Remembering Benazir Bhutto: Can Bilawal Build on Her Legacy?

On Benazir Bhutto’s death anniversary, a look at her legacy and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s politics.

4 min read
Hindi Female

(The article is being republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Benazir Bhutto’s birth anniversary. It was originally published in December 2016.)

She was 35 years old when she was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1988 – beautiful and triumphant in Pakistan’s colours. I was too young for politics to be a full-time interest, but I vividly remember the ceremony broadcast on state television. There were no private news channels back then. In a green and white silk salwar kameez, her vivid pink lipstick, head bowed so it threw her aquiline nose in relief, Benazir Bhutto read the oath administered to her by an elderly man.


That image had powerful symbolic value: Not just because she was the first female prime minister of a Muslim country, but more importantly, as the daughter of the prime minister who had been executed by the state and establishment, a dawn of hope after a long and bleak dictatorship. She also gave birth to her first born, Bilawal, the same year; now heir-apparent to the Bhutto throne.

That moment could be called destiny, an accident of history or a result of the peculiarities of South Asian politics, but Benazir Bhutto was more than a force composed of external circumstances. To understand her impact, now, ten years after she was killed, the personal cannot be separated from the political.

Watch the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

  • Benazir Bhutto symbolised more power than she was actually able to wield as head of government.
  • For the generation of Pakistanis born after General Ziaul Haq’s military coup, Benazir was the Bhutto name.
  • When she returned in 2007, it felt as if she had flown in on the wings of hope.
  • Bilawal’s politics has not been forged in the fire like Benazir’s.
  • He promises change when his party represents status quo – dynasty, corruption and poor governance.

Benazir Bhutto’s Legacy

In some ways, Benazir symbolised more power than she was able to wield practically as head of government. Her first government was dismissed by the elderly man who had sworn her in as prime minister. Her second term ended abruptly and dishonourably too.

Part of the reason is the dysfunctionality of the Pakistani state, the tussles of power between military and civil: Her centre-left party, the PPP has often borne the brunt of the military baton literally and figuratively.

But Benazir herself squandered that first heady hope of 1988. Both her terms as prime minister were stained with allegations of corruption, in particular, against her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Her younger brother Murtaza – her challenger to the Bhutto throne – was shot dead in mysterious circumstances outside his residence during her second premiership. 

For my generation of Pakistanis who were born after General Ziaul Haq’s military coup, she was the Bhutto name. By the time I became a journalist, she had already left Pakistan for her third self-exile. Born to a feudal and privileged family that claimed to serve the poor, educated at Harvard and Oxford, jailed under Zia’s regime, she never quite lived up to the promise of her charisma and vision. Nonetheless, the fabric of Pakistani democracy is partly woven with her name. When she returned from her exile in 2007, after the more benign dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, to a Pakistan bloodied in terrorism, it felt as if she had flown in on the wings of hope again. But yet again, tragically, the PPP and Benazir fell victim to the darker forces in Pakistan.

On Benazir Bhutto’s death anniversary, a look at her legacy and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s politics.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari with co-chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party and father, Asif Ali Zardari.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/BilawalBhuttoZardari)

Can Bilawal Fill Her Shoes?

The politics of her son, thrust into the co-chairmanship of his grandfather’s party, has not been forged in fire like Benazir’s. He has spent most of his life out of Pakistan, has never been elected to parliament, his father has so far pulled the political levers, and he has been unable to move freely among his constituency as fearlessly as his mother did until recently. But speak to anyone associated with the PPP and they hold him out as the next hope, not just because he is a Bhutto but because he genuinely desires reform. The party has floundered after Benazir’s assassination and under her widower Asif Ali Zardari.

If elections go ahead in 2018 as they are meant to, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will be 30 years old, it will also be 30 years since his mother first became prime minister. Like his mother whose language and gender were soft targets, he has faced cruel mockery for his poor Urdu and for being “effeminate”. He toes his grandfather’s line on Kashmir, his mother’s on social justice and democracy, but apart from his youth and lineage what does Bilawal bring to Pakistan’s latest democratic project?

His catchy slogans against Nawaz Sharif have already been trademarked by opposition leader Imran Khan. He promises change when his party represents status quo – dynasty, corruption and poor governance. While his own seat in parliament might be guaranteed, his social media populism and liberal values are hardly the stuff of election triumph for his party. And yet, it will be interesting to be a witness to his unique political identity once he emerges from the shadows of his grandfather, his mother and his father. When he is Bilawal, not Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.


(Amber Shamsi is a multi-media journalist who has worked for international and national media organisations as a reporter and on the editorial desk. She currently hosts a news and current affairs show on Dawn TV. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(This story was first published on 26 December 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Benazir Bhutto’s death anniversary)

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