06.02.12

A Son Carries Benazir Bhutto’s Mantle After Her Death

At 23, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the eldest child of the slain Pakistani prime minister, sees himself as a bridge to the U.S. Can he help defuse tensions between Washington and Islamabad?

For a generation of American women yearning for contemporary role models, few captured the imagination more than Benazir Bhutto.

Twice elected prime minister in Pakistan, the first woman to lead a Muslim country, achingly beautiful, passionate, and smart, her life was cut short by bullets and explosives as her family watched on television.

“I grew up overnight on that day, Dec. 27, 2007,” recalls Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the eldest of Bhutto’s three children, her only son, and the one designated to carry on the family’s star-crossed tradition.

In a country where 60 percent of the population is under age 30, the 23-year-old Bilawal sees himself as the modern face of a young Pakistan. He chairs the Pakistan People’s Party that his grandfather founded and that his mother led, and after graduating from Oxford in 2010, moved to Karachi, where he is working to modernize the party through social media and building his political career. He was in Washington recently, where many who knew his mother are excited to see him take up the mantle, even as they worry about his safety. And with political dynasties disintegrating the world over, they wonder: is this a good time to go into the family business?

“It’s a big responsibility,” he readily concedes, “but it’s not a family business, it’s a way of life, it’s an ideology, it’s a vision for Pakistan.” His grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served as the country’s first civilian president and promoted democratic reform—until he was deposed in a military coup and in 1979 executed by hanging. When pressed on why he would give up a comfortable life in London, or Dubai, and return to Pakistan, where there are threats against his life, Bilawal uses the same words as his mother, a Harvard graduate who once aspired to be a journalist or a foreign-service officer: “I didn’t choose this life. It chose me.” 

Talking with the younger Bhutto, he conveys the confidence of someone accustomed to being in public life, and he has the good looks and natural charisma that made his mother and grandfather such memorable figures. He is also appropriately humble—and realistic—in saying he lacks a mandate within his party because he has not yet run for office himself.

Bilawal is working to set up a foundation in his mother’s name that would, among other things, offer a sanctuary to women in minority communities who suffer abuse and provide them with legal assistance. He is proud that the government headed by his father, President Asif Ali Zardari, has made domestic violence illegal and “passed the most pro-woman legislation in the last four years than all the previous governments combined.”

Enacting laws is one thing, but implementing them is tough in the face of strong cultural headwinds. Zardari is not popular within Pakistan, where he is seen as too much of an American tool. Bilawal echoes his government’s position on the various irritants that have made relations between the U.S. and Pakistan so fraught in recent months.

The Pakistani doctor who cooperated with the CIA to track down Osama bin Laden had just been sentenced to 33 years in jail when Bhutto was in Washington. He defended the handling of the case, pointing out that cooperating with foreign-intelligence services, even of a friendly government, is illegal in every country, and noting, “We restored an independent judiciary in Pakistan after a long struggle, and the first democratically elected government of Pakistan will observe the rule of law.”

U.S. officials were outraged by the sentence, and the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 30 to 0 to cut aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million, a million for every year the doctor will be jailed. The full Senate will vote on it later this summer, and perhaps by then tempers will have cooled.

In the meantime, Bhutto is worried about another kind of fallout from the phony vaccination program led by the Pakistani doctor. Bilawal’s youngest sister, Aseefa, was named by her father in 2009 as Pakistan’s ambassador for polio eradication. Like so much of what this family does, it honors the memory of Benazir Bhutto, who in 1994 launched the first immunization campaign in the country, personally giving the first drops to her daughter, Aseefa.

As someone who has spent much of his life abroad, yet is deeply rooted in his country, Bhutto thinks he can “bridge the gap” between Pakistan and the West.

In a country that is distrustful of modern medicine and foreign influences, persuading parents to vaccinate their children is a challenge, and the revelation about the CIA’s involvement has seriously undermined the program. “We may very well be the last country on earth with polio now as a result,” says Bhutto. “It’s quite frustrating.” 

Like many young people, Bhutto found inspiration in President Obama, but was disappointed there wasn’t much follow-through after his speech in Cairo. “Quite a few of us had hoped there would be an Islamabad speech as well,” he says. “General attitudes to the U.S. are not good, and they are drastically getting worse and worse with every drone strike, with every innocent civilian killed.”

As someone who has spent much of his life abroad, yet is deeply rooted in his country, Bhutto says he thinks he can “bridge the gap” between Pakistan and the West. Knowing that his life is endangered doesn’t deter him. “I can’t let my mother’s death have been in vain,” he says. “Democracy is the best revenge, and we will have it.”