Zardari, Bilawal & the future of PPP

Updated December 25, 2018

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IS it the PPP’s moment of reckoning or Asif Ali Zardari’s? The answer depends on whether you believe that Zardari is part and parcel of the party or simply an accidental chairman whose time is over. Many would agree with the second assessment including some pipliyas themselves who are vociferously defending him these days in press ­conferences and on talk shows.

Indeed, the second-tier leadership has bravely defended the indefensible — from the fake accounts case to the lands bought near Islamabad to the apartment in Manhattan, New York City. When the last came to light in the previous week, the confused PPP leaders could only retaliate through whataboutery and ask the aggressive anchors to wait for the lawyers who were checking the details. Finally, by Saturday the party’s legal eagles had gone through the papers and found out that the property had been sold 20 years ago, according to a report in Dawn.

Regardless of how satisfactory this explanation is, only the most optimistic feel that Zardari will be able to escape scot-free in all three cases. The talk of arrest may just be talk at the moment but it seems plausible.

What will this mean for the PPP? The answer to this question is not simple — the future of Zardari, the reaction of the PPP to the arrest (if it happens) as well as the future of the party the leadership of which is theoretically shared by Zardari and son. And the last, in turn, leads to the questions about the party’s ability to revive itself under Bilawal Bhutto beyond Sindh, which is said to be impossible under the father.

The talk of arrest may just be talk at the moment, but it seems plausible.

Will the party react harshly? Some feel so. Sindh will be on fire; the PPP activists will react harshly and so on. There is no shortage of doomsday scenarios to warn the powers that be of their follies. While those in control should be rightly cautioned for many reasons, the fear of agitation or protest by the supporters of PPP is hardly one of them.

Indeed, there is little protest or agitation left in any of the mainstream political parties including the PPP — power tames anger like little else.

But beyond that, too, the notion of the party reacting aggressively beggars belief for the simple reason that beyond Sindh, the party has little support left in Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In other words, the only province in which the party can carry out protests is the one it rules. And protests in that province would be reminiscent of the jalsas of Nawaz Sharif when the party led by him ruled in Islamabad and Lahore. Remember the moment when Sharif junior appeared in front of the crowd and refused to speak?

The party can’t afford to destabilise its own government by carrying out prolonged protests. In fact, the PPP will perhaps feel the need to shore up its government in the wake of the arrest. Sindh is the reason it remains relevant to politics and even to the establishment so it will try to assert its ­control instead of allowing protests or violence to spiral out of control. Hence, it is hard to imagine that Zardari’s arrest or detention will cause much disturbance.

Protests aside, there are also the ramifications for the party which continues to see Zardari as a liability since Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the ‘true’ heir, has returned to Pakistan and appears keen on politics. This view is held vocally by those outside the party as well as many within (though the latter simply whisper it quietly).

Zardari, with his reputation for alleged corruption and aversion (or lack of comprehension) for populist politics, is seen as a liability for Bhutto’s party. The assumption is that if Zardari would step aside for Bilawal (forcibly through his impending arrest as he doesn’t seem to be in the mood to volunteer), the party would not just revive its ­fortunes in Punjab and elsewhere, the indelible link between corruption and the PPP would also be broken.

But neither of these assumptions is entirely correct.

Take Punjab. The PPP’s fortunes have been going down in the province steadily since the 1990s. Back in 1997 too, the party was completely wiped out from the province in terms of seats. It recovered in 2002 and 2008 but this was no longer the party which once dominated Punjab. The PML-N wiped it out in central Punjab and by now the main contender to the PML-N in the province is the PTI.

Had Bilawal’s presence and dynastic presence been enough to revive the party, the 2018 election would have shown some positive results after his widely acclaimed election campaign. But the PPP won few seats — and even fewer of those were attributed to Bilawal and not local politics. In other words, it will take more than just his presence to kick-start a revival. (In fact, the party needs to think about why Imran Khan was able to garner more support in Punjab post-2013 than the PPP.)

In Sindh, of course, the Bhutto name still can and does weave magic. The vote bank is growing but the party continues to be synonymous with misgovernance and corruption, and optimists hope Bilawal’s presence at the helm and Zardari’s removal will change all this overnight.

If even some of the allegations of corruption are correct (as reported by the leaks from the fake accounts JIT or the earlier cases when Asim Hussain, Sharjeel Memon and Manzoor Kaka were on the radar), it seems as if bribery and extortion are now part and parcel of the setup in Sindh. (For a bird’s eye view, read Corrupt to the Core in the June 2016 issue of Newsline magazine).

It is hard to believe that just by replacing his father, Bilawal will be able to clean the Augean ­stables. This is akin to those who believe that an incorruptible Imran Khan will be able to fix Pakistan. Those who are sceptical of Khan’s ability to repair a system shouldn’t pin their hopes on a young heir either.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2018