While international forums are no stranger to India-Pakistan political mudslinging, personal attacks are still rare. One such rare moment came on 15 December when Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, while talking to the Pak media in New York, called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “the butcher of Gujarat.”
Considering that Bilawal has an army of diplomats advising him, it is safe to assume that these were not just off-the-cuff remarks but a calibrated response to Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s jibe at Pakistan for “hosting Osama bin Laden.”
Looking at international sentiments on bin Laden and Modi’s position as a leader of the world’s largest democracy, it would be injudicious on Bilawal’s part to believe that comparing a widely loathed terrorist and a universally accepted head of the government would be a sound diplomatic move.
However, there are good reasons to believe that Bilawal’s comments were meant for domestic consumption in Pakistan and to score political mileage at home.
Bilawal Creating Space for Himself in Pakistan Politics
Since being thrust into active politics following the assassination of his mother – former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – in 2007, Bilawal has not tasted any major political win. Except in the Sindh province, the fortunes of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) under Bilawal have been dwindling nationwide.
The fall of the Imran Khan government earlier this year and the subsequent formation of a coalition government came as a shot in the arm to Bilawal’s political career.
As Abhishek Das pointed out in an ORF article in April, the presence of Bilawal Bhutto is a thorn in Shehbaz Sharif’s side as the PPP scion’s aspirations remain largely hidden. But as a part of the coalition compromise and to keep Imran Khan out of power, Sharif had to cut a deal and assign the foreign portfolio to Bilawal.
Although inchcarge of a high-profile ministry, the role of the foreign minister in Pakistan is limited, as the Pakistan Army exerts considerable control over the country’s foreign policy. While Bilawal cannot independently act on important matters without the military leadership’s go ahead, the job gives him visibility, a blessing for a young and articulated politician. But up till now, popularity eluded him.
Taking into account the anti-India sentiments in Pakistan's political discourse, particularly against the BJP and Narendra Modi, a headline-grabbing statement is Bilawal’s short cut of gaining popularity and reaping political dividends in the upcoming general elections.
The collective silence and a lack of concurring assertion from PPP's coalition partners in Pakistan indicate that Bilawal has hit the bull’s eye.
Scoring Brownie Points for an Unpopular Government
As evidenced by sweeping victory of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the July bypolls and crowds at Imran Khan’s “Long March,” the government headed by Shehbaz Sharif is hugely unpopular.
The economic challenges have not tapered off, with Pakistan’s continued reliance on foreign loans amid sliding growth and depleting foreign reserves. The floods in Pakistan that ravaged the country earlier this year continue to have an impact on the large part of the country. The high inflation rate (23.8% in November, 26.6% in October) continues to anger the public, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) even issuing a warning in September that high food and fuel prices could prompt social protest and instability.
Considering the politics of Pakistan, a populist statement bashing Narendra Modi may work in the government’s favour. Despite an uncomfortable alliance between the Sharifs’ Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Bhutto’s PPP, the Pakistani public’s positive reception to the foreign minister’s remarks might just be the boost the coalition government needs.
Contrast with Imran Khan’s Praises for India
Since being ousted from power in April, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly praised India and its foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On at least two occasions in the last two months, Khan has lauded India for pursuing independent foreign policy and continuing to buy Russian oil despite Western pressure over Ukraine war.
In contrast, Bilawal’s comments and the subsequent doubling down by the foreign office after Ministry of External Affairs’ stern rejoinder are intended to exhibit a dogged foreign policy under the new government.
The affair sends out a message to the Pakistani public that while the former PM is soft on India, the current regime is not letting an attack by India go unanswered.
A Welcome Distraction?
Despite a US visa ban in the aftermath of 2002 Gujarat riots, the world has hesitantly embraced Modi after his ascension to the prime minister’s office in 2014. Since then, Modi has built personal relationships with world leaders, including successive US presidents – Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden. A personal jibe by Pakistan’s foreign minister is unlikely to change the perception.
It may, however, provide Pakistan’s ruling coalition exactly what they require – a distraction from troubles at home.
Even though Sharif might not be smiling on the kind of mileage Bilawal is getting from the controversy, it may prove to be just the political momentum Bilawal Bhutto and Shehbaz Sharif both need ahead of the next year’s general elections.