Bhutto heir takes centre stage
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari faced 150 international journalists
Twelve days ago, Bilawal Zardari was a young man of 19 contemplating the academic and social uncertainties of his second term as a student at Oxford University.The bullets and bombs that caused his mother’s death as she left her Rawalpindi election rally created an instant new reality for him.
In her will, she anointed him eventual heir to the Bhutto political dynasty.
As part of the post assassination re-ordering, he became co-chair with his father of her dynastic Pakistan People’s Party.
In the sweaty heat of Sindh province, he acquired the name Bhutto and became Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
The heir to the Bhutto name who hurried through the torrential rain of west London to the basement of a modest boutique hotel within sight of Kensington Gardens was technically en route from the family home in Larkana to his rooms at Christ Church College, Oxford.
But such is the media pressure for insight and access to understand more about Bilawal that his mother’s London-based political advisers urged that he start understanding the realities of public life – like it or not.
Outside the hotel a large hotel doorman wielded a large umbrella and broad, British welcoming grin to ensure Bilawal descended the fire escape steps in the dry and without slipping.
Instantly you could see the Benazir in his face
Nik Gowing, BBC World
Already gathered in the congested basement function room were some 150 international journalists and camera crews.
After the targeting and murder of his mother, where were the security guards and police?
Not a question to ask aloud.
Maybe a couple of plainclothes police officers watched at a distance. But there were no uniformed officers, no security checks or frisking.
If Pakistan’s President Musharraf and other security experts are right, al-Qaeda killed Bilawal’s mother.
And two months ago the head of Britain’s MI5 warned that at least 2,000, and possibly 4,000, people inside Britain posed a terror threat.
Not a time to ask Scotland Yard for its threat assessment for Mr Bhutto-Zardari.
For a Pakistani political event, the briefing was unusually well-ordered and even on time.
Mr Bhutto-Zardari sat in a dark suit and open neck shirt at a table, surrounded by the advisers and “friends of the family”.
Instantly you could see the Benazir in his face.
Anxiety and nerves? Yes. Composure? Yes.
The briefing was designed to get the media out of his Oxford hair for the coming months.
Benazir Bhutto led the Pakistan People’s Party
“No separate interviews,” just a statement and a few questions.
He read, stone-faced, focussed on a two-page text. On the few occasions he raised his head, the camera flashes went mad and drowned him in light.
He confessed he was not used to public life and being here did not mean he was entering it immediately or campaigning politically for the Pakistan election now scheduled for 18 February.
“I am sure you will understand this is a new experience and I am a bit nervous,” he said.
The words were prepared but it was all refreshingly frank, given the grand pre-election remarks he could have chosen to make.
He appealed to be left to his university studies, to benefit as his mother had, both in Oxford and Harvard.
He had to “finish my education and develop enough maturity” otherwise “I will never be in a position to have sufficient wisdom to enter the political arena”.
But, whether planned or not, the reluctant student non-politician called to continue his mother’s “blood line” did enter the political fray during the conference.
The investigation of his mother’s murder by Pakistan’s government “does not have the necessary transparency”, even with the arrival of five British Scotland Yard counter-terrorism officers, he said.
How many Bhuttos can be killed? From many houses Bhuttos will come
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
He was “happy” to answer questions but soon it did not seem that way.
“Wow” was his first word after a question from the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Robbins. Could the question be split into segments?
What about his views of the US? The student heading back to university suddenly became a new politician.
He blamed the “dictatorship” of President Musharraf for feeding extremism but added: “Once the US stops supporting dictators we can successfully tackle extremism.”
‘Fear for my country’
The pitch of his voice did not change but the gloves of a politically callow son were off.
“How many Bhuttos can be killed? From many houses Bhuttos will come,” he said forcefully.
Then the triple-barrelled Jeremy Paxman question. The challenge designed to test and perhaps floor him.
He had never lived in Pakistan, so how could he have aspirations to lead at only 19?
The composure remained. He never had the aspirations, he said. He had been called to do this in a moment of crisis.
“I understand the risks,” he insisted, but, “I fear for my country.” He even predicted it could disintegrate.
What did he fear most of all? Losing his privacy.
Like it or not, that will now be at a premium.
But as he confessed when confirming his political immaturity: “Politics is also in my blood.”