provide relief to the poor or get ready for reaction,’ Bilawal warns govt

If it’s possible, the smile becomes wider still when his recent speeches in parliament are mentioned; it is a cause of celebration for his entire party, as they all seem to light up when Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s speeches or wit are mentioned.

Indeed, the young Zardari-Bhutto is the talk of the town these days, as he dominates a parliament which is missing both the leader of the house and the one heading the opposition. And as he enjoys being in the spotlight, there have been some informal interactions with the press.

The young politician has not just discovered his wit; he also appears to be informed on many political issues. He doesn’t hesitate.

Bilawal dominates a parliament that is missing the leaders of the house and opposition.

Asked why he is constantly attacking the government for a possible rollback of the 18th Amendment when the real assault has come from the courts, he is quick to acknowledge the latter’s role and can even cite the cases in detail, from the one on hospitals to the police.

He is equally unreserved with his reply when asked about Sindh’s refusal to give three per cent towards the former Fata’s integration. Saying that perhaps he has not been able to communicate his views effectively, he argues that 1pc agreed to earlier — for the burden that KP bore for the war against terrorism — is already there for the region. (In the seventh NFC award, 1pc had been set aside for the province because of the fight against militancy.) He argues that if a precedent is set by the provinces by parting with 3pc now, in the future more such deductions could be justified by declaring a national security emergency.

It seems as if he sees the demand for the 3pc as another effort to roll back the constitutional amendment.

But his answer doesn’t address the political aspects of the PPP government’s decision — that for many Sindh’s refusal to agree to the 3pc is simply acceptance that the PPP is no longer vying for non-Sindhi voters. Ziaur Rehman, a journalist who recently visited the former Fata region, had observed this during a chat with me earlier; he pointed out that the PPP, which had been the first to work on Fata reforms, now was being perceived as a party of Sindh. And this may be particularly relevant as elections are due in the conflict-hit area.

Bhutto-Zardari’s tone is just as confident when the conversation turns to politics but the details are few. Punjab is obviously central to any discussion with him, as for many this is the greatest challenge the party faces. He concedes this frankly; in fact, he mentions more than once the paucity of candidates from Punjab in the past election. As to why the PPP lost the province, he once again turns to the 18th Amendment — the people in Punjab have been made to believe that the amendment served the province poorly, and this was to the party’s disadvantage.

He doesn’t mention the governance record of the party or perceptions of the PPP’s corruption which are also seen to have played a large part in the virtual demise of the party for the voter in Punjab. But as someone pointed out later, no party head will ever admit to their mistakes in public.

Instead, Bhutto-Zardari speaks of the need to move forward from the progress the PPP made in the 2018 election. But the details of how he can do it are not divulged; whether he withheld them or hasn’t worked them out yet is unclear. He is just confident that he has the time as it is not something that can be done soon.

His voice becomes more confident, perhaps even more assertive when he turns to Sindh. It is his government, and his chief minister. The sense of ownership is hard to miss. He is proud of the difference his new chief minister has made, as he is of the young faces in cabinet. He claims it is the youngest cabinet in the country.

The fake accounts cases are ‘political’ for him and without any substance but they have prevented him from focusing on Sindh. If he and his party are constantly in crisis mode, how can he break from the past and forge a new path, he asks.

But does he feel the need to break with the past — including the past 10 years — in Sindh? Yes, he does. He says so assertively. While he doesn’t explain the need for this break from the immediate past, he is more forthcoming when discussing the larger challenges confronting the party. He agrees that the party needs a new message to stay relevant and adds that he is not his grandfather or his mother. But it seems as if he is still to decide on what this new message is. His speeches at rallies also point to this.

He doesn’t say so but it seems that he feels he has the time to find the message and much more. Perhaps he is right in that age is his weapon — but at the same time his challenges are not easy. For reviving a party while it enjoys power is not for the faint-hearted and neither will it depend solely on his acts and decisions.

Arifa Noor, "A long journey ahead," Dawn. 2019-04-30.
Keywords: Bilawal Bhutto-- Speeches , PPP decision , Fake accounts cases , 18th amendment , Fatas integration , Zardari Bhutto