AS president of the PPP in central Punjab, Mian Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo’s first act could have been a call to party cadres to collect outside a certain bakery in Defence Lahore for the start of a campaign.
Offence is quite often the best defence. In the case of a party fast fading from the very central Punjab, it is a need, not a choice.
A new leader requires time to figure out his priorities and build a rapport with workers. While Mr Wattoo has just begun this exercise he is not known to have this bias for the popular in him.
His forte is knitting small local alliances into a stretchable whole and the skill has in the past landed him in the Punjab chief minister’s office. This appears to be a good enough quality in President Asif Zardari’s book and despite the bad vibes it might have generated among some old jiyalas, it is not at all inconsistent with the party’s years’-long policy.
The people in Punjab developed a liking for ZAB faster than they could pronounce ‘Bhutto’ — which is not to say the Punjab PPP didn’t have a leadership problem of its own right from the heady ‘Bhattoo’ days.
The province had its share of ZAB rebels, and along with the nuisance created by ‘socialists’, Ghulam Mustafa Khar built up on his billing as the second-in-command to ZAB to attempt a few leadership feats on his own. He had a tiff over provincial leadership with Sheikh Muhammad Rasheed just after the 1970 general election and created problems for ZAB. Subsequently, the party’s emphasis has been on finding a leader in Punjab who is incapable of posing a threat to the PPP’s central leadership.
Let’s pick up the strain with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s PPP in 1988 — when the seeds of the PPP’s great compromise, if not surrender, in Punjab were sown.
The pattern was set after the 1988 election when Sardar Farooq Leghari, then a trusted BB lieutenant, gave up his Punjab Assembly seat for a ministry at the federal level.
While Jahangir Badr was considered the PPP’s leader in Punjab and was the party’s provincial president up to 1988, Sardar Leghari had been BB’s nominee to challenge Mian Nawaz Sharif in the province.
Mr Sharif, whose Islami Jamhoori Ittehad had got the majority in the provincial assembly election, won the chief minister’s office easily.
The PPP chose not to ‘waste’ Sardar Leghari in Punjab and, just like Mr Badr and so many others of its frontline politicians, he was allowed to enjoy power in Islamabad which the party had long struggled for. Given the past experience, the arrangement ensured these big names were gathered at a place where BB could keep a close eye on them.
There were serious repercussions on other counts, though. The removal of an important man (Mr Leghari) from a seemingly important place (Punjab) spelt out a dilemma that was to haunt first Ms Bhutto and then Mr Zardari.
As the PPP won repeated terms at the centre and failed to snatch Punjab from the Sharifs’ grasp each time, the more prominent of its members from Punjab had to be accommodated in worthy assignments in Islamabad, consequently leaving the provincial PPP to invent its own strongman to challenge its main opponents.
The PPP’s best chance came during the absence of the Sharifs. BB could have made a bid for Punjab after the 2002 polls had she cut a deal with Gen Pervez Musharraf. But even at that time those who negotiated with Gen Musharraf on PPP’s behalf appeared to be more interested in — or more hopeful of getting — power at the centre.
Punjab looked more likely to go to the Chaudhries of Gujrat who had not only stayed behind when their long-time leaders, Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, went into exile, but who it appeared had managed a better follow-up to their intent of getting Punjab, in comparison with the PPP.
The PPP has tried, but somehow has appeared to be lacking in steam and purpose. Rana Shaukat Mahmood, Jahangir Badr (for a second term), Fakhar Zaman, Rana Aftab, Qasim Zia, Imtiaz Safdar Warraich have all served as presidents of the PPP, Punjab, in the post-Bhutto era.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi and before him Rao Sikandar Iqbal were two PPP provincial presidents who looked more likely to offer the PPP’s opponents a tough fight. Today, Mr Qureshi as well as Mr Iqbal are known more for ditching the PPP and that too during their stints as MNAs.
As former heads of the PPP’s Punjab chapter, their departure must have strengthened old fears of the party’s central leadership of the dangers of empowering potential rebels.
Now with Mr Wattoo as president and Tanvir Ashraf Kaira as general secretary, a balance between the old political matchmaker and a young awami face is sought.
Mr Wattoo has a vital role in maintaining this balance. An awami face in the forefront with a clever alliance-maker behind the scenes was an option Mr Zardari has chosen not to take. But if Mr Wattoo stays aloof from the popular, it could nullify the advantage the PPP is looking to gain from Mr Kaira.
All these long years since the crucial Leghari slip-up in 1988, the PPP has been banking heavily on non-PPP entities, the locally influential politicians with a reason to oppose the Sharifs, to fight it out with the PML-N.
Hamid Nasir Chattha, Sardar Nakai and — in terms of power shared — more than anyone else, Manzoor Wattoo, benefited from this PPP approach. Mr Wattoo did finally join the PPP some five years ago, the inclusion and the closeness he enjoyed with President Zardari signifying the joining of two parallel anti-Sharif currents in Punjab.
His rise as provincial head of the party is consistent with the politics of the PPP’s leadership even if it could be jarring to those wanting the party to go the awami way, all the way.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.