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Sinking the PPP

May 23, 2013

THERE could not have been anything as distressing a sight as watching the Titanic, its hull ruptured by an iceberg, sink slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. Until now, that is.

This month, another multi-tiered vessel — the Pakistan Peoples Party — has gradually begun its descent into deeper waters. Nature is not to blame; the iceberg upon which the PPP has foundered is of its own making. Like the Muslim League, it is no longer the party envisioned by its leader.

The Pakistan Peoples Party was launched on Nov 30, 1967 in the drawing room of Dr Mubashir Hasan, a professor in Lahore’s University of Engineering & Technology. Its manifesto was drafted by Mr J. Rahim, a former bureaucrat. In that small room, Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (once Gen Ayub Khan’s foreign minister) was elected as its chairman by a coterie of founder members. Since then, the PPP has emerged as the only party with a national following. Even the PML-N — its closest rival — could find no retort to the condescending congratulations of the MQM leader Altaf Hussain in which he referred to the PML-N as a Punjab-based party.

Over the years, the PPP has suffered damage as much from its enemies as from its own leadership. In 1977, Mr Bhutto (then prime minister) over-engineered his election campaign, convinced that his performance from 1972 to 1977 would compensate for his waning popularity.

But during the five years that he was in charge, Mr Bhutto had sidelined or humiliated those who had propelled him into power, most noticeably and unconscionably his senior minister J. Rahim. Wantonly he neglected the arterial network of the PPP, allowing it to atrophy. When in 1977, he needed it, it was incapable of conveying the plasma of his expectations.

Mr Bhutto was not the Bhutto of 1970. I heard him mesmerise a crowd in Karachi’s Liaquat Bagh during the run-up to the 1970 elections. I gleaned his speeches avidly as if they were assignments in a course on oratory. But after he came to power, I caught myself snoozing during his interminable harangues on state television.

On the morning of April 4, 1979, I boarded a Fokker aircraft for Rawalpindi/Islamabad airport. Two officers in army uniform sat in adjacent seats. One was holding a single pager, a news-sheet carrying the headline: “BHUTTO HANGED”, and below it his official photograph as prime minister. The road to Islamabad in those days went through Rawalpindi, past the jail where Mr Bhutto had been hanged at dawn that morning. There was not one person on the road outside the jail. No PPP workers, no mourners, not even a policeman to keep the curious at bay.

Benazir’s death on Dec 27, 2007 left the PPP effectively leaderless. Under a will, she nominated her husband as regent until their son Bilawal could attain political maturity. What Ms Bhutto could not prevent was pruning by her widower of all those whom she trusted, and he clearly did not. Their elimination has been gradual, one by one. No dramatic Night of the Long Knives, as in 1932 when Adolf Hitler acted with brutal swiftness against his colleagues and therefore potential rivals.

Mr Zardari has followed no particular order. Initially, Mr Amin Fahim, Naheed Khan (BB’s confidant) and later Sherry Rehman. Interestingly, the first two had been seated on either side of Benazir in the car after they left the Liaquat Bagh ground and Sherry had transported the fatally injured leader to the hospital in her own car.

In time, others also fell from grace: Husain Haqqani (a casualty to memogate), Khwaja Tariq Rahim (a former Punjab governor reduced to occasional advisor), Shah Mehmood Qureshi (the foreign minister forced to defect to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf), Jahangir Badar (replaced as secretary general by Mian Manzoor Wattoo), and two prime ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf who fell foul of the courts.

The most recent blow to the party has been from Aitzaz Ahsan. He was considered by many to be the only person who could have staged a coup (when Benazir was in exile and Zardari in jail) to the leadership of the PPP.

Chosen and groomed by Mr Bhutto himself, a trusted favourite of Benazir Bhutto, the lawyer who defended Asif Zardari throughout his eight-year incarceration, Aitzaz possessed all the appropriate credentials: a minister in government, a leader of the opposition when not, and always a staunch loyalist. If there was anything he lacked, it was the courage to move the alphabetical scale a notch, from AA to BB.

In the wake of the PPP’s electoral rout in Punjab in the 2013 elections, Aitzaz has offered to resign his Senate seat. Other PPP high rankers, for less altruistic reasons, have also proffered their resignations. Those resignations have not been accepted. They are expected to remain on the bridge of the damaged Titanic.

There must be millions of PPP stalwarts today across the country entitled to a plausible explanation for their party’s debacle in the recent elections. They will not receive it from their current leadership, Mr Zardari’s explanations after a party post-mortem notwithstanding. They might though find the answer in Mr Bhutto’s first speech as president to a demoralised nation on Dec 20, 1971: “We have not failed,” he said, “we have been failed.”

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.