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All in the family

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was 19 when he was named the chairperson of Pakistan’s largest political party.Bilawal’s natural political progression — not uncommon for a scion from a political dynasty — will be challenging as he will have to win over disgruntled PPP voters by carving out his own political identity, something his mother was forced to do when she was 24.

Pakistan’s political dynasties — approximately 100 families were represented in the recently dissolved or outgoing provincial and federal legislatures — dominate electoral politics. Survival also implies shifting alliances that are not uncommon: Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, is a member of the outgoing ruling coalition when once it served to legitimise Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s politics.

The business of family politics focuses on the inheritance of power, money, and real estate (or land). Political parties, especially in South Asia are controlled by family successors lending them personal identity and finance for political campaigns, and who have the ability to sacrifice when in opposition.

Dynasties, like the Bhuttos of Pakistan, and India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty often construct a mirage of democracy, where politics is not about party ideology or policy integration, and instead evolves around family lineage and kinship that provides legitimacy and loyalty. When the need for intra-party elections to end dynastic control is ignored for varied reasons and leadership is unavailable, it goes against the grain of a democratic system. Author Victoria Schofield says the way to end dynastic politics in Pakistan is to “stop killing elected leaders”.

Another argument claims that legitimising charismatic leaders in fledgling democracies and permitting women politicians to emerge is acceptable when the electorate is informed and when centrist parties need a recognisable face to draw votes.

In Pakistan, it is this system of family politics that has caused a crisis of leadership. Such crises have been followed by military interventions perpetuated in part by the failure of internal party democracy. Meanwhile, voters fail to question politicians for reneging on promises.

Pakistan’s alternating political dynasties — the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N — have shown that political office can be used for amassing wealth and power with minimum public service. When Oxford-educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothing and shelter) became a popular socialist-democratic mantra, it was charisma that drew hundreds of diehard supporters whose families remained loyal to the Bhuttos in PPP constituencies.

Many loyalists were killed while forming a protective shield around Benazir Bhutto’s cavalcade when she returned after exile.

Her bodyguards came from a cadre of PPP supporters. However, second-generation loyalists from Lyari, the party’s Karachi-based stronghold, express anger at having been denied their right to education, healthcare and jobs,  revealing noticeably reduced support for its new leadership. Graffiti sprayed on bullet-pocked walls is indicative of a new-generation politicking that is partial to local gangsters with alleged political ties. This shift in traditional allegiances is the result of years of socio-economic neglect.

Reflecting the will of a single personality as leader is indicative of the failure to share power at the provincial/district level or even within various tiers of the party structure. If experience and responsibility are about effective leadership then emerging political leaders — Bilawal Bhutto, Maryum Nawaz, Hamza Sharif — should not be turned into party bosses overnight but given space to learn to deliver basic rights, so that the masses from the lower- to middle-income voting population do not fall for the usual rhetoric and promises.

As a student at Oxford University, Bilawal Bhutto was a “readymade” politician, although his mother had wanted her son to experience the world before he entered politics.

Conversely, at 42, Rahul Gandhi has recently entered the political fray as the vice president of India’s Congress party and a plausible candidate as prime minister for the election in 2014. Aside from the fact that he is older, a silent political force and a reluctant leader who doesn’t divulge much and behaves unlike other political leaders, travelling distances to visit the downtrodden, the difference between both men is that one has been educated to follow the “family business”; whereas the other has been slow to come to the political frontline and has yet to show his cards.

Sonia Gandhi’s reasoning for her political upbringing excepting family losses is unknown. Working in his mother’s shadow, Mr Gandhi has prompted criticism as younger party workers have shown more dynamism.

So far Bilawal has shown insufficient visible hands-on political acumen besides performing at an induction speech and travelling with his father. His mother, who had wanted to enter the Foreign Service, had to adopt a political role out of lack of choice when her father was pushed out of politics.

Political dynasties often appear tenacious because they survive on personality and the desire to hold on to power through family rather than support new entrants on merit. After all, women with dynastic associations have become powerful leaders having had the opportunity which otherwise might not have occurred. It is when politicians are not accountable and the political system unresponsive to voter demands (because of wealth and corruption that comes with anointed leaders) that dynasties are at odds with democracy.

Historically, voter lethargy has brought independent and often right-wing political entrants. The democratic dynamic has become a family affair in South Asia requiring accountability, and educated heirs to understand the socio-economics pitfalls in their countries.

The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.


Razeshta Sethna, "All in the family," Dawn. 2013-03-21.