By Eissa Saeed –
There is one rule of tweeting well: you have 140 characters, and it is your job to make them count. Twitter is a bit more complicated than just technical wordplay; it just as much requires one to walk the fine line between the interesting and the relevant, and sometimes the controversial. In Pakistan, Twitter has somewhat become a political battleground, with leaders monitoring their popularity and doling out content that appeases their followers but also keeps their rivals on their toes (or their fingers in this case).
Up until the tail end of last year Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, was struggling to strike a chord with the general Pakistani Twitter population but since his address at Garhi Khuda Bukhsh on his mother’s sixth death anniversary – where he called out fellow politicians for aligning their interests with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – his Twitter stock has racked up a sharp gradient.
Back in early October he tweeted in defense of the ban on Whatsapp, Viber, and Skype in Sindh:
Dear Burgers, Sorry about Skype/Viber/Whtsapp. Excuse us while we catch some terrorists and save some lives. SMS for 3Months.
His words did little to assuage the building frustrations of his fellow millennials, who make up majority of the online Pakistani population, and instead resulted in responses that ridiculed him for being out of touch since Bilawal does not reside in the country.
Later in the month, he struck up possibly his most well-known Twitter feud with PTI leader Asad Umar. Bilawal, in his signature cutting tone, replied to a tweet in which Umar expressed his support for Malala Yousafzai’s intentions to one day becoming the Prime Minister.
@KamranNawaz6 @BBhuttoZardari @MaryamNSharif all power to her
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
@Asad_Umar @KamranNawaz6 I want Malal 2 b my PM. She puts IK 2 shame coz at 14 she had courage to talk against TTP but IK is a coward at 60.
@BBhuttoZardari @KamranNawaz6 says the courageous leader who is not even willing to live in pakistan..
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
@Asad_Umar @KamranNawaz6 if I was a TTP sympathiser like IK I could happily live in Pak. I, however, have principals.
Whether auto-correct was to blame or Bilawal really did misspell “principles,” we might never know. But the damage done by a typo was significant: the tweet was widely shared on various social media networks with commentary that largely questioned the amount of time he spent actually studying at Oxford.
Bilawal has been a rather prolific tweeter since he joined in 2011, but since his December address at Garhi Khuda Bukhsh his Twitter reputation and public perception alike have accelerated with a number of people commending his outspokenness, his bravery, and his unwavering stance on the TTP. Perhaps the reason why Bilawal’s words have significantly resonated with the larger public is that this is the first time that a major leader of a large party has spoken up against the Taliban’s presence using very strong and explicit language. What may have sealed the deal further is the fact that he did not cut corners to admonish Imran Khan’s PTI for promoting the idea of dialogue with the extremist group. He followed up the address on Twitter with equally strong words:
If Buzdil Khan, Nawaz Sharif and JI find the courage to say 1/2 of wht I said vs. TTP yesterday I will tear down Bilawal House wall myself.
I repeat. Dehshatgardo k Jo yaarhain, Ghaddarhain, Ghaddarhain! #TTPTI
It’s hard to believe that Bilawal’s newfound Twitter fame and the timing of his homecoming are entirely coincidental. To a trained eye, it reads much like a well-calculated public relations campaign to reengage the PPP voter base that proved to be disheartened, and more damagingly disinterested, in last year’s general election.
Bilawal returned to Pakistan in mid-December to unveil the Sindh Festival, due to be held in February, at a glitzy event at Mohatta Palace. The festival is intended to rejuvenate cultural festivals and counter the trend of banning recreational activities. “I have realised that Pakistan is gradually moving towards becoming ‘banistan,’” noted Bilawal.
As his public opinion meter steadily climbed through that sentence, he decided to rip open his jacket in a super-hero-like maneuver and reveal a white T-shirt carrying an appropriated version of the Superman logo meant to represent Sindh. The only difference: the signature blue, red, and yellow combination replaced with an ajrak pattern. At that moment, Pakistan’s entire ‘burger’ population collectively raised their palms to their faces as they shook their heads in bewilderment. And to think, Bilawal chose to speak in English at the event in order to not give rival parties opportunities to poke fun at his Urdu speaking skills. Mission accomplished.
The new year rolled in bearing a whole new set of political developments that gave Bilawal enough ammunition to dole out ample helpings of sass. On Jan 2nd, General Pervez Musharraf was rushed to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC) after he became ill on the way to the court where he is bring tried for treason. Bilawal did not disappoint on Twitter as he went out for Musharraf with all guns blazing:
I can’t believe this coward ever wore the uniform of our brave and courageous armed forces. #disgrace
All medical excuses must be verified by an independent board of doctors. I have an ouchy is no excuses to skip your treason case.
With those two sentences, Bilawal went viral and became the new king of social media candidness in Pakistan. He says what he thinks, he doesn’t mince words while saying it, and he makes sure that he follows it up with counter tweets that ensure his impartiality and depict him as a fair-minded young individual who Is entirely fit to assume office come 2018. Bilawal followed up the “ouchy” tweet with this one:
“Political differences aside. Musharraf deserves fair trial not media trial or twitter trial. Test 4 democracy & judiciary. advise he faces court.”
One wonders if Musharraf lay in his hospital bed completely oblivious to the fact that he just made Bilwal, oddly enough, the most popular voice of reason in the country.
Bilawal belongs to a lineage of political leaders built on populist foundations. His grandfather, his mother, and his uncles alike have all made use of public channels to ensure that their supporters were aware of their stances on various issues. They made sure that their supporters knew that they were empathized with. Alas, they did not have the marvels of digital technology at their disposal in their time. Bilawal, however, does and has made appropriate use of it even if just to rile up the digital jiyala in time for his trip to Pakistan. Not only has he populated his Twitter feed with political ammunition, but he also occasionally throws in little bits of information such as the fact that he calls Altaf Hussain, Uncle Altaf. Yes, you read that right.
Will give #Peshawar Church all they need to rebuild & secure the church. Rest we shall put in a foundation to protect persecuted minorities.
Welcome to Banistan #DailyMotionBan
“Weve banned Youtube how come LeJ official websites are functioning.” RT @DailyTimesPk: Bilawal condemns Quetta blast http://dlvr.it/4cgztc
Uncle Altaf being misled.MQM had come a long way 2 remove stain of dictatorship over last 5yrs. Now undermined by anti-Altafppl w/in MQM.
#ShaheedSalmanTaseer son @ShahbazTaseer kidnapped 4 more thn 2yrs.PPP&PML-N failed.How can we protect Awam if we cant save martyred Gov son?
“You will fight the fight better than me. Your speeches will be more eloquent than my speeches.Your commitment equally total.” #SZAB 2 #SMBB
Welcome to Sindh @ImranKhanPTI. I trust the ppl of Sindh gave u a warm welcome. We have always been welcoming and hospitable.
But then again, one has to remember that Bilawal is just a 25-year-old who won the biggest political lottery in the country. So it is only natural that he has his sight set on bigger things:
If my tweets freak you out so much wait and see what I can do from Parliament.
And wait, we shall, with the utmost anticipation and excitement.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He tweets @senoreissa