IMRAN Khan may have the watches, but Bilawal has time — or something like that. The logic of the saying worked for the Taliban against the Americans, but will it work for the young chairman of the PPP?
In the epic Homeric battle between Imran, Nawaz Sharif and the establishment, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari finds himself pushed to the sidelines. Just as well. Whether by design or happenstance, he has the luxury of not being in the primary cross hairs of anyone. The politics of the PPP as deftly manoeuvred by his father and him — is shaping into an enigmatic project whose final outcome appears not to be weighed down by any deadline.
There are clues, though.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Since PTI came to power, the PPP has walked a tightrope on its relationship with the establishment. In the early days of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, the establishment was far more sensitive about criticism of PTI’s performance than it is today.
A visible cooling down has happened. The PPP has moved in quietly to try fill the space that may have opened up ever so gently. Gone are the days when former president Asif Zardari was facing the wrath of the accountability process. The process has mellowed down — magically, one might say — and is now inching ahead at an innocuously conventional pace. There are no obvious winks and nods for the PPP, but neither is there a constant scowl. Benign neglect can sometimes just be what the political doctor ordered.
There are no obvious winks and nods for the PPP, but neither is there a constant scowl.
This benign-ness has come at a price and it is measured in the PDM currency. Bilawal was in many ways the convener of the alliance because his party assessed that PDM could provide PPP the heft it needed to pile the pressure on both the PTI leadership and the establishment. Did Bilawal have any idea that Nawaz Sharif would outflank him, and many in his own party, by targeting the establishment with unprecedented ferocity? It is hard to say, but what is fairly clear is that once the die had been cast, PPP’s politics inside and outside the PDM began to shape-shift in intriguing ways.
The first indication came during the Gilgit-Baltistan elections — a month or so after the formation of the PDM — when Bilawal absented himself from the alliance trail and jetted off to campaign in GB. There were whispers that the wink and nod from the establishment had come, and that the PPP was a hot favourite to form the government in GB. In the end this did not happen and GB went the conventional way by voting for the party in power at the centre, but something had changed. The PPP leaders’ speeches and statements began to increasingly target the PTI government much more, while veiled and insinuated criticism of the establishment began to gently taper off.
Ultimately the PDM shed the PPP. Or was it the other way around? Either way, the outcome suits the PPP fine. Unencumbered by the compulsions of the alliance — which wasn’t going anywhere in any case — the PPP can now unleash its pragmatic power politics without having to worry about tantrums from the PML-N and JUI-F leaders. Bilawal’s relationship with Maryam Nawaz and Maulana Fazlur Rehman may have taken a hit, but as things stand now, and may stand in the months — possibly years — to come, he needs them less than he may need the establishment. This may turn out to be a miscalculation, but in today’s context, and in the PPP interest’s context, Bilawal seems to have taken the decision with his eyes wide open.
Does this gamble get him near to power at the centre?
Editorial: PPP on its own?
The answer may not lift the PPP spirits — yet. While the party may not have any serious threat to its electoral control of Sindh, regardless of the boasts by the PTI, its irrelevance in Punjab is also under no serious threat of being reversed. Asif Zardari had camped himself in Lahore in recent months and various party leaders were heard saying that many Punjab electables would be joining the party. None did. One of the party’s key Punjab leaders, according to a source, told Zardari that if he was really serious about gaining a foothold in Punjab, he should have Bilawal visit every district of the province to galvanise its dormant support base. The advice remains unheeded to date.
One reason is that the PPP’s top leadership realises it has a very long shot at reviving its fortunes in Punjab before the next general elections. The party’s time and effort would therefore be better spent consolidating its Sindh base, garnering a foothold, and a larger footprint, in Karachi; and stitching together some interesting pre-or-post alliances for a better share at the centre.
These are achievable targets. They may not make Bilawal the next prime minister of Pakistan, but they will put him in a better position to do so next to next time. But there’s more logic from where this one comes. Bilawal sees that his party has a governance problem in Sindh, an image problem in Sindh’s largest city, an electoral problem in Punjab, and an ideological problem in a society that appears to be increasingly skewing right. That’s a lot of work right there.
Murad Ali Shah as chief minister has upped the governance game in Sindh but Bilawal will need to make a paradigm shift if he wants his party’s performance to see a radical improvement in the next term. In Karachi, he has people like Murtaza Wahab and Saeed Ghani who can attempt to make a difference and rebrand the soiled image of the party. In Punjab, Bilawal will need a full five-year term to revive the party’s fortunes. And at the centre, he will need to figure out whether a left-of-centre stance still finds traction among a populace that may be headed the other way.
For now, Bilawal has few solutions. What he does have is time. All depends on how he plans to utilise it.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2021