Take a good, long look at the picture below. It is from the signing of the Simla agreement between the goverments of India and Pakistan in 1972. There are four people in the foreground. The two leaders shaking hands are easy enough to identify -- perhaps the subcontinent's two most iconic leaders ever: Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The bearded man on the extreme right is Swaran Singh, then Indian foreign minister. And just who do you suppose is the timid-looking young lady between Messrs Bhutto and Singh?
I bring this up because for the life of me, I can't get over Bilawal Bhutto accompanying his father to a high-level meeting with Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai. I know there are more important crises in Pakistan right now (the refugees, the economy, the Taliban), but I can't let this go, even though I probably should. I mean, just look at this picture, sent to me by reader Nabeel from the White House page on Flickr.
I just have one question: WHY IS BILAWAL SITTING THERE? Actually, I have one more question: what does it say about Zardari's priorities that Bilawal is sitting closer to his father and Barack Obama than either Pakistan's foreign minister (Shah Mahmood Qureshi, on Bilawal's left) or Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. (to Qureshi's left)?
I have three principal objections to this nonsense. The first is the most obvious: there is an exceedingly low likelihood that Bilawal is the best-suited person to lead Pakistan in twenty years' time, a role he is quite obviously being groomed for. Is he the smartest twenty year old in Pakistan? No, not really. The most hard-working? Probably not. Is he blessed with a great temperament, or an astounding ability to think clearly in times of crisis? Doubtful. So other than his last -- sorry, middle -- name, there is no rational reason why Bilawal Bhutto should be sitting in on an extremely important meeting with extremely important leaders.
The second reason is the effect it has on the rest of Pakistan's population. Think of someone -- maybe a university graduate, maybe not -- who is interested in public service. This person hails from a no-name family, is smart, has an ability to think on their feet, and wants to serve their country in some official capacity. They study hard, day and night, for the CSS exam. And then this person sees Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who can speak neither Urdu nor Sindhi, and who has shown no talent in any meaningful respect whatsoever, sitting next to Barack Obama. What do you think this person feels? Despair, probably. They think to themselves: why should I bother? Why should I work hard in an effort to serve my country when I'm always going to be beaten out by people who don't deserve it? And, as a result of this thinking, Pakistan loses the ability and enthusiasm of otherwise willing people, who simply drop out of contention. They become an accountant or a newspaper reporter or call-center operator or a cricketer or anything else.
The third reason is the lack of respect with which foreigners and, more importantly, foreign governments treat Pakistan and its diplomats. Go back to the picture above, and put yourselves in Barack Obama's shoes for a minute. You're chairing and hosting a summit that, among other issues, involves the external and internal security of three countries. And one of the key guests of this summit is acting like it's "bring your son to work" day. Moreover, him and his handlers choreograph this absurdly moronic and obvious photo-op with him, his son, and his late wife's book (picture courtesy reader Tan).
So, as I said, you're Barack Obama. You see all this. How will you react? When the same guest talks incessantly about his commitment to democracy, are you likely to believe him or dismiss him out of hand? How seriously will you ever take what this man says as the leader of his country? And, as a corollary, if you don't take him very seriously, and don't respect him at all, how do you think this affects Pakistan's chances of securing important deals and commitments from other states?
There are many issues that are beyond Pakistan's ability to solve. We can not overnight make sure no one in the country goes hungry, or that all children attain at least a primary education, or that basic healthcare becomes a right, not a privelege. But there are some things we can solve, such as the gross levels of corruption, favoritism and nepotism inherent in our political system. To their credit, I don't know off the top my head the names of all of Nawaz Sharif's children, nor Pervez Musharraf's. And yet I feel like I am intimately familiar with the Bhutto's family tree and family history, to the point where I really feel like I should add all of them on Facebook.
What explains that difference? Why does the PPP display a sense of familial entitlement so much greater than any of the other power bases in Pakistan? Where does it come from, and what, if anything, can we do about it?