Age has never been too far from political discussions. Take the case of the United States where the youthful Barack Obama was replaced by a 70-year-old Donald Trump who then stepped aside for an even older Joe Biden.

Their respective ages were more than just numbers. If Obama’s youth was seen as a symbol of hope, his successors’ ages could be seen as reflecting the crises of American politics and the two main political parties.

Pakistan seems to have a mix of the old and the young. Imran Khan, at 69, along with Nawaz Sharif (72) and Asif Ali Zardari (66) are seen as part of the same generation. However, of the three only the latter two are seen as experienced politicians, having been through the turmoil of the 1990s. And their children and heirs, Maryam Nawaz (48) and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari (33) are not just seen as the future but also as young leaders who can afford to wait till they come to power.

Imran Khan, on the other hand, is not young but is (or should one say “was”) viewed as the leader of the youth. Whether he can hold on to this image after this term remains to be seen.

But considerable attention is paid to Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and their political futures. Here, it is rather interesting how it is said repeatedly that they have the luxury of time on their side. For example, it used to be said that Pakistan Peoples Party may have ceded space in Punjab but Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari could afford to wait to regain this space, as he was so young.

Similarly, in between all the analyses about who will lead the Pakistan Muslim League (N), many are of the view that Maryam may have to wait for her turn because once again she is rather young and cannot become prime minister right away. Even Shehbaz Sharif hinted at this in an interview some time ago.

Age and politics

Are Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari really so young? Or does it only seem so because of the presence of Imran Khan, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif? And one just needs to catch the footage of any meeting of the Pakistan Democratic Movement to realise that the country’s political landscape is mostly dominated by ageing men.

This was not always so. While Maryam and Bilawal are seen as inexperienced, their parents came into the limelight and power when they were rather young. Benazir Bhutto was a mere two years older than her son is at present when she took oath as the first woman prime minister of Pakistan in 1988. And Nawaz Sharif, who replaced her two years later, was 41 years old then.

Before these two catapulted to the political mainstage, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was also around 45 when he took over as prime minister of Pakistan, while Mohammad Khan Junejo, who seemed to be an old soul, was just 56 when he took an oath. To offer another example, Altaf Hussain was 35 in 1988 when Muttahida Qaumi Movement made its mark in the 1988 national elections.

While Imran Khan is not young, he is viewed as the leader of Pakistan's youth. Photo credit: Saeed Khan / AFP

Over the years, it seems, as we begin to be seen as a country with a young population, that those leading us have grown older and older.

This is not just limited to Pakistan. When Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister, her counterpart in India, Rajiv Gandhi, who took oath in 1984 at 40 years, was just as young and glamorous. At present, the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, is at 64, just a wee younger than our three politicians. And the Congress is headed by 75-year-old Sonia Gandhi whose son at 51 is still seen as “young”. Bangladesh and its two begums present a similar ageing problem.

Is this all a coincidence or does it reveal something about our politics?

Political dynasties

To some extent, in Pakistan, at least, the 1970s and the 1990s could be explained by the socioeconomic changes brought in during the Ayub era because of land reforms and industrialisation, followed by the first election on universal franchise. The combination of factors ushered in an age of populism symbolised by the Pakistan Peoples Party and Bhutto.

The old guard was replaced by a young party and its young leadership, including Bhutto. His premature death led to his young daughter coming to the fore. And her nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, established himself in Zia’s Punjab, during the period the military regime was trying to groom an anti-Pakistan Peoples Party political class as Punjab too was changing rapidly, thanks partly to remittances from abroad.

Since then, a relatively continuous process has perhaps allowed the same set of (ageing) politicians to dominate the landscape. Although by the noughties, Imran Khan emerged as an option and was able to attract the growing number of young voters, or would-be voters, as he had stepped foot into politics in the 1990s, his age did not match his inexperience.

And this continuation, which has also led to the cultivation of the political dynasties, has seen the emergence of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz. They are young but their political image, which they lay claim to, is not what Benazir and Nawaz Sharif symbolised in the 1990s. This is not to say they cannot symbolise hope – they could.

But it is a hope which harks back to the past – their speeches reveal this, which speak of the populism of Bhutto or the achievements of Nawaz Sharif. And the debate about Imran Khan’s performance refers again and again to his and his team’s lack of experience. Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, to some extent, are about continuation and not change.

But all this leads to a number of questions about the youth and their political choices.

Will Khan continue to be seen as their leader or will it be someone else? And if it is the latter, who will it be? Will it be new young leaders brought forward by movements such as Pashtun Tahafuz Movement? Or will Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari evolve into young leaders who signify a new age as their parents once did? But in order to do that, they will first need to be seen as old enough to be in charge.

If the Gandhi dynasty in India is any indication, there may still be some time before that happens.

This article first appeared in Dawn.