Waking up from its deep slumber, the PPP is trying to resuscitate itself pinning its hopes on the young inheritor of the Bhutto political mantle. Once the country’s most formidable political force, the PPP is now only a relic of its past, isolated from the country’s new political reality.
Will it be possible for a political novice to make a demoralised and fragmented party rise from the ashes just by invoking the Bhutto charisma? Can the party regain the space it has already lost to the new political forces on the scene? It will be interesting to see how the PPP redefines itself in the fast-emerging social and political milieu.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s political baptism took place long ago. Yet his political journey really started with his increasing public appearances in the last few months, though still under the tutelage of his father. His hysterical rhetoric, which makes little sense, betrays his extreme naiveté.
Surely it is not the fault of the young Bhutto for being put on the party’s leadership pedestal without undergoing the rigours of practical politics. Just being a Bhutto does not make one a natural leader.
In fact it is his father and aunt who really control the party that has virtually been turned into a family business Inc. A Bhutto face is deemed convenient to draw alienated party loyalists back into the fold. But can this work to infuse new life in the PPP?
The PPP leadership seems frozen in time, and the party appears to be losing even its traditional support base.
It is true that the PPP still has a much more progressive ethos compared to other mainstream political parties, particularly on issues concerning women rights, religious extremism and terrorism. Yet, it has effectively become a party of the status quo.
Wiped out from the urban areas, the PPP has long been reduced to a rural-based party. Whatever support base it had in Punjab has now been swept away by the onslaught of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. The party does not have anything to offer to the burgeoning youth population.
It is in vain to hope that a youthful Bhutto will turn the tide in favour of the PPP, which is in complete tatters in the country’s largest and most powerful province. With no effective political presence, the party is hardly relevant as the PTI and PML-N fight the battle for Punjab.
With the possibility of early elections on the horizon, Asif Ali Zardari has moved his headquarters to Lahore and Bilawal plans to hold rallies in an effort to revitalise the party in the province. But it is hard to imagine the PPP breaking the PTI tidal wave with discarded and discredited faces at the helm of the provincial party.
The frustration among party workers and a loyal old guard is much more pronounced as the PPP has virtually been playing second fiddle to the PML-N. Since taking charge of the party after the death of Benazir Bhutto, Mr Zardari has transformed the Punjab chapter of the party, sidelining the old guard and replacing it with newcomers. There has been a virtual revolt by the old stalwarts on the PPP leadership’s decision to cooperate with the PML-N government.
It is quite amusing to see Bilawal trying to emulate his grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and seeking to whip up anti-India nationalism apparently to mobilise support in Punjab. He may have either been wrongly advised by his naive political tutors or, without understanding the context and history, by the recording of Mr Bhutto’s speeches of more than four decades ago.
What the young Bilawal has failed to comprehend is that it was Mr Bhutto’s slogan for change that had appealed to the masses, particularly the working class and the young generation.
As the PPP’s fortunes have declined, Imran Khan is now riding the new populist wave of change, notwithstanding his regressive stance on many political and social issues. The social, political and economic transformation that has taken place in Pakistan has generated a new political dynamic that requires a new social and political charter.
But the PPP leadership seems frozen in time. The party has not only failed to appeal to the growing middle class and the youth, it is also losing its traditional support base among the urban poor and working class.
While the PPP had long abandoned or been routed in the urban areas, its stronghold in rural areas, particularly in Sindh, is also being eroded because of its misrule. It is now eight years since the party has been ruling Sindh, but it has done little or nothing for the welfare and uplift of the people. All human development indicators show Sindh to be practically at the lowest rung across the country.
There is nothing in the province, which the Sindh government can show for development work. Rampant corruption, patronage and bad governance are the hallmark of PPP rule. Therefore, it is not surprising that donors and multilateral aid agencies find it most difficult to work there.
There is a ring of truth to the perception that the PPP may be routed in Sindh as well if it does not improve governance there and deliver on its promises to the people. Politics based on martyrdom and dynasty may not work for long in a fast-changing situation.
It is difficult to say whether or not the PPP leadership has any realisation of its failure. Perhaps it does not. At a recent PPP central committee meeting, Mr Zardari reportedly snubbed a senior member who dared to raise the issue of bad governance in the province. “It is the best governed province of the country,” Mr Zardari was quoted as having said.
It is hard to imagine the party regaining its lost mass space without changing its outlook and accepting the new political reality. The next round of elections may not be a blind vote in the name of Bhutto if the party fails to deliver.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 15th , 2014