Bilawal Bhutto Zardari | His mother’s son 

The PPP leader has become the youngest Foreign Minister of Pakistan 

Updated - May 01, 2022 04:12 pm IST

Published - May 01, 2022 12:32 am IST

For any politician, their first press conference is a daunting task. For Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, then a 19-year-old whose mother had been assassinated just three days before, his first press conference to the entire national and international press at the Bhutto home in Pakistan’s Naudero in December 2007 would have been much more so. Yet, the world saw the shy and bespectacled young man, who was still at college, come out to face the press, armed only with a big photograph of his mother, former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in his lap. When asked if the political career carved out for him that day, when he was declared the Chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was something his mother would have wanted, Mr. Bhutto said her motto was “democracy is the best revenge”, a comment that seemed brave in the face of tragedy, but hard to follow through on for one so young.

Yet, a decade and a half later, Mr. Bhutto, whose Instagram account notes that he was the “youngest chairman of a political party at 19, youngest leader of a parliamentary party at 29 and youngest chair of the parliamentary committee on human rights at 30”, is now also Pakistan’s youngest Foreign Minister at the age of 33. While there is no question his family name and his party’s coalition agreement with the new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, have catapulted him there, these can only help him marginally as he prepares to handle one of the Pakistani Cabinet’s most difficult posts, at a time when the country’s ties with so many parts of the world are in peril.

Born in September 1988, Mr. Bhutto was three months old when his mother was sworn in as PM for the first of two terms (1988-90 and 1993-96) and his infancy was spent in and out of the Prime Minister’s home. A decade later, after his mother went into political exile following General Musharraf’s military coup, Mr. Bhutto and his two sisters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa, were educated abroad, between Dubai and London.

After he was anointed his mother’s successor as the chief of the PPP in 2007, Mr. Bhutto returned to the U.K. to complete his college degree at Oxford University, while his father Asif Ali Zardari , who had spent much of the previous decade in jail for various corruption cases (Mr. Zardari was famously called Mr. Ten Percent during Benazir’s Prime Ministership) became President of Pakistan (2008-13). Until 2015, Mr. Zardari also ran the PPP as “Co-Chairperson”, a post he gave up when Mr. Bhutto officially joined politics in 2015.

In 2018, Mr. Bhutto stood for election from three parliamentary seats, and won only one, and repairing his party’s sagging strength outside of its traditional Sindh province bastion will be one of his biggest tasks. He has been mocked for his inexperience, as well as for his elitist upbringing and a stilted Urdu accent.

“His charm is in the way he responds with laughter and humour,” says a close associate of the Bhuttos. Earlier this year, when PM Imran Khan derided him for a gaffe in Urdu, Mr. Bhutto responded with a twitter video reel of Mr. Khan’s own gaffes, strung together with dialogues from Bollywood.

Symbolism of the post

While many have wondered whether the pleasant mannered but political neophyte has taken on too senior a Cabinet portfolio for his age and experience, according to the associate, it is the symbolism that will matter most to him. His grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became Pakistan’s Foreign Minister twice, first at the age of 35, before he became Prime Minister. Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister with the Finance Portfolio at 35. Both, however, were killed brutally in their early 50s: Z.A. Bhutto was hanged after being deposed in a coup by General Zia ul Haq, and Benazir assassinated by Taliban terrorists after a campaign rally. In an interview to this writer in 2014, Bilawal Bhutto defended himself against the charge of being a dynast, saying, “It’s not like my mother reached the prime of her life for or even a ripe old age and retired, and then I took over or that she took over from her father that way. We were forced into these positions due to the horrific assassinations.”

Having taken over the Foreign Minister’s post, Mr. Bhutto will have to test his mettle at the job in the full glare of international arc-lights. While his first official visit abroad was to accompany PM Sharif to Saudi Arabia, it is his handling of relations with the U.S. administration, which the Bhuttos have traditionally been closer to, which will be watched most closely for any turnaround. Mr. Bhutto has taken a fiery position on Jammu and Kashmir at political rallies, vowing to “fight for a thousand years for Kashmir”.

It remains to be seen whether New Delhi, which has yet to send Mr. Bhutto a formal letter of congratulations, will receive any outreach from the new Foreign Minister who is still finding his feet, as he seeks to fill in some fairly large shoes across Pakistan’s political landscap.

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