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The voting dead

  • Published at 06:03 pm January 5th, 2014
The voting dead

Dead leaders in Pakistan do not forfeit their constituencies. If anything, their vote bank increases as time passes.

No one listening to Bilawal Bhutto’s speech at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh on December 27 could have had any doubt that the late Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto still control their Pakistan People’s Party – from the grave. The road from their imperial mausoleum leads straight to the ballot box. 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto died in 1979. Many Pakistani presidents have died since then – Ziaul Haq (1988), Ghulam Ishaq Khan (2006), and Farooq Leghari (2010). Zia’s son Ijaz Ul Haq went into politics, Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s son Mamoon abstained from it, and Farooq Leghari’s son Owais never left it. 

Mr Bhutto ensured that his daughter Benazir would never have such options available to her. Her destiny was predicated from her cradle to her grave. She became a wife, then a mother, but she could never bring herself to renounce the white veil that marked her political persona. 

It has taken six years for her son Bilawal to reach the age when he can vote for himself. He has almost five years more to go (unless there is a snap general election in between), during which he will be required to demonstrate qualities that he may have inherited but which nevertheless will have to be tested on the anvil of experience.

In many subtle ways, there could not have been a better regent since his mother’s untimely death than his father Mr Asif Ali Zardari, for no other president in modern times, except perhaps for US President Bill Clinton, has swum so close to whirlpools of self-destruction, and survived.

Former presidents find that time weighs heavily on their hands. Some endow libraries in their name, establish archives of their presidential records, write self-serving memoirs, attend the funerals of their colleagues, or in time plan their own.

Mr Zardari is not one for libraries or archives. He is too reticent to write his memoirs. His security detail will prevent him from attending any public funeral. And he is too active to contemplate his own departure from the world. Having stood on the bridge of the PPP since becoming a widower, his mission is to ensure that his son is trained to captain the ship of state when the time comes.

And when will that time come?

Judging from Bilawal’s dramatic debut, in his mind even yesterday is a day too late. He is understandably impatient to claim his inheritance. If his speech at Garhi Khuda Bukhsh is any indicator, Bilawal is not in need of any further tuition. He has obviously studied footage of his mother’s speeches and subconsciously absorbed many of her characteristic inflections. He has observed to the point of imitation the oratorical mannerisms of his grandfather, even standing at the podium (like Mr Bhutto) with his sleeves half rolled, one fist on his hip and the other flailing in the air.

His speech – even if crafted by someone else – was burnished by him personally. In it, he derided Imran Khan, and Nawaz Sharif with an irreverent glee bordering on impudence. From the height of the elevated platform, Bilawal could see their imperfections all too clearly. Less visible through the protective glass screen that isolated him from his public were the weaknesses of his own party workers. They lost him the last election; they need him more than he needs them to win the next.

It may take Bilawal some more months and much practice to reach the high levels of oratory his mother and grandfather had attained. He has time on his side. In a sense, Garhi Khuda Bakhsh can be regarded as Bilawal’s Agincourt, his fiery speech the equivalent of King Henry V’s exhortation to his troops before that famous battle. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers/ For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother.”

Bilawal offered to shed his own blood, and pointing dramatically to the white mausoleum beneath whose domes were interred the entire top soil of his forbears, he added for better measure the covenant of his young sisters Bakhtawar and Aseefa – yet another generation of Bhuttos pledging themselves to service and, if necessary, sacrifice.   

This brand of necro-politics is peculiar to the subcontinent where our dead – whether royalty or nobility, saints or sinners, but especially martyrs – exercise a peculiar posthumous power over the living.

Perhaps the most extreme case must be that of Shah Yousaf Gardezi, a 12th century Afghan buried at Multan. It is said that for decades after his death, he would give his benediction to visiting devotees by extending his hand through a hole in his grave. He never knew what he was setting in motion.