A willing appendage

Updated Feb 21 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

BILAWAL Bhutto-Zardari has his task cut out for him. In Lahore, on one of his ‘I am around’ visits, he made no secret of his express desire to get rid of the Imran Khan setup. Only he did not know the objective could be achieved. The resultant frustr­ation had him asking the journalists he came across in the most imaginative old Punjab capital about ways and means to dislodge the target. Seriously? Is it the journalists’ job to decide who should stay in power and who should be removed and how?

BBZ is on a planet of his own. He thinks he is justified in exploring avenues that will fast-track the unwanted prime minister and his equally suspect team out of power. He does hasten to add that his methods will ultimately have to be within the democratic ambit, but besides this, the PPP chairman has little by way of a plan which will free his countrymen from the yoke of the current rulers.

To begin with, he is still not sure whether his party is willing to join Maulana Fazlur Rehman who is still leading the potentially effective opposition plank against the government. The PPP leader is dilemma personified when he says he is criticised if he joins the maulana and viewed with suspicion if he does not.

It is more than just awkward that the PPP, essential as it is to an opposition alliance of some promise, still has not made up its mind about how close it can allow itself to be to Maulana Fazl. The frank insight BBZ provides into his mind about the indecision — or the policy to wait — over a real alliance with the maulana does have a bearing on the meetings between the PML-N and the JUI-F currently under way.

Why would a party that has ruled and made it difficult for others to rule choose to play the perennial second fiddle?

The PML-N mediators are out to create an impression that they are trying to apologise and make up with Maulana Fazlur Rehman after what happened during his protest march in Islamabad some time back. Then the Sharifs had visibly snubbed the JUI-F chief in their heartland.

The maulana was starved of support that he critically needed. The double games the top PML-N leaders, as custodians of the most popular opposition party, indulged in had concealed other important aspects. The focus was too much on the PML-N for large sections of the Pakistani audience to spare more than a fleeting comment about the little action the PPP had been guilty of during the episode in the name of restraint.

The stern JUI-F faces which now greet the PML-N initiative at rapprochement and partnership are reflective of just how deep the hurt at having been betrayed by the Sharifs has been. In the very sombre images of the gatherings where the PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq has been shown trying to charm his way back to Maulana Fazl’s heart, the JUI-F chief is surrounded by his lieutenants apparently careful not to smile. In this situation, a remark by BBZ, another big stakeholder in the system, is hardly the encouragement Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s party is looking for in order to overcome its recent doubts about fellow opposition parties.

Adventurous, unprofessional souls amongst journalists who might be enticed to advise BBZ on ways and means to remove this government might be inclined to suggest an opposition alliance. The pundits insist that so long as a comprehensive alliance is missing, Prime Minister Imran Khan has no one to fear — not himself. Obviously, this is one reality that BBZ or his guru in practical politics, Asif Ali Zardari, would be aware of. Then why would the PPP chairman try and act so frank at the risk of sounding so empty?

The usual explanation would be that since a politician is supposed to be talking big on tours of Lahore, BBZ was following a tradition. He was too concerned with the ritual side to be mindful of how his inability to give a roadmap for ousting the Khan government would further add to his current reputation ie a politician clinging on to rhetoric for dear life.

While in Lahore in particular, there is another aspect of BBZ or PPP politics that is apparent — to the consternation of some old-style PPP workers. The BBZ-AAZ combine cannot be expected to be unaware of the fact that, even to many inside the party, it appears to be blindly following the lead provided by the PML-N. This includes the question of an alliance of the opposition parties as well.

Even when BBZ says he does not know whether or not to join Maulana Fazl, he would be ready to embrace the JUI-F option with all its risks, should the PML-N decide in favour of a true partnership with the ambitious maulana. This is a scenario that some PPP insiders are ready to swear by; among them those who are extremely perturbed, embarrassed and humiliated by what they call the PPP leadership’s thoughtless toeing of the Sharif line.

In Lahore on Wednesday, BBZ stopped short of criticising Maryam Nawaz over her silence — at the same time defending her ‘right’ to be with her father who is awaiting medical treatment in London. Why not ask these tough questions of the PML-N and its leaders? Why would a party that has ruled and made it difficult for others to rule choose to play the perennial second fiddle — worse, an appendage — to the PML-N?

The PPP could be repeating the mistaken strategy that was the bane of the PTI for long until someone realised and corrected its approach. The PTI for long allowed itself to be seen as a friendly outfit to the PML-N in comparison to all the noise it created against corruption etc. Its fortunes lifted the moment Imran Khan managed to bring himself around to directly challenging Nawaz Sharif in Punjab.

Now for the last many years, it is the PPP that has chosen to play the chota or understudy of big bro PML-N. At a time when the PPP increasingly appears to be struggling to survive outside Sindh, this may be the worst possible policy.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2020