Absence of  BBZ, the biggest surprise

In these days of utter chaos and confusion, the recently installed government of Shehbaz Sharif urgently needs to transmit the message of stability and cohesion about itself. It also needs to intensely concentrate on the issues of governance and create some hope among our shirtless millions. Continuing with yawn-inducing sittings of the National Assembly surely seems like a time and energy wasting diversion in the given context.

The government had started the day with a positive development, however; it was finally able to form the federal cabinet, not less than ten days after Shehbaz Sharif’s election to the Prime Minister’s Office. The selection of the ministerial team clearly demonstrated that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took long to appease and accommodate almost each political party and group, big or small, which helped him to remove Imran Khan. But it showed his limits as well.

He could yet not persuade Sardar Akhtar Mengal of the Balochistan National Party to join his cabinet or nominate someone else for it. Mohsin Dawar, formerly associated with a grassroots movement of young Pashtuns could not find a birth as well. Similarly, the Awami National Party of Asfandyar Wali was found to be unrepresented. But Jamiat-e-Ulma-e-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman could extract an impressive portion. The biggest surprise, though, was the absence of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

From day one of assuming office early last week, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had eagerly been approaching the youthful Chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party to join the cabinet as the Foreign Minister. Besides this, he was also willing to grant him the status of Deputy Prime Minister. The offer was indeed tempting, but BBZ continued playing hard to get.


This rise and rise of his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had in effect started in the early 1960s when he served as a hyperactive and high profile Foreign Minister during the government of Ayub Khan. In that capacity, he brilliantly articulated and pursued ideas that projected him as an ardent nationalist, ever willing to challenge the US dominance and India’s dreams of establishing hegemony in our region.


Bilawal also happens to be the son of Mohtrama Benazir Bhutto, the first-ever elected prime minister of an Islamic country. Many Pakistanis cherished her memories while considering her a steadfast defender and promoter of democracy and progressive/liberal ideas, which eventually led to her murder by terrorists of an extreme “religious” outfit. With his legacy, BBZ could have furnished awe-inspiring appearances to Shehbaz Sharif’s cabinet, instantly noticed by the global community and media as well.


But the diehard supporters and many veterans of Pakistan Peoples Party didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of their Chairman starting his career, in government, “under the shadow of Shehbaz Sharif,” who after all heads a political party that continued fiercely competing with her mother for capturing more and more political space throughout the 1990s. That created a to-be-or-not-to-be kind of dilemma for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.


I have it from reliable sources that many apolitical but powerful persons from our elites had also been discreetly approaching Asif Ali Zardari to convince him that BBZ’s inclusion must not be judged from emotional angles only.


Since the presentation of a no confidence motion against him, Imran Khan astonishingly succeeded in making a huge number of Pakistanis seriously believe that the US felt desperate to manage “regime change” in Pakistan. Washington developed the enough-is-enough sort of feeling regarding the “independent and nationalist” policy of Imran Khan.


To spin and promote the above-mentioned story, Imran Khan had also been referring to a “threatening message,” an Under Secretary of the US State Department allegedly conveyed to Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington on March 7, 2022. Imran Khan and his party keep insisting that Pakistan’s ambassador instantly transmitted the said message through a cipher cable to Islamabad.


Whatever the truth, the ceaseless reference to a cipher message, presumably sent by the Pak ambassador, to score political points, created serious problems for Pakistan’s foreign policy and officials mainly responsible for it. Shehbaz Sharif and his well-wishers genuinely believed that by joining the federal cabinet as the foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto could ensure damage control on the fast track.


Swayed by emotions, the diehard veterans and supporters of Pakistan Peoples Party also forgot that in spite of winning the election of 1970 in the then West Pakistan, the founder-chairman of this party had agreed to serve as the foreign minister cum deputy prime minister under Noor-ul-Amin.


As the president in uniform, General Yehya delayed and hesitated to hand over power to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who had swept the then East Pakistan during the election in 1970. In his last ditch attempt to prevent the separation of East Pakistan, currently Bangladesh, he eventually launched a military operation. Then he tried to furnish the façade of a civil government in Pakistan by installing Noor-ul-Amin as the Prime Minister. He was the sole Bengali elected to the National Assembly while contesting against Mujib’s Awami League in East Pakistan of yesteryears.


In spite of the appearances of utter chaos and confusion, Pakistan of these days is relatively far more stable than it looked in the early 1970s. Yet we desperately need massive course correction and project the feeling of stability about our country to the world. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could have hugely helped achieving the said task by accepting the offer of joining the cabinet as the foreign minister.


I succeeded to catch some persons known for enjoying active access to Zardari House of Islamabad these days while leaving the Parliament house Tuesday. On the condition of anonymity, they told me in whispers that BBZ had yet conveyed “absolutely not” to Shehbaz Sharif. He was rather reported to be preparing for an SOS-looking visit to London.


The sole purpose of his possible visit to London was reportedly to have a meeting with Nawaz Sharif, the elder brother of Shehbaz Sharif, currently staying there.


Senior PPP leaders strongly believe that despite projecting the feeling of cohesive loyalty to Nawaz Sharif, the party associated with his name, i.e., the PML-N was practically split in two camps. One seeks directions from ‘Model Town’ of Lahore (read Shehbaz Sharif) while the other looks up to “Raiwind,” meaning Ms. Maryam Nawaz, the daughter and apparent political heir of Nawaz Sharif. They also insist that people interacting with them on behalf of the PML-N primarily want to please “Model Town.”


The same group alleged to have already created “embarrassing confusion”, when it came to the election of the Speaker National Assembly. It had been agreed between the PPP and the PML-N that Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, a former Prime Minister from the PPP, would get the said slot. Yet, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, a former Speaker from the PML-N surprised many by submitting nomination papers for the same office. They were eventually withdrawn, however.


The PPP has also been taking it for granted that after conceding the Speakership; the PML-N would also let another former prime minister from the same party, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to get elected as the Chairman Senate. But now the group, presumably associated with “Model Town,” is alleged to be having other ideas.


Appointing a Governor for the most populous province of Pakistan, Punjab, is also deepening friction. Asif Ali Zardari had already announced Makhdoom Ahmad Mehmood’s name for the said position. He is the scion of a formidable and influential family of South Punjab, who could help consolidating and expanding PPP’s support base there.


The sources, I have talked to, still sounded hopeful that after an exhaustive meeting with Nawaz Sharif in London, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could manage acquiring the above mentioned positions for his party. That will certainly ensure his joining the federal cabinet as the foreign minister after returning home. But the same sources had no clear answer when I asked the question: “What if…”