A party in search of a future leader

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Heir apparent Asif Ali Zardari (left) and his son Bilawal Bhutto will have to reinvent the PPP to ensure its survival

RIGHT WHEN all of Pakistan is getting ready for the next General Election, the main national party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), seems to have lost its heir apparent and Chairman Bilawal Bhutto. Reportedly, he left for Dubai due to some disagreement with his father Asif Ali Zardari and paternal aunt Faryal Talpur over distribution of party tickets and other matters. The party sources, of course, deny the rumours and say that the young leader will attend Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s 34th death anniversary on 4 April. Interestingly, the news, which was initially published in an Indian newspaper and then picked up by Pakistan’s media, appears to have come from sources close to the party. This, however, is not sufficient proof of its veracity. True to the party’s claim, he returned on 1 April and reportedly asked for details of ticket distribution. But such claims need to be examined carefully.

It is worth remembering that Bilawal is about 25 years old and not the kind who would throw his weight around or is sufficiently familiar with his own party’s politics to decide upon who should get tickets. So far, the party followers and members know Benazir Bhutto and Zardari’s three children as nice and polite kids. Bilawal might have accompanied his father on important meetings, but he is not a familiar face within the party. This is for two reasons. First, the threat to Bilawal’s life is a real issue. He has not been as fortunate as his mother in being able to go around and mingle with the people freely. He has also seen two brutal murders in the family, of his uncle Mir Murtaza Bhutto and of his mother Benazir. That is why one cannot really blame young Bilawal for being more careful about security issues.

In any case, the current PPP is no longer Benazir’s party and the style of governance is not hers either. The common people of Pakistan and Bhutto’s home province Sind remember Benazir for her style of reaching out to the people. She would go to their homes, sit among them and be part of them. The Zardari-led clan now is not so open anymore. People complain about the Bhutto Mausoleum getting closed down when the family visits, something that did not happen when Benazir visited the place.

Second, Bilawal is still at a learning stage, starting from his tuition in local languages like Urdu and Sindhi. This also means that his access to people and understanding of them is limited to what he is told by his father and aunt.

Bilawal is certainly not a man in his 40s who, like Rahul Gandhi, can be accused of trying to take control of the PPP at this early a stage. One has heard of his unhappiness with his father for not letting him pursue his studies and asking him to return to politics before he was prepared for it. His late mother wanted him to complete his education. However, even on that issue he simply submitted to the father’s will. Therefore, it is a long stretch of imagination to argue about Bilawal trying to control and run the party.

Moreover, Bilawal has kept away from the party’s affairs since January. It is possible that he is upset about something, but it might not be for the aforementioned reason. In any case, those who are spreading stories about his walking out on the party include some people who used to spread rumours about how Benazir didn’t care about Zardari and he used to hang around the party matriarch almost like a toy boy. I remember such stories were being spread after her death and when Zardari subsequently returned to Pakistan.

This makes people wonder if this story is just a ploy to keep the PPP alive. It is a fact that in the past five years, what was once Benazir’s party has emerged as perhaps the most unpopular. The name Zardari and PPP have become synonymous with corruption. The party is certainly not popular among the newly enrolled 40 million young voters or the rising middle class, which have an issue with dynastic politics and the party’s lack of care for the people and policies. Notwithstanding that there was a lot of propaganda against the party and all efforts were made to highlight the PPP’s corruption while hiding that of others like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in Punjab, the party has a lot to answer for its irresponsible behaviour.

Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik was a butt of jokes and seen as a man who had no capacity to deal with real issues, starting from blasphemy to the banning of YouTube in Pakistan. The PPP did take some credible policy decisions like passing of the 18th amendment to the 1973 Constitution that would empower the federating units. However, it dragged its feet in ensuring implementation of the constitutional change and succumbed to the pressure from the establishment. The manner in which the government tackled institutions like the Higher Education Commission that became representative of the establishment’s interests is a case in point.

In the past five years, the party could not even push back the military establishment because it was concerned with finishing its tenure. Although only time will tell if the five years did indeed strengthen democracy, the politicised army of Pakistan remains powerful and in control of critical policymaking areas. The government was not even able to release the report on the American operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. There was no pressure from the government or Parliament to release the report, which, sources claim, has material that could create controversy.

CURRENTLY, OPINION on whether the PPP still has a hold over its home province of Sind is divided. There are those who believe that the PPP’s popularity is a story of the past. The establishment-backed feudal elements will try to link up with Sindhi nationalist parties, some of whom are reputed to be on the take from intelligence agencies, to teach the PPP a lesson in the coming election. But then there are others who believe that the Benazir Income Support Programme, which provides direct cash transfers to the poor, will translate into support for the PPP. This, in turn, means that it may not be possible to rout the PPP in Sind.

The latter assessment might prove true. However, the party and its heir Bilawal are confronted with a real and deeper problem of reinventing the PPP if they want it to survive in the future. Over the years, the party has receded from being a Punjab-based party to one that could not survive without its base in Sind. Irrespective of the claim that the party was left of centre, its key victories in Punjab during the 1970 elections were in areas where Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s slogan of “a thousand years of war with India” had resonance. Today, it has almost completely lost respect in the eyes of the same establishment whose perspective it seemed to have pushed then. Furthermore, the party needs to offer a new objective to attract the youth, something which Bilawal may not be able to do with his physical and emotional distance from the people. His debut speech could be lauded for his ability to make considerable progress in learning Urdu, but it was absolutely weak in content. The PPP definitely has to rise above its constant reference to sacrifices made by the Bhutto family and offer concrete plans for improving governance.

Bilawal still has the time to work on his politics. In case the PPP loses in the coming election, the years out of power will give the young man time to think about where he wants to take the party. His father has often spoken about his wish to eventually play golf and leave the running of the party to young Bilawal and his sisters. One just hopes there is enough left for the young Bhutto to build on once he gets control of the party. It will take a good team to provide him with a vision. And only that can pull the party out of its downward slide.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of  Military Inc

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