MANIFESTOS don’t win elections, and voters don’t read them. Nevertheless, they are an essential part of what Iqbal calls jamhoori tamasha.
Back in 1997, the PPP launched what turned out be Benazir Bhutto’s last election manifesto. Laced, no doubt, with plenty of rhetoric, the document still reflected Benazir’s determination to complete “the unfinished agenda disrupted by the opponents of change” — a reference to the dismissal of her government in 1996 by a president who ironically belonged to her own party. The PPP chairperson defined those opponents as debt, demography, dictatorship and dehumanisation. She lost the 1997 election, but before she could resume the “unfinished agenda” when her party came to power in 2008 she was not there.
Deprived of her leadership, the PPP’s 2008 manifesto was still a forceful document, for it made a categorical pledge to Pakistan’s children — if returned to power, the party would make the right choice. The choice, it said, was between the Quaid-i-Azam’s Pakistan and that of bigots and centrifugal forces — between “a vibrant, tolerant and strong federation” and a Pakistan mired in “obscurantism and fragmentation”. As the PPP went out of office on Saturday, and released its election manifesto two days earlier, the country is precariously closer to “obscurantism and fragmentation” than to all that the Father of Nation stood for.
The manifesto seeks to perpetuate two of its priceless assets: the Bhutto legacy and its image as the only and truly national party that appeals to the inner-most recesses of the Pakistani people. But incumbency is the albatross. An opposition party manifesto making wild promises arouses cynical scepticism; when a ruling party pledges a utopia, voters find it difficult not to snigger. Obviously, they juxtapose it with the party’s record in office. That the PPP last week became the only party to have completed a five-year term twice is ignored by both friends and foes.
The brains behind the manifesto were sedulous. It’s a 75-page document in small print, and it leaves no area of a Pakistani’s life untouched. But no matter what the party promises, no matter what some of its achievements in power were, no matter what challenges it faced and yet managed to implement part of its 2008 manifesto (the 18th Amendments and the NFC Award) the people of Pakistan are going to judge the PPP Parliamentarians only and only against two harsh realities — the descent into the black hole of violence and the sting of inflation, especially cost to cookery. Pakistanis today are eating less and paying more, and the country may not be Syria, but the Pakistani blood is quite cheap.
More shibboleths have been added to roti, kapra aur makan, and the seven “core priorities” make populist sense. So the halcyon days for the people should be as eagerly awaited as the manna the Sharifs have promised. Imran Khan rankles — Imran with his ingenuity in mass propaganda, Imran with his charisma; Imran with his appeal for Pakistan’s cricket-crazy youths, and Imran with his popular, anti-drone appeal for Pakistan’s restless and acquisitive middle class. So the PPP manifesto places emphasis on the empowerment of the youth, and to add to the PML-N’s discomfiture, speaks of a south Punjab province. And lest anyone thinks the party doesn’t know what is going on in its anarchic backyard, the document pledges a special grant for blood-drenched megalopolis that is Karachi.
Who would sell the manifesto? The PML-N is under the Sharifs’ proprietorship, and it is they who will promulgate its utopian promises on the metro bus. The PPP camp has only one melancholic choice — to fall back on ZAB and BB portraits. They seem alive and beckon to those who wish to be beckoned to. Unpolished jewel Bilawal will take time to crystallise, while his father-president remains trussed up by the Supreme Court’s dual office rope, leaving the party with such crowd repellents as Amin Fahim and Qamar Zaman Kaira. The only fighter who refuses to call it quits is Yousuf Raza Gilani, hoping to build on the martyrdom the judiciary has bestowed on him.
On security matters, the manifesto has moved with caution. As a party that has been at the helm for five years, it has to hint at a certain continuation of policies, so it renews its commitment to the war on terror, but doesn’t fail to ignore the anti-American sentiments and records its disapproval of US drone attacks, which it considers a violation of Pakistan’s territory. The manifesto insists on a parliamentary oversight of the military budget, but it doesn’t fail to mention that it has increased the soldiers’ salaries and that it believes in closer cooperation between all institutions of the state.
The writer is a staff member.