THE interest a large section of society showed in Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s speech of last Friday is understandable. The qualities of leadership he can display will be an important factor in the remaking of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
One does not have to be a supporter of the PPP to realise that its resurrection is necessary for keeping alive the option of establishing egalitarian democracy. It is for the same reason one welcomes the signs of activism in left-of-centre groups, such as the campaign for land reforms of the Awami Workers’ Party and the decision of the Awami Party of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan’s National Party to work together.
These efforts are welcome because the political landscape is now almost wholly occupied by rightist formations — from right and extreme right to militant right.
In this situation there will be little room for welfarism, basic liberties will be at a discount, the space for civil society organisations is bound to shrink, and the moves to end the imbalance in civil-military relations may run aground. The rise of indigenous neo-con theorists is ominous because they have less capacity to do good than their Western godfathers while their potential for causing harm is perhaps unlimited.
Pakistan badly needs strong left-of-centre voices to prevent the state from becoming completely insensitive to the needs and aspirations of the impoverished masses. The developments in PPP are important because of the party’s past successes and since it still has a power base in one federating unit.
There was much in Bilawal’s latest speech that deserved notice. His stand on terrorism, for instance, won applause for his courage and clarity of perception. He should know that there is no possibility of a non-Muslim’s becoming prime minister for many decades, yet he lifted the hearts of non-Muslim citizens as nothing else has done since the Aug 11, 1947 speech of the Quaid-i-Azam. Still, much more has to go into Bilawal’s education and training before he can claim the mantle of his mother and grandfather.
The stress on the grooming of Bilawal seems to be part of the belief that the PPP must throw up a dominating leader who has a direct rapport with the masses. That alone will not be enough. The party has a huge leadership vacuum at the centre. Most of the dignitaries that flanked the party chief during the recent past have pushed themselves into the political wilderness and are more of liabilities than assets. In fact, the decline in the quality of the party’s central leadership has been going on for nearly two decades.
Mr Bhutto was fortunate in having around him quite a few leaders of standing in politics whom he often had to listen to. As he lost them one after another the quality of central leadership declined and Benazir Bhutto had to make do with a company in which spurious coins freely jostled with genuine currency. Bilawal will not be able to do much unless the gap at the top is filled by persons of high calibre and unimpeachable integrity.
The same holds good for the party’s leadership at the provincial level. One of the major mistakes of the PPP during the past six years or so has been its lack of interest in training good provincial leaders. It needs efficient organisers at the district and city levels too.
The PPP will do itself wrong if it does not properly analyse its latest debacle. Mr Zardari is miles off the mark when he says that the party sacrificed 100 seats in order to save its workers’ lives. The plain fact is that in the last election, the PPP had neither workers of the kind it had 10-20 years ago nor local level leaders. Worse, in the 2013 general election it suffered a hefty erosion of its vote bank, something that had never happened before.
The party has never bothered to understand why the educated middle class, the lower middle class, the artisans and petty businessmen, and the workers, on whose support the party rode to popularity in 1970, deserted it in the years that followed. This exercise has long been overdue.
The politically conscious and hordes of the poor had flocked to the PPP in 1969-70 because of what it stood for. What does it stand for now?
The slogans of 1970 have little pull today. The party in its bid to woo the affluent sections of society gave up the cause of peasants and workers long ago, a costly blunder. Punjab can no longer be seduced with the promise of a 1000-year war with India. Roti, kapra aur makan — the slogan of unmatched strength ever — does not move the have-nots because no set of rulers showed the will to fulfil its promise.
The PPP also needs to give up the habit of blaming external elements for its misfortunes. That thesis is only partly correct; for much of its undoing the party has to blame itself.
The people need a new political thesis that offers something to all the diverse elements constituting Pakistan’s pluralist society. The remaking of PPP demands a great deal of work at the grass-roots level so that the party can win back the alienated cadres and convert the youth to its point of view. Electoral politics is important but more important perhaps is the need to build the party from the village and town level up. There is more wisdom and a greater capacity for sacrifices there than at the top.