Shy and quiet student reluctantly thrust into Pakistan's toxic politics
With reports from Stanley Pignal in Oxford, England; Sonia Verma in Dubai, U.A.E; and Guardian News Service
December 31, 2007
NAUDERO, PAKISTAN -- All his life he was known as Bilawal Zardari, after his father. But yesterday he became Bilawal Bhutto, for the first time assuming his mother's surname, her title as chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party and his place in the family's storied political dynasty.
"He didn't want to do it. He wanted to continue his studies," said Ali Jafri, an uncle whose task it was to "prepare" the teen for the role. Ultimately there was little choice. The untested Oxford student accepted the job with a short speech in which he urged the party to work "for the poor, downtrodden people of Pakistan," according to Zulfikar Ali Mirza, a friend who was present.
He also urged those present to "run the party democratically," an ironic touch given that his mother was "chairperson for life" and he himself was selected without a vote.
Wajid Hasan, a spokesman
for the family in London, confirmed Bilawal's role in the party will be symbolic, while he completes his studies. "He is for now a figurehead of [the PPP]."
But if he is to live up to his mother's legacy, this 19-year-old described as shy, introverted and studious will have to develop the charisma, instincts and ruthlessness necessary to survive in the cut-throat world of Pakistani politics.
It's a world Bilawal was literally born into. In 1988, when then military dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq discovered that Benazir Bhutto, opposition leader at the time, was pregnant with her first child, he called elections.
"He and his top army men believed a pregnant woman could not campaign," Ms. Bhutto wrote in her autobiography, Daughter of the East. "They were wrong. I could and I did."
She gave birth to Bilawal during the campaign, and a month later was elected prime minister for the first time.
Just as Ms. Bhutto's father had carefully groomed her to take his place - he took her to meetings with world leaders when she was still a teenager - she, in turn, brought Bilawal up for the family tradition.
"He was learning everything from [Ms. Bhutto] about politics and about Pakistan," said Mr. Jafri, the uncle. "He was a very, very shy boy. But with tons of effort, we've groomed him very well."
"He is a quiet, considered person," Mr. Hasan said. "He weighs the use of his words carefully."
Yesterday, he spoke only in English in an accent that sounded British, not Pakistani. He is thought to speak little or no Urdu, Pakistan's national language. With his mother in exile for most of his life, and his father in jail for eight years, he grew up mostly in Dubai, where he attended prestigious schools and earned top grades.
"[Bilawal] has faced the most adverse circumstances a young man can face," Mr. Hassan said. "He was very young when his father was sent to prison, and so they were separated for long periods of time. His mother was also travelling a lot. He has had to grow up very quickly. Though he is only 19, for all practical purposes he is closer to 25 or 30."
In a 2004 interview at age 16, he complained about what he perceived as the injustice of his father's incarceration.
"I have gone through lots of things and he [Mr. Zardari] wasn't there. At the time when we needed him he was taken away. We were denied a normal life," he said at the time. He also said he was undecided about entering the family business. "We will see, I don't know. I would like to help the people of Pakistan, so I will decide when I finish my studies. ... I can either enter politics, or I can enter another career that would benefit the people."
In Dubai, relatives described Bilawal as an intensely private person who led a very sheltered life. He rarely socialized outside his family circle or ventured outside the Bhutto's walled compound. When the family entertained, Bilawal was overshadowed by his more extroverted younger sisters.
"Bilawal was never a sporty guy. He was always into magazines, books and history," Mr. Jafri says. Nonetheless, he was reported to be a keen swimmer, horseman and squash player who earned a black belt in tae kwon do and shared his father's love of polo.
Bilawal seems to be coming out of his shell at Oxford. Fellow students describe him as popular and sociable. They say he does not broadcast his family connections and appears to live the life of any other first-year student.
But one distraction that Bilawal has, so far, apparently avoided is a girlfriend.
"His mother wouldn't allow it," Mr. Jafri said.
He recently joined the famous Oxford Union, a debating society that is the foremost student organization at the university. It was once led by his mother, when she used to race around the university in a brightly coloured sports car.
"He was a familiar face at the Union," said Luke Tryl, who was president last term. "He's very charismatic and engaging; he speaks confidently and eloquently. He seems very worldly and aware. He's chatty, he is willing to speak to lots of different people and he's good at making friends with new people. He never said who his family were. I only found out some time after I met him."
globeandmail.com: Shy and quiet student reluctantly thrust into Pakistan's toxic politics