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Dude, where’s my party?

August 24, 2013

WHEN either a plot or providence removed Gen Zia from our midst 25 years ago, there was much speculation over who was instrumental for our salvation. One contender was the PPP.

When this theory was discussed one evening over drinks, my old friend Anis Hyder Shah sneered: “The PPP? You must be mad! That lot is incapable of chewing paan and crossing the road at the same time.”

Sadly, the party’s performance hasn’t improved since then. As a diehard pipliya, I have supported it — often reluctantly, and against my better judgment — through thick and thin.

Unlike so many others, I found myself unable to switch sides, largely due to an absence of choices. I obviously couldn’t support any of the Islamic parties; the army was out of the question; and the MQM, despite its secular credentials, has a dark side that is deeply off-putting. Nawaz Sharif has always struck me as a closet fundo.

Also, the PPP is the only major national party that speaks for women, the minorities and the poor. Despite its abysmal performance in its recent stint in power, it did manage to push through some significant pro-women legislation. And its Benazir Income Support Programme did improve the lives of many.

As Anjum Altaf wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, Pakistan needs a party of the left. Unfortunately, many leftist parties have either crashed and burned, or remained tonga parties with a handful of members. They have been unable to overcome their infighting and their ideological squabbles, thus consigning themselves to irrelevance.

Above all, since the 1970s, they were starved of oxygen by the presence of the PPP, a party that supposedly stood for socialist ideals.

So rather than setting up yet another left party, it would be far better to somehow rescue the PPP from the band of old fossils who have captured it.

Despite the drubbing it received in the recent general elections, I doubt very much if there has been any soul-searching about the causes of its defeat. Introspection is not in the party’s DNA.

While Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif were both able to attract millions of young people to their respective banners, the PPP’s appeal for the younger generation has declined over the years.

For most of those who voted for the first time in the May 2013 elections, the PPP represented a party of tired old men (and a few women). The leadership lacked ideas as well as ideals, and its pathetic track record condemned it to a well-deserved defeat. The fact that Rehman Malik led the party’s election campaign pretty much says it all.

However, despite everything, the PPP managed to win 6.5 million votes in the May elections. While this represents a huge setback, it’s still a significant number of core supporters that can be built upon. But if the PPP hopes to assert a national presence again — as opposed to being a rural Sindh-based party — it will need to do some serious thinking and some hard grind.

The present leadership is clearly incapable of either. The old guard still retains a sense of entitlement, and in Sindh, at least, they feel their feudal background will continue to win them parliamentary seats. But for how much longer?

If they continue to misgovern Sindh in the next five years, the portents for the party’s continued survival are not good. Appointing Qaim Ali Shah as chief minister yet again shows how loyalty trumps competence in the leadership’s eyes.

But as Zardari’s term as president draws to a close, and with his departure from Pakistan a strong possibility, there is an opportunity for a change of guard.

The younger Bhuttos have shown little stomach for the hurly-burly of Pakistani politics, and who can blame them? So perhaps we can move beyond dynastic politics and get some fresh faces to move up the ranks.

Unfortunately, few young politicians have joined the party unless they have inherited constituencies from their fathers. The party has always been a broad church, welcoming people with any — or no — ideological leanings. From the Baloch parliamentarian who defended the alleged murder of several women by burying them alive, to the guy who said on TV that it was the PPP’s turn to make money, all have flocked to the party when it stood a chance of winning.

Until Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, it has been the Bhutto name and charisma that have been the party’s major attraction. Even after her death, these assets got the party into government in 2008. But without any member of the family around, rebuilding and re-branding the party will be an uphill task.

Sadly, I don’t see any senior members who could shake the PPP up. A handful of people have shown great integrity: the names of Raza Rabbani, Sherry Rehman and Qamar Zaman Kaira spring to mind. Perhaps they and some others will be able to depose the shop-worn leadership that has brought the party to its knees. Any effort by Zardari to run the party from Dubai after his departure must be resisted.

The harder question is how to make inroads in Punjab, KP and Balochistan, and how to attract younger members. Clearly, the old mantra of roti, kapra aur makan is a non-starter. So, too, is the slogan of nationalisation. The PPP needs to reinvent itself as a modern, progressive party with a message for the poor, and with answers to our pressing problems.

In the recent elections, the PPP could come up with no convincing reason why people should vote for it. Both the PML-N and the PTI could, and were rewarded. The latter, in particular, achieved a stunning breakthrough.

I know the task ahead is difficult, and hoping for a PPP revival is a victory of hope over experience, but I want my party back.