Ideological disagreements between Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father Asif Zardari and their conflicting approaches to run the party affairs have not only lowered the spirits of dedicated workers but have almost divided the party into “Bhutto comrades” and “Zardari loyalists”. A significant sign of these differences was Bilawal Bhutto’s absence from the seventh death anniversary of his mother Benazir Bhutto. The ‘official’ reason put forth by the party was a ‘throat infection’.
The party leaders privately admit the differences between the father and the son are of a ‘serious’ nature but would not say anything on record, fearing ouster from the party.
Privately again, people are reminded of the power tussle between the mother and daughter when after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death Benazir Bhutto was successful in wresting control from Nusrat Bhutto when most of the senior leadership stood with the mother. Despite having annoyed the so-called uncles, Benazir Bhutto was accepted as the legitimate leader of the party and Nusrat Bhutto was soon relegated to the background.
There have been rumours about Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s meetings with the disgruntled Naheed Khan-Safdar Abbasi duo. Some unconfirmed reports suggest that he has also met with his estranged cousins Fatima and Zulfikar Bhutto and their mother Ghinwa in order to bring them into the party fold.
One party leader says the Zardari-Bhutto differences emerged just before the May 2013 election. “At that time, Bilawal took a firm stand that close aides of his mother should be given priority while awarding the party’s ticket, at least in Sindh where the party was in a better position as compared to other provinces.” Bilawal’s advice was completely ignored by the father and his sister Faryal Talpur, who enjoys good authority within the party. “But they awarded tickets to candidates of their own choice,” says the leader on condition of anonymity.
Another PPP insider tells TNS, “Bilawal wanted to field a veteran PPP activist Abdul Qadir Patel for the seat vacated by Faisal Raza Abidi but Zardari preferred his most trusted man Dr Qayyum Soomro.” Bilwal Bhutto is reported to have reacted strongly over this decision and had at the time questioned the extraordinary involvement of his aunt Faryal Talpur in the party’s affairs.
In the meantime, icons and socialites from Karachi like singer Fakhr-e-Alam started gathering around Bilawal Bhutto especially around the Sindh Festival. The father is said to have disliked their presence around the son, believing they may cause a dent in his political image. It was at that point that Zardari appointed Jehangir Badar as the political advisor to Bilawal Bhutto and directed Badar to keep the son away from his young advisors, a task he duly performed but at the cost of censure from Bilawal Bhutto.
In the post-election scenario, Bilawal Bhutto stayed active on Twitter, reiterating his principled stance against terrorism and criticising the parties that showed a soft corner for Taliban. In his speeches in a few public meetings that he addressed, he started hitting at PML-N and MQM aggressively, in order to lift the spirits of jiyalas (diehard party workers). Zardari did not like the statements against PML-N because they went against his conciliatory politics and could harm democracy in the country. As for those against MQM and its chief Altaf Hussain, they backfired massively and led to strained relationship between the two parties.
Bilawal on the other hand was all set to do vibrant politics instead of passive reconciliatory policies.
He was again stopped from holding a two-day workers’ convention in Lahore which he had planned for November 30 and December 1. “His plan was to listen to the workers’ complaints at Bilawal House Lahore on these two days. He loves jiyalas and listens to them patiently. But Zardari sensed that he would not be able to draw media attention in the wake of Imran Khan’s rally in Lahore on November 30; therefore he changed the plan and stopped him from attending the convention,” said one of the organisers of the Lahore convention.
Bilawal’s absence from his mother’s death anniversary is acutely felt in the political circles. Some hint at the father-son differences over the arrangements on the death anniversary that compelled Bilawal to stay away. According to insiders, “Bilawal had planned to hold the death anniversary at both Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi and Garhi Khuda Bakhsh Larkana. He had told his father that he would attend the Liaquat Bagh ceremony and would address the gathering at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh through video link.” But Zardari sensed that it would involve serious security risks to him and told him to attend Garhi Khuda Bakhsh’s meeting only, insiders say.
The PPP chairman is said to have not liked the idea and decided to stay abroad which is a serious message to his father against his way of politics.
PPP is now divided into two groups. Bhutto’s comrades support Bilawal and his pro-worker and ideological politics while Zardari’s loyalists, who have already cornered the comrades, think the country cannot afford the aggressive politics of young Bilawal.
Political advisor to Asif Ali Zardari, Naveed Chaudhry, says: “Media is trying to create storm in a teacup. There might be minor political difference between Bilawal and Zardari but differences are the beauty of democracy.” He says Bilawal Bhutto could not attend his mother’s death anniversary because “he was seriously ill and was unable to walk”.
Old party stalwart Dr Safdar Abbasi says, “We have been shouting since assassination of BB that there is serious leadership vacuum in the party which should be filled by Bilawal Bhutto but nobody listened to us.” Talking about the difference in the father-son politics, he says that Bilawal wants ideological revival of the party whereas Zardari wants to continue with the politics of hypocrisy in the name of reconciliation.
“I guess Zardari does not want Bilawal to run the party with full authority. But he is the only one who can revive the party by doing populist politics, based on ideology, accountability and democracy within the party. If he starts with populist politics, people like me may join him,” says Abbasi.