Not as much of a bad idea as it sounds
The death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December has become the annual day for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to demonstrate its country-wide popular support. It has also become an occasion when the party leadership has the biggest presence at one spot. The latest death anniversary was another impressive display of popular outpouring for Benazir Bhutto and the PPP. What distinguished this from the previous occasions was the formal launching of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari into active public life. This was the induction of the third generation of the Bhutto family into the PPP’s active leadership role.
Bilawal Bhutto addressed the public meeting in a high tone and emotionally charged manner in the tradition of his mother, Benazir Bhutto, and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He invoked the PPP’s traditional political philosophy of “rotti, kapra aur makan” and the legacy of its elders. He spoke about some political issues in general terms but his style captivated his audience who wanted to hear him no matter what he said.
Bilawal Bhutto’s advent as the leader of the PPP and active involvement in election campaign would improve internal harmony in the party and moderate the dissenting elements. This will also create an opportunity for President Asif Ali Zardari to disengage himself from day-to-day affairs of the PPP and stay out of election campaigning, defusing the ongoing criticism of his active role in PPP affairs.
The advent of Bilawal Bhutto is the latest example of dynastic politics that characterises this region. In Sri Lanka, the Senanyakes and the Bandaranaikes dominated the politics of the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party respectively for years and held the offices of prime minister and president. In Nepal, the Koiralas held the office of prime minister on several occasions. In Bangladesh, the wife of former President Ziaur Rahman and the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dominate politics. In India, three generations of the Nehru family held the office of prime minister. This legacy continues as the dominant feature of the politics of the Congress Party. All these countries have several other politically active families where political leadership passes on from generation to generation.
Pakistan is currently experiencing generational transition. The daughter of Nawaz Sharif, Mariam Nawaz, was launched into active politics last year. She devotes her time to the PML-N secretariat, women and youth affairs. Her husband is a member of the National Assembly. Shahbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Shahbaz, is also involved in active politics for many years. The same can be said about Monis Elahi, son of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi. However, both, Hamza and Monis, are involved in day-to-day politics, hindering or helping the tasks of others. This has made their role controversial. The two sons of former Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, are in active politics and have caused many controversies in their short span in active politics. We can talk of several other political families in Pakistan.
Political dynasties can be found in established democracies where some families dominate the politics in some regions and political and elected offices pass on from one to another generation.
Political dynasties are more common in semi-traditional or transitional societies where the institution of family, clan or tribe continues to be important. The attachment to the important families passes on through generations. This is the interplay of charisma that evokes loyalty of the people who firmly believe that certain families have extraordinary qualities of leading the community.
We talk of political dynasties that succeed and forget that many sons and daughters or wives of important political leaders do not succeed. If Sonia Gandhi carries on with the traditions of the Nehrus and the Gandhis in India, her sister-in-law, Manika, wife of Sanjay Gandhi (brother of Ravi Gandhi) could not go beyond the membership of the Lok Sabha and a junior cabinet position. She has been pushed to the background. Similarly, all children of an established leader do not reach to the top.
The political family name helps the first entry in politics. It is like the son of an established lawyer or doctor who has the advantage at the time of entry into the profession. The father’s professional standing helps in the initial days. However, the initial advantage has to be reinforced by individual efforts and demonstration of professional excellence.
The same happens in the political domain. A strong family background facilitates entry into politics with a clear advantage. However, the family tree does not ensure success throughout the career. Such an entrant cannot reach to the top without establishing his/her credentials as a leader in his/her own right.
The dynastic leadership sustains itself by two principal methods. First, the leadership must be confirmed again and again by winning elections. Popular mandate helps to strengthen leadership. Second, the party and close associates must continue to accept him/her as the leader over time. He has to demonstrate his leadership qualities in the party affairs, especially internal conflict management, and offer inspiring solutions to complex political issues. This kind of political clout develops over time. While leading the political party to success in the elections, the dynastic leader must win the confidence of the senior colleagues.
Benazir Bhutto started her political career under the leadership of her mother after the death of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Later, she assumed an independent role and worked hard for many years inside and outside of Pakistan, faced imprisonment and years of exile, to acquire a world class stature.
Bilawal Bhutto has embarked on a career with a natural advantage. However, the next 7 to 10 years will determine his stature and role as the leader. If he excels in party management and how to address the political challenges, he will become a leader in his own right. Only then will he become the leader of historical significance.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto had advantage over most of their colleagues due to superior intellect and an intelligent understanding of global and comparative politics. This quality was acquired through reading good literature on political and societal affairs and seeking of briefings from knowledgeable people. Hopefully, Bilawal will follow the family tradition of acquiring superior intellect and a sound understanding of domestic and foreign affairs.
If the mandate of a dynastic leader is renewed by popular mandate on a regular basis in a fair and free electoral exercise within the framework of a liberal democratic framework, dynastic leadership helps to strengthen democracy in transitional societies.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.