Facing the media pack
When he went down from Oxford for the Christmas holiday Bilawal Bhutto was just another undergraduate fresher, posting his picture at a Halloween party on Facebook.
Recently, on his return to Britain, the chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was mobbed by journalists and camera crews at a heaving London press conference, subjected to the sneers of veteran hacks and found himself answering questions about his and his country’s future with the best composure and self-assurance that a 19-year-old could muster.
In the past fortnight he has been catapulted from obscurity to leader of his murdered mother’s party and a key player in the future of Pakistan, a country he hardly knows at first hand and whose languages he can scarcely speak.
What a difference an assassination makes to the fate of individuals, as well as countries. On the day his mother Benazir might have been elected to government in Pakistan, her son and anointed political heir emerged blinking into the London limelight to face a barrage of cameras, rattling like machine-gun fire every time he lifted his head.
“I am a bit nervous,” he said, followed later by “Okay, wow,” when confronted by a complicated three-part question from the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent.
In the circumstances, the young man did well. Chaperoned by Pakistani loyalists and shepherded by Simon Walker, a friend of his mother’s and formerly the Queen’s press officer, he sat impassive, confronting the scrum. “He’s not entering public life or campaigning; he’s entitled to some privacy, as has been given to other children of public figures,” shouted Walker above the hubbub.
Bhutto announced modestly: “I was called and I have stepped up.” He added: “Why have I become chairperson of the PPP, founded by my grandfather 40 years ago? The answer to this question is because it was recognised at this moment in crisis the party needed a close association with my mother through the bloodline. Also, it was important to give hope to the new generation of Pakistanis ...
“Politics is also in my blood. Although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn ... unless I can finish my education and develop enough maturity, I recognise that I will never be in a position to have sufficient wisdom to enter the political arena.”
Seeking to pre-empt the obvious question, he added: “To those of you who consider it odd that a 19-year-old should assume such a position as the chairmanship of a political party, my response is [that] my position was based on the collective will of the party unanimously endorsed by 50 to 60 members of our central executive committee and the federal council of the PPP. The precedent was set when my grandfather was executed. My grandmother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, became chairperson; as you know, my mother then assumed this role. Eventually I hope to complete the mission of my mother.”
It did not stop the questions, of course. Using the incredulous tone he normally adopts with Cabinet ministers, one journalist boomed a question about what the young man thought he had to offer Pakistan. It was like watching a bully kicking a kitten. Bilawal answered politely that he had been asked to do it and had been raised to it by his mother.
Asked by another questioner whether he feared for his life, he answered: “I fear more for my privacy.” He added: “If they don’t want to vote for Bhuttos, they will not vote for them. It was not my choice to live outside Pakistan, it was made impossible when my mum went into exile.” And with that word—mum—the young man underlined just what he has lost this past fortnight.—Â