Barring the controversial 1977 elections, the PPP has never won two elections successively — nor, for that matter, has any other party. There is another disadvantage: for the first time since its founding in 1967, the party is without a charismatic personality.
Imran Khan’s appeal is appeal itself. His followers believe in the singer not the song. The PPP has no singer, but it does have an obsolete melody. The 40-year-old ‘Roti, kapra aur makan’ shibboleth is out of sync with today’s cellphone-centred youths. Battered by one crisis after another, each more ferocious than the other, relentlessly chastised to the point of persecution, and shaken to the roots by the collective intensity of them all, the PPP’s is a face that has been chipped away at. It needs restoration.
With President Asif Ali Zardari politically hamstrung, the party finds itself without a bellwether. Despite security threats, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari may stay where the action is, but his participation will have to be circumscribed.
The speech he made on Dec 27 last on Benazir’s death anniversary had been well-rehearsed, and it came out quite well. But what made the Garhi Khuda Bux event such a success was the presence of his father, the president. With no recognised face, the PPP leadership and cadres will have to be on their own, show imagination and organise things on a scale that will offset the absence of a bellwether.
Despite all these shortcomings, the party has a priceless advantage: it has shown extraordinary resilience. In 1977, after the military overthrew Bhutto and eliminated him through what Justice Dorab Patel called “judicial murder”, in 1990, when the first Benazir government was dismissed, and in 1996 when Benazir was sacked a second time, even neutral observers saw little possibility of the PPP resurrecting itself.
Her triumphal return in 2007 and the plurality the party secured even after she was dead confirmed it is not so easy to write off a party that has roots in all the four provinces. All said and done, the Bhutto legacy survives, and let’s not forget that the PPP has won five general elections. No other party has done so.
An unusual feature of this election is the diffusion of targets. In all previous elections, the PPP had been the sole target of focused attacks. This time, because of Imran Khan’s tsunami, the PPP alone is not the whipping boy. Imran criticises left and right, but by stigmatising the PML-N he has done some unconscious service to the PPP. Imran will also eat into the PML-N’s votes in Punjab The good work the party did in power between 2008 and 2013 in such arcane matters as the 18th Amendment or the NFC award, or the consensus on a new province will be hard to sell. But the party’s real achievement is the end it put to the army’s ambitions.
The American SEALs may have humiliated the army, but the PPP-led government’s actions on the sidelines were decisive — like sacking the defence secretary, who was a retired general, and former prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani’s bold speech in parliament, rebuking the security establishment for trying to become a state within a state.
There is no doubt a five-year stint on the opposition benches will do the party immense good. But even in the worst-case scenario it will do well in Sindh.