Major players of the 2020s

  • Their strengths and weaknesses


The PPP and the PML-N will likely be led in the 2020s by new leadership. The transition will be comparatively easy for the two parties because in Pakistan you don’t climb your way to the top of your party; instead, you inherit the top position. Their hands are forced too, since the original leadership is old, tired, ill, and entangled in legal troubles. The PTI has no such problems now, although how it will negotiate with succession when it’s forced on the party is anybody’s guess. Here’s a brief survey of the likely major political players of the 2020s:

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has the weight of the whole Bhutto legacy on his shoulders. His dilemma: no matter how badly he performs he is still likely to be an improvement on Asif Zardari; and yet, for obvious reasons any suggestion of being Zardari’s heir is likely to offend him. Bilawal is a quick learner: at the tender age of 30, he has already mastered the art of taking a statesmanlike stance in a tweet (in English), and on the same day taking the exact opposite position in a press conference (in Urdu). Furthermore, Bilawal has one Nawaz Sharif trait that Zardari never had: he comes across as one who has come to believe his own propaganda, which makes his performances somewhat convincing. The danger for Bilawal is that by the time he comes out of Zardari’s shadow, the PPP– which under the latter contracted from a nationwide party to essentially a Sindh party– may have already been confined to Larkana. It’s a good thing Bilawal still has age on his side, for he will need every one of his remaining years to reverse the process. Bilawal realises this and is proud of his youth; “I am a youngster of 30 while you [Imran Khan] are an old man of 70!” [Khan is 66, but what’s four years between enemies!]

Maryam Nawaz, Sharif’s heiress apparent, though not as young as Bilawal, has more experience of life. She has figured out that the intelligence level of the masses is rather low, an insight she is likely to benefit greatly from. She has seemingly unending supplies of ambition and energy– in fact, she often appears to be in too much of a hurry. Since everything about her is meticulously rehearsed and calculated, she lacks spontaneity, and that often makes her come across as fake. Her chief weakness, however, is that she has come to have too high an opinion of her own intellect, something unlikely to stand the test of objective scrutiny. According to many observers, she is the single largest reason behind her father’s downfall. Although, if her demeanour is anything to go by, we have yet to witness the climax of the story.

In the 2020s, Imran Khan will be much older than his main rivals. Also, any shrewd observer can know from 22 yards away precisely what’s going on in his mind. But he possesses qualities that make up for these minuses

Of Hamza Shehbaz it can be said that he has a glorious past in front of him. Not too long ago he was all set to become Sharif’s heir, but then Maryam happened. A pity, because he had painstakingly learned to imitate his uncle’s mannerisms, such as pointing to imaginary things with his index finger while speaking and assimilating his uncle’s (rather limited) phraseology (such as ‘Main samajhta hoon ke…’). There is said to have been a family understanding of sorts at the behest of Mian Sharif (aka Abba ji) to the effect that while Nawaz was to lead the party in that generation (with Shehbaz loyally assisting him) it was Hamza who was to assume the driving seat after Nawaz. It appeared to work for a while too– Hamza was the only one to stay back in Pakistan when the rest of the clan fled the country in Musharraf’s time. Shehbaz has kept his side of the bargain to this day, of course. But Maryam paratrooping her way into politics after Abba ji’s demise proved to be the end of that deal. During the dharna days when there were reports of friction inside the family, Maryam had famously tweeted that the relationship between Hamza and herself was like that between Nawaz and Shehbaz. A friend had responded to the tweet by asking her which of the cousins was Nawaz, but she hadn’t chosen to reply on that occasion. Well, we know the answer now. Hamza knows a thing or two about constituency politics in Punjab, and his role cannot be completely ruled out, but that will now largely depend on how well (or badly) his cousin-sister fares.

In the 2020s, Imran Khan will be much older than his main rivals. Also, any shrewd observer can know from 22 yards away precisely what’s going on in his mind. But he possesses qualities that make up for these minuses: His single-minded determination bordering on insanity is well documented; but he is also unmatched in his ability to filter out things that don’t fit his simplistic worldview. Khan is one of those rare individuals in history who rose to the absolute top in two distinct fields. With no possibility of a Sulaiman or a Qasim to succeed him, Khan is also in the happy position of holding his legacy is in his own two hands.