Past master in wheeling and dealing Asif Ali Zardari, has ended his self-exile and is back in the country in the hope of turning the political tide. His decision to go back to the National Assembly along with his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has surprised even his supporters. His presence in parliament will certainly have a significant impact but it is not likely to change the political dynamics at work in the country.
Many see the move as a masterstroke that will lift the dwindling morale of the party. But one is not sure whether his return to centre stage will actually help the PPP regain its lost political space in the next elections. His past baggage is not likely to go away with his return to parliamentary politics.
Although Bilawal will also be making his debut in parliament, he will be forced to play second fiddle to his father once again. However, it remains to be seen how his return to parliament will help Zardari escape the predicament he has been facing as the noose tightens around his close aides.
It was not the best of times for Zardari when he left the country some 18 months ago, perhaps feeling the heat when some of his henchmen were chased by federal investigation and law-enforcement agencies.
His party and the Sindh government planned a ‘hero’s’ welcome on his return last week, but, not surprisingly, spontaneous jubilation among the supporters bussed into the airport was missing.
Zardari, perhaps, thought the pressure on him was off when he decided to return. But the raid on the office of one of his closest aides hours before his arrival seems to have dampened his sanguinity. Was it just a coincidence or a message to the former president?
It is quite apparent that the former president is still not out of the woods.
It is quite apparent that Zardari is still not out of the woods and last week’s raid was more serious than the previous crackdown on his cronies. This time the target was Anwar Majeed who looks after Zardari’s business interests.
Anwar Majeed had left the country even before Zardari’s departure last year. The Rangers claimed to have recovered a large cache of weapons from his offices and those arrested in the raid were said to have been booked under the anti-terrorism laws. The message was loud and clear. But the crafty PPP leader has kept his cool and not been provoked by the action.
Zardari must know where the orders had come from, though he pointed a finger at the federal interior minister. Besides other reasons, the Sindh government’s decision to send the provincial inspector general police on forced leave brought its confrontation with the Rangers to a head.
It is very clear that Zardari would not react the way he did on the arrest of Dr Asim Hussain, another one of his close friends. His accolades for the military leadership on his arrival indicated that he had decided to tread a more cautious path and not take the route of confrontation. His options too are limited as the paramilitary Rangers still virtually control law and order in Karachi.
There are clear indications that the recent change in the army leadership has not shifted the direction of the operation in Karachi. The PPP has lost much of its authority by giving the Rangers the power to crack down on the MQM and other groups. It is not clear whether the latest raid will force the Sindh government to review its decision. But that would not matter much as seen in the past.
Predictably, the incident has intensified the war of words between the PPP and the federal government. There is also some indication of the PPP forming a broad anti-government opposition alliance. For that, Zardari is willing to go to any extent even if it comes to appeasing the religious parties.
One clear example of this was his phone call to Sirajul Haq, chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami. He apparently agreed to withdraw the anti-forced conversion law recently passed by the Sindh Assembly with rare consensus. The law is primarily meant to stop the forced conversion of Hindu minor girls and their marriage to Muslim men. The issue has become a major scandal in the province.
But there is still a question mark over the party aligning itself with the PTI to go for the jugular. Even with the deadline of Bilawal’s four-point demand having passed, it is hard to see the PPP taking to the streets. The party does not have street power in Punjab or in any other province outside Sindh that could really challenge the Sharif government that seems to be back in the saddle.
Over the past one year, Zardari had taken a back seat and allowed Bilawal to take charge. For sure, the party needed a popular face that Zardari was never able to provide to inspire followers. But all the strings were being pulled from Zardari’s home in Dubai. Even the new Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah would fly to Dubai frequently to take instructions from the boss. In fact, Dubai has also become a safe haven for some members of the Sindh cabinet including Sharjeel Memon and Owais Muzaffar (Tappi) who fled the earlier crackdown.
Zardari’s return has once again cast a shadow over Bilawal. From populism it is now back to political deal-making.
It is apparent that Zardari’s policy of reconciliation with regard to the PML-N seems to have now been exhausted. Although the PML-N would still want to see the PPP refrain from aligning itself with the PTI as Nawaz Sharif and his family are not yet in the clear on the Panama scandal, the government is hardly prepared to go the extra mile to appease the PPP. So it is not surprising that the Sharif government paid no heed to Bilawal’s four points. That leaves few options for the PPP.
It needs more than just wheeling and dealing to resurrect the party. The decision to get into parliament will certainly not be a political game changer.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn December 28th, 2016