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A great gamble in Punjab

March 09, 2018


WHAT do they call it — the last throw of the dice? PPP politicians from Punjab have asked their chairman to take part in the next general election from a seat in the province. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has reportedly taken the suggestion seriously. He has asked for a report — presumably an evaluation of the factors — so that he can decide whether or not it is feasible for him to ‘make his electoral debut’ from the province.

This is not the first time the young PPP head has been asked to take this great gamble. Some who wish him well are hoping that an adverse assessment of factors will quickly lead to a rejection of the proposal that seeks to drag him into the difficult, if not impossible, Punjab territory. Party realities probably demand a decision to the contrary.

Whatever remains of the party’s Punjab chapter would be pushing deep to put up Bilawal as a candidate from here. Indeed, in the run-up to the general polls, the pressure will mount on him to contest not one but many National Assembly seats in the province.

The idea of Bilawal fighting an election from Lahore or elsewhere in Punjab has been around for a while. Last September, PPP leader Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo asked Bilawal to prepare to compete for a seat in Lahore “for boosting the morale of jiyalas”. The option came up “while discussing the poor performance of the party during … NA-120 by-polls”.

If Bilawal comes to Lahore to fight an election, he must begin from scratch.

The reason was not difficult to understand: “…the party had been left leaderless during the general election in 2008 and 2013 and that’s why it couldn’t perform”.

Wattoo recalled the old PPP presence in Lahore and observed how the party had lost out to the PML-N because, he said, the PPP’s top leadership did not participate in elections from Lahore.

From one Manzoor to another, in the latest instance, a wish to see Bilawal in an electoral contest in Punjab has been expressed by Chaudhry Manzoor. The proposers this time have been rather generous in giving their chairman the choice of fighting the election in a constituency in or outside Lahore.

There are reports which say that the proposal came from PPP politicians from central Punjab from where they want the chairman to stand for elections. But later, party leaders for southern Punjab also impressed on BBZ just how important it was for him, and them, that he participate in the polls from the biggest, ‘most powerful’ unit in the federation. This could eventually lead to a situation where various PPP chapters are found pleading with their chairman to fight from their respective areas to give the party the boost it badly needs.

That the PPP is desperate here would be an understatement. In the days gone by, the party chairman receiving invitations to contest elections from various parts of a province and the country would be flattering. Today, according to one analysis, it is a suggestion, acceptance of which could entail the most dangerous consequences — recovering from the latter could be a near impossible task. It is the question of the image of the party leader.

Comparisons with the past are rather lame given the drastically changed situation. If Bilawal comes to Lahore to fight an election, he must begin from scratch, unlike Z.A. Bhutto in 1970 who rode a popular wave to the city and Benazir Bhutto whose advance was hailed due to the long years of struggle against Zia’s martial law. Simply put, BBZ’s party lost the city a long time ago, the first signs of its falling popularity provided by a contest that featured none other than his mother Benazir Bhutto in 1988.

In a constituency carefully selected for its residents’ ‘natural’ connection with the PPP, Ms Bhutto won that vote with a surprisingly small margin of around 10,000 ballots. Her opponent then was Mian Umar Hayat, an otherwise respectable local-level politician dubbed by some jiyalas as a nobody only capable of work that would fit a councillor. Ms Bhutto vacated the seat, and her nominee, a veteran of biraderi and party politics, lost rather easily to Mian Umar Hayat.

This came as a huge encouragement to the PPP’s opponents and they gradually took Lahore away from the party’s control. The PPP under Ms Bhutto, who operated from abroad at the time, had another opportunity to stake a claim to the city in the 2002 election. It could win only three of the nine seats contested, one of its three members eventually joining the Patriots group which deserted the party.

The scene in 2002 was much more conducive to the PPP than it is now, and the talk of someone important — more precisely Asif Zardari — making Lahore his base was as rampant then as are the suggestions today that Bilawal must declare his intentions of contesting an election from Punjab. This advice is based on an understanding of BBZ’s appeal as a raw, fresh face that can — hope the PPP minders — help rid the party of its current reputation which is proving so difficult to shake off.

Regardless of the pessimism about the PPP’s ability to shrug off the image anytime soon there is a basic problem with casting BBZ in the role of a saviour: he is not quite a new face. He has now been around for some time and has walked behind his father for long. In some people’s book, his return to a point where he could again symbolise and promise change is already almost impossible.

There is nothing wrong with the PPP Punjab wanting its central leadership to take the bold step of emerging as an election contestant in the province. Given the party’s poor state, it is one extreme measure that is probably necessary instead of everyone in the PPP waiting for something to happen out of the blue. With its real dangers, resorting to fielding Benazir Bhutto’s child is something that the party might have to ultimately try. But it would perhaps be in the PPP’s interest to pick up someone fresher and newer than BBZ for the task. Aseefa maybe.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2018