Dreams from my father: South Asia’s political dynasties

August 4, 2010

bilawal“Whatever the result, this meeting will be a turning point in Pakistan’s history,” Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told his daughter Benazir as he prepared for a summit meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 in the Indian hill resort of Simla after his country’s defeat by India in the 1971 war. “I want you to witness it first hand.”

If there is a slightly surreal quality to President Asif Ali Zardari’s controversial state visit to Britain - where he is expected to launch the political career of Oxford graduate Bilawal Bhutto at a rally for British Pakistanis in Birmingham on Saturday - it is perhaps no more surreal than taking your daughter, herself then a student at Harvard, to witness negotiations with India after a crushing military defeat.

Family dynasties are a tradition in South Asia. Indira Gandhi, the victor of the 1971 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, had learned about international relations from her father, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Now her grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is being groomed as a future prime minister while his mother Sonia Gandhi keeps a tight grip from behind-the-scenes on the Congress Party government led by her appointed prime minister Manmohan Singh.

In both countries, the argument has been that the family name is strong enough to win votes, particularly among the millions of rural poor, strong enough to offer a promise of stability, and strong enough to be worth fighting to preserve across generations even in the face of domestic criticism.

Zardari has run into a great deal of criticism for pressing ahead with his visit to Britain while Pakistan struggled to cope with its worst floods in 80 years. He also faced calls to cancel the trip after British Prime Minister David Cameron said during a visit to India that “we cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country (Pakistan) is allowed to look both ways and is able in any way to promote the export of terror”. 

With a war going badly in neighbouring Afghanistan, a spate of allegations against the role played there by its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and a wave of bombings at home which Islamabad/Rawalpindi see as blowback from the Afghan war, Pakistan is having to navigate through very choppy diplomatic waters.  On top of that, it has had the floods, a plane crash, and then riots in Karachi.

Assuming Zardari goes ahead with Saturday’s rally, he will be bringing the 21-year-old Bilawal – who is co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) but has not yet taken an active part in politics – out into the political arena at a time when his country faces its biggest challenge since its defeat in 1971.  But then again, as Benazir’s own recollections of the Simla summit testify, there is a history to that.  And so far, in the decades since Pakistan and India won independence from Britain in 1947, it has been the family dynasties which have endured.

(File photo of Bilawal Bhutto)

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