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From 70 Clifton to Bilawal House

As Bilawal Bhutto Zardari makes an election debut on July 25, he has a responsibility as PPP Chairman to re-discover not only the PPP but also the Bhuttos

From 70 Clifton to Bilawal House

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s residence, 70 Clifton, which remained the centre of Pakistani politics from 1967 to 1988, was replaced by Bilawal House in the 1990s. With it changed Bhuttos’ and PPP’s politics.

The new leader today is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who is making his election debut on July 25, but the party which he has been leading since 2015 is weak both on ground and also on certain principles.

Can Bilawal revive the old PPP and, more importantly, can he bridge the gap between 70 Clifton and Bilawal House?

The family in the last 40 years has seen more tragedies than any other political family in Pakistan. In between, the family also became divided, and while Bilawal Bhutto Zardari now holds the party flag and is making an election debut from the two constituencies which his mother had also won, the other side of the family — that of Mir Murtaza Bhutto that resides in 70 Clifton — has been forgotten.

Bilawal faces far greater challenges than his mother. Although her entry into politics came during the worst martial law the country has seen, the party was still strong. The ‘half party’ (as his father still holds the position of co-chairman) which was handed over to Bilawal in 2015 has been practically wiped out in Punjab, from where the party was launched on November 30, 1967. It also stands little chance in other provinces except Sindh.

The other dilemma for Bilawal would be the kind of party cadre he has been handed over. Once, the party workers and leaders would go to prison for leading protests against dictators, burning US flags or for other political reasons. Now, they face imprisonment on ‘corruption charges’.

Sources say he wants to build a ‘fighting team’ and would like to revive some of the party’s old practices. He faced a setback when his father vetoed Raza Rabbani’s choice as chairman Senate, who could have been elected unopposed. Earlier, in 2015, Asif Zardari had also reportedly vetoed suggestions from Punjab PPP for him to step down as party co-chairman, and have a veteran party leader as president. A well-informed source in the PPP said none other than Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan had put forward the proposal on the grounds that despite Asif Zardari’s efforts, he had failed to change people’s perception of him.

There are clear chances Bilawal would be in the parliament. It would give him an opportunity to learn the role of an opposition leader. Zardari would be doing a disservice if he tries to put him in the race for the top slot in the ‘hung’ parliament.

When Bilawal was launched in a public meeting for the first time in Karachi in 2014, in the ground opposite Mazar-e-Quaid, he made such a fiery speech that even the father was shocked. Bilawal attacked both Altaf Hussain and Nawaz Sharif. Those were the days when Zardari sought, rather than avoided, confrontation with both. When the party held a convention in Lahore just weeks after the speech, the father did not take Bilawal along. When questioned by some party workers and local leaders, he said “he is not yet mature enough and still needs to learn”.

Perhaps Asif Zardari is still not completely confident and that is why he is holding on to the post of co-chairman as well as that of President PPP-P.

Therefore, the third generation of Bhuttos is facing a different kind of dilemma. They carry not only the weight of political differences which occurred between Benazir and Murtaza, but also added political burdens and baggage.

BB-Mir differences began even prior to his assassination, when Benazir first decided to return in 1986. These differences increased in 1993, before Murtaza was finally assassinated in 1996. I personally know that at times she felt this ‘guilt’ that the conspirators chose to kill him while the sister was in power. “I knew it was a conspiracy not only to remove me but also to create greater tensions between us [the two sides of the family],” she once told me.

Murtaza Bhutto warned BB of the ‘traps’ in 1986 and 1988, and advised her not to accept government under certain conditions. Then, in 1993, it was Benazir who warned Murtaza against coming to Pakistan before the elections, but he ignored her advice.

 

Bilawal was right when he reportedly said, “I did not choose this life, I didn’t actively go out and pursue it. It chose me.” He is also right when he quotes his mother saying the same thing. But Bhutto had groomed Benazir in a way. The same does not hold true for Bilawal.

It is better if Bilawal re-launches himself after elections and as there are clear chances he would be in the parliament, it would give him an opportunity to learn the role of an opposition leader. Zardari would be doing a disservice if he tries to put him in the race for the top slot in the ‘hung’ parliament.

Having been elected as chairman in 2015, it was shocking that the PPP under Bilawal Bhutto did not celebrate its 50 years and golden jubilee in 2017 with much fanfare, apart from one or two conventions and seminars. That was the time to re-launch the party if someone had truly wanted to.

His mother Benazir carried no excess baggage of serious charges of corruption (true or false) when she first became co-chairperson and then chairperson. Even the worst opponents of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto have not accused him of corruption.

When Bilawal was handed over the party, it had lost the 2013 elections due to bad governance as well as threats from Taliban. Even today, he faces security concern and threats have been issued for ‘the Bhuttos’. He has to rebuild the party and, for this to happen, Zardari must take the back seat after July 25 and allow his son to carry the burden.

What happened in Lyari last week should not merely be seen as an isolated incident by PPP opponents. The Bhuttos have never been attacked in this way in Lyari, even in areas where there is an anti-PPP vote bank. However, Bilawal showed courage by facing the protest against him and the former Sindh government rather than running from it.

The political legacy which Benazir carried had immense support from workers, including one who went to the gallows saying ‘Jeay Bhutto’. PPP may not find such a cadre after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

It is also true that both Benazir and Murtaza differed over the bloody path the latter took in a bid to take revenge. But the path which Benazir adopted after her return to Pakistan in 1986 — going soft on the establishment and United States — also damaged the party’s narrative in a way.

Benazir had her own reasons. Not only that she herself faced prison, she was more concerned over thousands of workers who had been in prison, faced lashes and families of executed workers. She soon realised the establishment had neither forgotten her father nor were ready to pardon her. In the 1988 election and elections that followed, she was never given a free hand and her party was never allowed to function smoothly. When she decided to return in 2007, after breaking the NRO with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, on October 18, her convoy was attacked brutally. She was killed a week before general elections, where her party was once again poised to win.

Her assassination brought a violent end to the most popular political family of Pakistan. The party since then has been led by her spouse Asif Ali Zardari, who chose to become the co-chairman of the party as a ‘caretaker’.

The journey from 70 Clifton to Bilawal House was a difficult one. 70 Clifton has remained the traditional residence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and is the place from where he addressed many press conferences. It is also where Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto were kept under house arrest for three years, and from where Benazir addressed her press conference on her return in 1986. However, it is no longer the centre of PPP politics.

It is now the residence of the ‘forgotten Bhuttos’. Murtaza Bhutto’s widow Ghinwa Bhutto is still trying to keep her husband’s group, PPP (Shaheed Bhutto) that was formed in 1993. Their eldest daughter Fatima Bhutto, author of two books including Songs of Blood and Sword, did not choose Bhutto’s political path. Zulfiqar Jr., Fatima’s younger brother, also decided to stay away from politics. So, apart from a large portrait of Murtaza Bhutto and other members of the family who died unnatural deaths, there are no noticeable signs of political activity.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto first launched the party on the basis of ‘socialist ideology’. The founding group of highly intellectual and committed leaders either left the party or were ousted when the PPP came to power. However, some big names remained in the party including Dr Mubashir Hasan, late Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, late Sheikh Rafiq Ahmad and people such as Ghulam Hussain.

After the fall of Bhutto as a result of Martial Law on July 5 1977, the party faced the daunting task of saving the life of Bhutto. They failed as the party’s high command was in control of big feudals and the committed leaders did not have much say in the party.

Both Fatima and Bilawal were young when political differences emerged between Benazir Bhutto and Murtaza Bhutto. Both children have gone through the tragedies of the assassination of their father and mother, respectively. Mir Murtaza Bhutto was killed on September 20, 1996 near his house, and Benazir was assassinated 11 years later, during a public meeting at Liaquat Bagh on December 27, 2007. Circumstances kept them away from each other. The distance between 70 Clifton and Bilawal House is not as much as the political destinies of Fatima and Bilawal.

Can Bilawal bridge this gap between the two families? After all, the third generation of Bhuttos is victim of circumstances. As Bilawal makes an election debut on July 25, he has a responsibility as PPP Chairman to re-discover not only the PPP but also the Bhuttos.

Mazhar Abbas

mazhar abbas
The author is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

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