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Fireworks and silence

September 13, 2013

ASIF Ali Zardari’s habit of playing with signs and symbols stays with him in his journey back to the roots. After ending his term in the presidency with much fanfare on Sept 8, Mr Zardari began his rediscovery campaign with a quick symbolic tour to Bilawal House in Lahore. A fireworks jashn greeted him in a remote corner of the city.

The dash by Zardari was a resumption of sorts. It was during one of his visits to Governor House in Lahore in 2008 that Mr Zardari had predicted the installation of a jiyala in the presidency.

Back then, the PPP supporters surrounded him in good enough numbers to celebrate the promise and no firecrackers were required to be set off for attention. A few weeks after that, celebrations marked Mr Zardari’s advent in the presidency.

But the PPP in Punjab could never bask in the glory of Mr Zardari’s presidency and with time its profile in the province slipped lower.

The party was able to make a better statement of its authority in times when Salmaan Taseer roamed around as a most outspoken governor of Punjab. The silencing of Mr Taseer capped a complete subduing of the PPP in Punjab.

The presidency could not improvise to inspire or even connect with the PPP cadres in Punjab in a meaningful way.

The disconnect became wider and wider with time and helplessness, a sense of submissiveness to the political command of the PML-N in the province, eventually replaced whatever hopes the PPP Punjab might have had of benefiting from the party’s rule at the centre.

Little effort was made to revive the lifeline the old rivalry with PML-N provided to the PPP even as election neared. Mr Asif Zardari arrived at the Lahore Bilawal House in the run-up to the May general election where he was joined by the PPP chairman, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.

If there was an expectation among PPP cadres that the coming together of father and son in Lahore would lead to a formal launching of Bilawal into national politics, the episode fizzled out with the PPP having little gains to report.

Once the Bilawal inauguration was ruled out because of the prevailing stifling conditions, rumours emerged about Mr Zardari’s purported desire to pay a visit to Raiwind to condole the death of Mian Abbas Sharif.

When this too didn’t happen, Mr Zardari’s failure to have himself received by the Sharifs was cited as the final proof of the power and credit he had lost.

There was widespread speculation that the Sharifs had snubbed the president. But while there were a few comments that this was contrary to etiquette, the PPP did not or could not effectively convey to the people that its pride had been hurt.

It suited the Sharifs to reserve their courtesy and reconciliation for Mr Zardari for later. At that moment, it was in their interest to show the public that Mr Zardari had become so unreliable that he could not even be granted a social visit, and his party had turned so weak that it could not angrily react to the snub.

With a full term ahead of Mian Nawaz Sharif, he can now afford to reflect kindly on the contribution the outgoing president and his party made to establish democracy in the country.

It is a question the PPP must ask itself: does it suit the party to continue to appear submissive and meek to others’ command under the grand title of reconciliation? The tone some PPP politicians have adopted betrays that they would have the PML-N government not reopen the cases against Mr Zardari rather than face these in the courts. Why? How does it suit the PPP?

Beneath all this talk about the use of a new, civilised political idiom, the public perception, where the PPP leadership is seen to be timidly dependent on favours from a rival, is hardly the medicine the party needs now. It needs to be up and about appearing to the public that it is walking ahead without fear.

The party’s defensive position on the cases pending against Mr Zardari may be the biggest clue to the PPP’s desire for persisting with its defensive policy but there are other instances that highlight this overcautious, self-smothering approach. This caution is then interpreted by the people at large as a sign of cowardice, even of guilt.

Take a recent example from Islamabad which doesn’t quite sit well with the PPP’s murmured wish of mounting a challenge to the PML-N some time soon. Count just how many times Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has apprised everyone of his generous gesture to save the PPP politician Zamarud Khan from police investigation.

The minister says that, but for his intervention, Zamarud Khan would have been booked for his adventurous attempt to end the lone gunman standoff in the capital last month. And how does the PPP react to it?

It condones and welcomes Zamarud Khan’s act through speeches in the Assembly and through Mr Zardari’s declarations. What it does not do is refuse the favour extended to Mr Khan by Chaudhry Nisar and present itself for a police probe that offers political possibilities.

Until the PPP can rid itself of the image of a docile, sheepish player, Mr Zardari’s quest for resurrecting “Jeay Bhutto” chants in Punjab will be bereft of substance. Overcoming this obstacle is imperative to the PPP’s campaign for revival.

The PPP leadership has been adding to its difficulties by loudly setting goals which it is unable to begin pursuing. The emptiness that has followed each of its vows has left the party weaker.

If this is not the darkest period in the party’s history, it is certainly the longest where it has been reduced to playing a spectator in the politics of Punjab. Its defensive tone threatens to extend this period further.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.