Politics, most certainly, is the art of the possible. In a nascent democratic setup like Pakistan’s where the extra-constitutional preponderance of the military establishment over civilian spheres has been the historical norm, the space allowed for democratic politics is meagre, at best. Add to that, the unholy alliances of the military establishment with extremist religious outfits which were made while pursuing the ill-fated and illogical “strategic depth” route, the space available for progressive political parties was further constrained. Case in point, the 2013 elections, where the ruling party PPP, as well as coalition partners, the MQM and ANP, fell prey to the direct threats of the Taliban and rarely campaigned, out of sheer fear. Right wing conservative parties like the PML-N and the PTI, with their self-servicing, catch-all agendas were afforded the freedom to roam around the streets while the PPP paid dearly with the dead bodies of Governor Salman Taseer, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti and the kidnappings of the sons of the former Governor and PM Gillani, while the ANP sacrificed Basheer Ahmed Bilour, amongst many others.

While the ANP, MQM and PPP might have many points of discord amongst themselves, and internal weaknesses with regards to the perceptions about their performance in government, they can rightfully boast of maintaining consistency in their positions on how to negotiate with religious extremism and banned terrorist outfits. They posited that hardened militants who killed innocent civilians have strayed away from the path of the Abrahamic religions and that the Pakistani state had no moral obligation to hold negotiations from a position of weakness. However, events have a rather ironic way of assuming their own rationalities and the PML-N and the PTI had to eventually swallow a very bitter pill because for all the compassion that they afforded to religious extremist outfits around the elections, the military establishment’s position on terrorism shifted drastically with the advent of General Raheel Sharif to the helm and the consequent operation Zarb-e-Azb. The military and its paramilitary forces, in unison with civilian security institutions, played a positive part and it can be safely asserted that the instances of suicide attacks typically decreased as the operation gained momentum. The PTI and the PML-N - the champions of dwindling U-turns, like rickshaws in rain-showers in packed third world South Asian traffic, jumped the ship and hypocritically started paying lip service to the master’s new narrative.

But this begs key questions. Has enough been done by the PML-N on the civilian side after the advent of the military operation in North Waziristan? I think not. Has the ruling PML-N maintained fidelity with the spirit of the National Action Plan? Definitely not. Is democratic accountability over the military budget afforded to parliament? Long way to go. Do the powers that be i.e. the PML-N and the military establishment, want to take on terrorist outfits who have created “states within the state” heads on with a clear and uniform ideological conviction? Big fat no! Does the “good Taliban, bad Taliban” dichotomy still exist at the policy level? Surely.

In the aforementioned antagonistic and chequered environment, the youthful exuberance of Mr. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is slowly gaining grounds and offers a pragmatic alternative route. For starters, you can expect him to actually show up to the noble institution of the Pakistani parliament and take the proceedings seriously. Boasting abysmal attendance records, Imran Khan considers himself above the parliament already and looks down at deliberative processes with sheer contempt, while our sitting Prime Minister is probably too “shy” to further the democratic tradition of spontaneous debate. Will Imran and Nawaz be able to handle the force of the strongest argument in high pressure parliamentary settings when a fiery Bhutto enters the House after eighteen years? And when a large part of his ethos involves being answerable to “history” as opposed to short-term momentary gains? And it is their history of raw and relentless political struggles that makes even political adversaries respect ZAB and BB.

The Sindhi gentleman who speaks eloquent English might mix up pronunciations when he switches to Urdu. Something that, of course, does not sit well with a very nasty kind of chauvinistic mindset that our imbalanced federation perpetuates. But if his language skills are the only marker to judge his credentials by - he must have lots of stuff going for him, already, no? Some self-introspection will do cynics questioning his “Bhutto-ness” no harm. And a lot of good. I mean, both his grandfather and mother died brutal, untimely and unnatural deaths - his uncles, Mr. Shahnawaz and Mr. Murtaza fell prey to the intrigues of the intelligence agency nexuses of the Afghan Jihad and were also assassinated, while Begum Nusrat Bhutto fought like a champion till the very end but succumbed to Alzheimer’s as the pain grew uncontrollable. People forget that Mr. Asif Ali Zardari is the son in law of Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – that there was no way the ruling establishment was not going to indulge in the dirtiest smear campaigns when it came to him. But, alas, it is “fashionable” in privileged Pakistani, and, especially Punjabi, circles to resort to base ad hominem attacks when they are unable to absorb why the poorest of the poor still vote PPP.

But Mr. Bilawal himself realises that the victim card on its own will not win the elections in 2018. And neither will just the electables, or the defamation of the armed forces. Recent by election wins all over the federation and the entry of electables like Faisal Saleh Hayat into the party suggest there is still life. He is prudent enough to realize that the party cannot afford to employ a strategic pause again in the next elections. The times call for the lines between the right and left in the Pakistani political spectrum to be made obvious, once again. And it’s on the left of center where the Pakistan People’s Party ought to bank upon. Whether its clear positions on democratic accountability on the NAP, on cautiously managing the CPEC dynamic and the strategic US-China balance it hinges upon through the parliament, on increasing the parliament’s oversight over the Defense and Foreign Ministries and their budgets, and on finding indigenous regional-bloc led solutions in the South Asian security and trade context will automatically translate into votes is tough to say. But if the PPP manages to, and is, more importantly, allowed to, communicate with the general populace at large and hits out at the lack of upward social mobility and inequality of opportunity available of the citizenry of Pakistan, it might very well find itself in a king-making position. And if not, the party ought to consolidate its federal credentials by regaining its traditional vote bank in South Punjab and consolidating its positions in KPK and Balochistan. And in the midst of all of this, they need to prioritise finding common ground with the ANP and the MQM, on the issues that actually matter - moral corruption, fractured national identity, the Punjabi establishment’s vulgar pandering to religious zealots, and of course, finding a way to get the foreign investment wheel rolling. Mushroom growth under the crony capitalism of military regimes enabled the creation of Askaris, Bahrias and Defences. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s populist left-of-center convictions created Joher Towns, Iqbal Towns and Gulshans. ZAB took on the military, industries, corporations as well as the conservative Punjabi landed aristocracy, all at once! Can Bilawal? The odds might be stacked against him, but he isn’t down without a fight.