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PPP, R.I.P?

May 18, 2013

AN old Native American saying gives this sage advice: “If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself on a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount immediately.”

Sadly, I did not follow this wise counsel and found myself on the carcass of a PPP steed that had passed on five years ago. The truth is that the party died the moment Benazir Bhutto was cruelly assassinated on Dec 27, 2007.

Since then, the only thing holding the PPP up was the embalming fluid of power. Once this prop was removed, the party promptly imploded. With the perks and privileges of high office, it was possible to give the semblance that all was well, and there was still life in the party founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1969.

After he was killed by Zia, first his widow Nusrat, and then his daughter Benazir, took over the reins. But that’s the problem with any family enterprise: after the early generations die, the organisation soon loses its sense of direction. Paid employees grab what they can in a final free-for-all.

Had elections not followed on the heels of BB’s murder, the party would have been over for the PPP long ago. There’s no way Asif Zardari could have held it together without the carrot of power. Even loyalists who hated him went along, partly because they had no choice, but mainly because he offered them jobs that enabled them to enrich themselves.

The few idealists still remaining in the ranks thought they might use this stint in power to do some good. And to be fair to them, they were able to push through some progressive legislation. But it is pragmatists like Raja Rental and his ilk who appeared to really thrive. It almost seemed that they knew they would never get another shot at power, so they might as well make hay for as long as they could.

The reality is that BB never groomed a successor, wanting to elevate one of her children, just as her father had done with her. For her, the PPP was a family heirloom to pass on to the next generation, not a meritocracy where the succession would be on the basis of party elections.

This is the model in much of South Asia as well as in other Third World countries. Across the subcontinent, a similar dynamic is at work: the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka, Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, Sonia Gandhi in India, and Asif Zardari in Pakistan all represent familiar ambitions to further family interests.

My support for the PPP was largely based on its appeal to the marginalised. It was always seen as the party of the poor, the minorities and women. Whatever the reality, the party’s rhetoric placed it on the left, and so I stood by it for years, even when I could see the corruption eating away at its core.

I will never forget the sight of my late mother’s two Christian carers weeping, saying they had been orphaned after BB’s murder. The point is that despite her flaws, she genuinely cared for the poor: although it wasn’t in the news at the time, after the near-fatal suicide bombing of her joyous homecoming in October 2007, she went to several hospitals to visit those wounded in the attack on her truck.

Neither her widower nor her children have demonstrated this kind of empathy. It’s true that her son and two daughters hardly know Pakistan or its poverty at first hand.

To this extent, I can sympathise with young Bilawal for his reluctance to play a more active role. And I’m sure Zardari’s refusal to part with control over the PPP must have helped dissuade the inexperienced party chairman from plunging into the electoral battle.

To expect Bilawal to lead the PPP to victory was always an illusion. But the figure who was finally handed the party banner turned out to be Rehman Malik, one of the least impressive ministers we have had in a long and undistinguished rogues’ gallery. He and his boss were part of the PPP’s problem, so they could hardly provide a solution.

We had all expected the PPP to get hammered for its incompetence and its corruption. But the scale of its defeat stunned even its worst enemies. From 97 seats to 31 is a very steep fall in our electoral calculus. Today, it stands reduced to being a provincial entity when it was once the only truly national political party.

But before we write the PPP off, we should not forget that the poor need a party to represent them. Although its leadership lost contact with its base five years ago, this has generally been the case when it has been in power.

The truth is that the PPP has always been more of a movement than a party, and it is in opposition that it has shone. We should never forget the role it has always played against military dictatorship.

The question now is whether there is anybody who can revive it, or will the next five years in power in Sindh completely destroy whatever little credibility it has left? I’m sure Zardari is packing his bags; but even if he stays on (and out of jail), I doubt his ability to inspire demoralised party members.

Another harsh judgment is that while Pakistan has moved on, the PPP’s message has remained stuck in its old groove. As its defeat in Punjab shows, Pakistan is now more urban, and its young population is more aspirational. It’s no longer about roti, kapra aur makan, but about jobs, education and security.

Sadly, I see no PPP leader who even understands the problem his party faces, leave alone bringing about the changes so badly needed.

irfan.husain@gmail.com