Waving her hands, chanting party slogans and making victory signs Monday in Pakistan’s central city of Multan, the youngest daughter of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto reminded people of her firebrand mother.
“In my opinion, the content of her speech was not as important as her aura, which generates the same feel and energy as her mother,” said Nusrat Javed, a senior Pakistani journalist who has spent decades interacting with three generations of the Bhutto family.
This was 27-year-old Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari’s official launch into politics, almost by chance. She was filling in for her brother, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who was quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 and could not lead his party in a pre-planned opposition rally.
The chance appearance had its own significance, said Sherry Rehman, a senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and a close political companion of the late Benazir Bhutto.
“Circumstances have always catapulted key members of the Bhutto family into the churn of the political mainstream in Pakistan,” Rehman said, pointing out that both Benazir and Bilawal “found the life of politics choosing them, instead of the other way around.”
Benazir Bhutto was compelled to join politics when her prime minister father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was ousted in a military coup, jailed and executed. She went on to lead the PPP, which her father founded, and became the first female head of government of a Muslim-majority nation.
Bilawal, who was always considered his mother’s heir apparent, was prematurely thrust onto the political stage when Benazir was assassinated in 2007.
His two younger sisters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa, mostly stayed on the sidelines, only delving into political commentary on social media. Meanwhile, Aseefa, who has a master’s degree in global health from University College London, established herself as a health activist. She became a United Nations ambassador for polio eradication.
All three siblings were exposed to politics from childhood. While Bakhtawar showed little interest in pursuing life as a politician, Aseefa seemed to have it in her even as a child, according to Sohail Warraich, a senior Pakistani journalist and analyst.
“I remember Mohtarma (Benazir Bhutto) used to tell me that as a child, when Aseefa wanted to change her school, she would make placards with slogans on them and display them around the house,” he said.
Members of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, or PTI, have called Aseefa’s political debut a continuation of PPP’s dynastic politics.
“People’s Party has only one rhetoric. They want to milk the Bhutto name, both Benazir Bhutto and her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. But I think a lot of water has flown under the bridge,” said Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, federal minister for science and technology.
He added that the PPP needed to “rethink its politics,” as well as improve governance in the Sindh province where it ruled, or risk losing the next elections.
The opposition, a conglomerate of multiple opposition parties that have joined hands against the government under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), also received widespread criticism for continuing with large political gatherings at a time when new COVID-19 cases are surging in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that the opposition leaders did not care about the lives and safety of ordinary people and accused them of using politics as a cover to avoid accountability for past corruption.
“Now, their sole & desperate goal is to save their families’ looted wealth & corruption of which they are an integral part,” he said on Twitter.
PDM leaders accused the government of using the spread of the novel coronavirus as an excuse to shut down opposition activities, even as it was holding its own large gatherings.
The government has banned gatherings of more than 300 people until the virus is controlled and threatened the opposition with arrests if they violate the protocols.
“They think we are scared of getting arrested. They are mistaken. If they arrest our brothers, remember, every woman in the Pakistan People’s Party is ready for battle,” Aseefa Bhutto said in her debut speech.
Aseefa is also the closest to her mother in physical appearance. She has also inherited qualities from both of her maternal grandparents, Javed, the journalist, said.
“She triggered the accumulated memories (of the Bhutto family) in a very powerful way,” he said.
Her presence at party rallies, he said, might become a necessity if the party wants to harness “a kind of forgotten energy” that she generates.