ONCE the largest vehicle of an egalitarian agenda, a secular ethos and federal democracy, the PPP is now a pale reflection of its past glory, with its votaries — known as jiyalas — waiting to see their new leader Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari revive the party with a touch of the ‘Bhutto magic’.
The concern about the future of this old political institution is also shared by those who believe that under the given conditions, the country needs secular leaders, federal politics and social programmes. Nostalgically, they hark back to the days when PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto broke with the establishment and emerged as the harbinger of a quasi-socialist order, stirring a popular swell particularly among the neglected sections — peasants, workers, students and large sections of the left-of-centre intelligentsia.
No wonder, for a long time the party dominated the national scene on its founder’s name and slogan — roti, kapra, makan (food, clothing and shelter).
There is no denying that the PPP’s socialist economic agenda had already begun to wear thin during the latter part of Bhutto’s reign, though the socialist facade was continued long after Bhutto’s hanging in a sham trial. And during Benazir Bhutto’s government, the PPP formally embraced the IMF’s neo-liberal agenda in the garb of ‘structural reforms’ in the 1990s. But notwithstanding the allegations of misgovernance and corruption linked to its governments and leadership during the last many decades, the PPP has preserved its liberal democratic credentials.
The PPP’s identity crisis surfaced after the killing of Benazir Bhutto.
Indeed, if anything, Benazir Bhutto would be remembered for upholding democracy and secularism. She signed the Charter of Democracy with her arch-rival Nawaz Sharif in 2006 to nurture a ‘tolerant culture’. She also made a secret deal with his nemesis Gen Pervez Musharraf to revive democracy and fight terrorism. It is another matter that Musharraf’s National Reconciliation Ordinance — that sought to quash thousands of civil and criminal cases against political leaders and workers — was declared ‘discriminatory’ by the Supreme Court and later the PPP-dominated parliament also decided not to ratify it under popular pressure.
In fact, the PPP’s identity crisis, if not the quest for survival, surfaced after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 when her husband Asif Ali Zardari took over the party, as per her ‘will’. He brought a fundamental shift in the party ethos, running it more in a managerial than political fashion. Thus, he recruited his friends and cronies in the party/government to influence decisions. He reinterpreted Ms Bhutto’s doctrine of ‘reconciliation’ to escape ideological, class and even political barriers. And it was during his tenure as party chief as well as president of Pakistan that the country saw the apogee of pragmatic (read opportunistic) politics.
True, the Zardari government was hindered by many a snag — floods, an intrusive court, an obstructive establishment, fickle coalition partners. It is also true that he along with the Sharif brothers kept democracy on track, despite their mutual rivalry. But there is no doubt that the Zardari government largely failed to keep its pledges — social reforms, economic development, good governance — and couldn’t save the party from a decay that sapped its moral foundations. As a result, the party received a crushing defeat in the 2013 elections. It could form a government only in Sindh, its last bastion of power, but even there the success in elections is attributed to the local ‘electable’ elites.
The plight of the PPP raises many questions: why is a party that was much sought after by politicians now seeking ‘electables’ to win elections? Why has it switched from normative to patronage politics, ie allegedly misusing public funds and offices to cultivate ranks and enrich leaders? Where is its countrywide vote bank and leadership? Finally, what happened to that talisman called ‘Bhuttoism’ that bonded a teeming electorate with the PPP? These are all existential questions that the party stalwarts must answer.
But one possible solution lies in cleansing the party of the inept, venal and opportunist elements and relinking it with its traditional middle- and lower-middle-class constituencies. Its current strategy of capturing power through local elites may be useful in the short term, but fatal in the long run. Elitist alliances are fickle and transactional. Indeed, the macabre side of elitist politics is already dawning on the PPP in Sindh where the chief minister is frantically trying to pacify a powerful group of ‘disaffected’ leaders — the Makhdooms of Hala, Bijaranis, Magsis, Talpurs and others.
The fight for a pound of flesh will intensify further as the elections come nearer. Therefore, it is time the PPP changed tack: instead of winning the ‘purchasable’ horses, it should focus on winning the hearts and minds of the electorate.
The PPP may well take a leaf from the tome written on the overnight transformation of the PML-N into PML-Q, only on the cue of certain powerful quarters.
The writer is a lawyer and academic.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2016