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Bilawal Bhutto: “From Novice to Notable”

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Islamabad (Imran Y. CHOUDHRY) :- Former Press Secretary to the President, Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France, Former MD, SRBC Mr. Qamar Bashir analysis :
During my tenure as Director of Media of former President Asif Ali Zardari in 2013, I worked closely with media advisor Farhatullah Babar in the President’s Secretariat Public office. In 2021, I assumed the role of Press Secretary and Media Advisor to President Alvi, occupying the same office. Across from us was Bilawal Bhutto’s office, where he received tutelage in statecraft from Salman Farooqui, Hasham Riaz Sheikh, Sharmeela Farooqui, and other PPP stalwarts. I later accompanied the President to Lahore, where he inaugurated the opulent Bilawal House, allegedly constructed by Mr. Riaz at a staggering cost of PKR One billion. This sprawling villa even boasted a helicopter, facilitating the President’s political maneuvers during his final days in office. Within its walls, the President handpicked members of the interim governments at both the federal and provincial levels for upcoming general elections. These clandestine meetings, witnessed by me as part of the media team, paved the way for the subsequent oath-taking ceremonies of caretaker Prime Ministers, Chief Ministers, and Ministers. It goes without saying that these pivotal discussions were never aired in the media, shrouded in secrecy and political intrigue.

In the hallowed halls of Bilawal House, I bore witness to Bilawal’s interactions with party workers—a display of remarkable humility and sincerity. Amidst chants of “Jiay Bhutto,” he traversed long queues, extending handshakes and warm greetings to each individual. Despite being perceived by many as merely the child once cradled in his mother’s arms, Bilawal exuded a quiet determination and grace that left a lasting impression on me.

Yesterday (07.02.2024), in a televised interview on a prestigious TV channel, the nation witnessed a transformation—an emergence of Bilawal as a seasoned politician, confidently articulating his stance on contentious issues and deftly navigating through probing questions from some of the country’s most formidable anchors. In that moment, he transcended the confines of perception, commanding respect and attention as a formidable leader in his own right.

In addressing the pressing issue of a lack of level playing field in pre-election processes, Bilawal eloquently stated that with the impending vote on February 8th, his sole aspiration is for the people to exercise their right to vote freely and for the results to be swiftly and impartially tabulated. However, he underscored the imperative for the ensuing government to approach election issues with utmost seriousness. Calling for a comprehensive review of the electoral framework, he advocated for essential legislative reforms and amendments to ensure transparency, fairness, and a level playing field for all stakeholders. Bilawal’s impassioned plea resonated with the nation, emphasizing the urgency of establishing an election process that garners widespread acceptance and trust.

Bilawal deftly addressed the complex issue of missing persons, highlighting the PPP’s historic commission formed during their previous government. As a prospective Prime Minister, he pledged to foster consensus on this critical matter, proposing potential legislation and reforms to bring about a lasting resolution. He vehemently criticized the mishandling of recent Baloch demonstrations in Islamabad, denouncing it as not only detrimental to Balochistan but also tarnishing Pakistan’s international image. In his vision for handling protests, he emphasized respectful engagement at the highest levels and proper care for demonstrators. However, he overlooked significant achievements of the PPP government (2009-2013), such as the Aghaz Haqooq Balochistan package, which aimed to address Baloch grievances through increased quotas, NFC awards, royalties, and political reconciliation efforts. Notably, under Asif Ali Zardari’s presidency, unprecedented apologies were issued to Baloch leaders, alongside invitations for reconciliation talks and willingness to withdraw cases against dissenting figures. These initiatives, though not fully realized, underscored a concerted effort to address Balochistan’s grievances at the federal level, marking a pivotal chapter in Pakistan’s political landscape.

Bilawal vehemently disagreed with a senior anchor’s suggestion of adopting a hybrid governance system for Pakistan based on Bangladesh’s model. He pointed out that Bangladesh’s economic prosperity was not achieved during the period of hybrid governance from 1970 to 1990. Instead, he emphasized that Bangladesh made significant economic progress during periods of democratic governance since the early 1990s. Bilawal highlighted Bangladesh’s steady economic growth, driven by factors such as export-oriented industries, remittances, and investments in infrastructure and human capital. Furthermore, he underscored Bangladesh’s achievements in poverty reduction, social development, and increasing per capita income under democratic rule. This rebuttal showcased Bilawal’s firm stance on the importance of democratic governance in fostering economic prosperity.

Bilawal adeptly tackled the complex issue of Pakistan’s hybrid governance system, acknowledging its entrenched nature while advocating for concerted efforts among all stakeholders to fortify democracy and its institutions—the true antidote to such a system.

Regarding the SIFC, a potential landmine, he navigated with finesse. Recognizing its role as a coordinating forum for foreign investment in specified sectors, he expressed no qualms with its existence. Instead, he highlighted its functionality, particularly its provincial representation, which allows for crucial input on investment projects. However, he asserted that under PPP leadership, all decisions would ultimately be subject to approval by the elected Prime Minister, ensuring democratic oversight and accountability. This stance underscores his commitment to upholding democratic principles while engaging constructively with strategic forums.

Bilawal cut through the complexity of privatizing state-owned enterprises, citing past failures under successive governments, including the autocratic rule of Pervez Musharraf. He attributed the challenges to the private sector’s preference for profitable SOEs, leaving loss-making entities untouched. However, he proposed a pragmatic solution: Public-Private Partnerships, successfully employed in Sindh province. While examples weren’t provided due to time constraints, his resolve to explore alternative avenues for sustainable development resonated, offering a glimpse into his pragmatic approach to governance.

Bilawal fearlessly criticized the PTI government’s national curriculum as “half-cooked” and unsuitable, failing to align with provincial realities. Promising a comprehensive overhaul if elected, he pledged to craft a curriculum sensitive to local contexts and preferences—a bold commitment reflecting his dedication to educational reform and inclusivity.

Bilawal minced no words on the economy, vowing to slash bureaucratic bloat by axing redundant ministries—over 17 in total—to save millions in wasteful spending. He further pledged to halt the lavish subsidies—exceeding a staggering 1000 billion—lavished on the elite, signaling a bold departure from status quo policies and a firm commitment to equitable distribution of resources.

The PPP’s manifesto, as outlined by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is ambitious, visionary and progressive.It promises among others focusing on sectors such as agriculture, communication, and energy to achieve economic stability, providing 300 free electricity units, create green jobs, provide relief to vulnerable segments, address national issues like flood relief, launch the “Bhook Mitao Programme” aimed at ensuring food security and empowering women entrepreneurs through initiatives like boosting domestic production and subsidizing local producers. However, the manifesto failed to explain how to achieve these hefty milestones.

One anchorperson even conveyed his felicitation to Bilawal for conducting an aggressive and impressive campaign, in all parts of Pakistan compared to PML(N) which conveniently ignored Balochistan and Sindh with insignificant election campaigns in KP and admired him for showing his grit, stamina and commitment democratic values.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s journey from being dismissed as a political novice to emerging as a formidable leader on the horizon of Pakistan’s political landscape is nothing short of remarkable. Despite initial skepticism and attempts to write him off, Bilawal has demonstrated his resilience and aptitude for leadership. Through sharpening his public relations skills, honing his oratory proficiency, and exhibiting impressive performance as a foreign minister during challenging times, he has garnered respect and attention. His ability to articulate definitive opinions on contentious issues and navigate tricky questions with ease and comfort reflects his growing influence and staying power in the political arena. As he continues to assert himself as a key player in Pakistan’s political discourse, it appears that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is here to stay for the long haul, poised to leave an indelible mark on the nation’s future.

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