History has been made in Pakistan this weekend, not just because of the general political fallout from the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but because the Bhutto family has firmly secured its future as the country’s leading political dynasty.
The family of Pakistan’s other top political leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is not nearly so well established, while the Army, which is the most powerful political organization and currently runs the country through President Pervez Musharraf, passes the baton of command to successive generals who have not been related to each other.
For a few hours it seemed as if the Bhutto dynastic grip might loosen with Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, stepping into her shoes and weakening the blood line – something the relatively insignificant Zardari family no doubt wanted.
But a 19-year old son, Bilawal, was quickly brought into the picture and installed as the chairman of the PPP and thus as party leader. Significantly, Bhutto was added to his name – he is now Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Asif Zardari will be the PPP co-chairman, and political power will be shared with mainstream PPP politicians – neither Bilawal Bhutto, who is at university in the Britain, nor Zardari, will be the PPP’s prime ministerial candidate in coming elections.
There is of course a lot to play for. Zardari, who has been accused of corruption following Benazir Bhutto’s two terms as prime minister, will no doubt try to exert as much political influence as he can.
Some PPP politicians will also emerge as top leaders but, in the way of South Asian politics, Bilawal Bhutto has been firmly established as the head of the dynasty – and therefore as a future prime ministerial candidate, unless he decides later to opt out, which seems extremely unlikely.
That puts him ahead of India’s Rahul Gandhi, who is in his mid-30s. Gandhi is being groomed – but has not yet been officially named – to take over the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty one day from Sonia Gandhi, his Italian-born mother and current head of the Congress Party. This marks him out as a future prime minister, though he is showing little enthusiasm for the role and has a much more politically capable sister, Priyanka, who currently stays mostly behind the scenes.
There seems to be inevitability about these dynasties. In India, while the Nehru-Gandhis demonstrate all the confidence of people born to rule, a growing number of lesser national and regional politicians are bringing their sons, daughters and sometimes other relations, into politics. This strengthens their own position because they have people they can (usually) trust and it also helps with the management of wealth that usually accumulates.
Most important of all, it is the family name that matters – Brand Bhutto and Brand Gandhi generate instant recognition. The brands may not always pull in the votes, but leaders of both the Congress Party in India and the PPP in Pakistan reckon they gain from them.
Certainly there will be a huge sympathy vote for the Bhutto’s and thus the PPP in the coming Pakistan general election, no doubt echoing what happened in India in 1984 and 1991 when the Congress Party was swept to power with otherwise unlikely massive victories following the assassination first of Indira Gandhi and then of her son Rajiv (Sonia’s husband).
But are dynasties good for the countries? The answer is almost certainly not. India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has a mixed record and Benazir Bhutto did little useful for her country during her two prime ministerial terms.
The dynasties also block the emergence at the top of other possibly more able politicians, and thus stymie their countries’ political development.
Such considerations however are largely irrelevant – the dynastic brands are well established, as we have seen this weekend.