Asif Zardari knows his politics like Babar Azam knows his batting: see space between the players, will cover drive for a boundary.
So it is that after years of being kicked around in the wilderness, and of being mocked for mal-governance and corruption, and also for reducing a national giant into a regional pygmy, it now transpires that the former president has dragged the party back bang centre into the mainstream of politics.
Read more: Zardari lauds party’s by-poll performance
The impressive showing in the NA-133 Lahore election is just the latest evidence of what is increasingly being seen as a display of smart and sharp politics by the PPP at a time when other bigger parties are hacking away at the branches they are perched on.
The PPP has not had the last laugh yet. But if you listen closely, you may hear the faint sound of a few triumphant chuckles. Aik Zardari sub per…?
As the former president laboured through the legal and political maze these last few years, he kept on dropping clues — bread crumbs like Hansel and Gretel, if you like fairy tales — on his way to a destination known probably only to him. Many moons ago he ducked and dodged expectations to bring down a government in Balochistan, then some moons later he swiveled and pivoted to help elect Sadiq Sanjrani as Senate chairman, and followed this up even more moons later by spinning and swerving to first get Yousaf Raza Gilani elected from the Islamabad seat in the Senate, and then pulling another rabbit out of his electoral hat to plant him as leader of the opposition. When he did not have the numbers, he had the smarts; and when he did not have the support, he had the nerve.
But this was small game. This was net practice. This was a warm up match. Till now.
Now is when the PPP is unveiling its real plan, and making opponents stare in wonderment. The wheels are moving slowly but surely as the political situation churns itself into a muddy quagmire. There is still a yawning gap between what the PPP lusts for and what it may end up with, but the intensity of desire is now increasingly being matched by the requisite political prowess.
PPP took the initiative to form the PDM in 2020. Yes, the PML-N and the JUI-F were equally amenable to the alliance but it was Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and the party leadership that really pushed for this grand joining of hands and the charter of demands that followed. While the optics of these parties partnering was important, it was the timing that was critical. The PPP leadership sensed it right and stitched up the team smoothly and swiftly.
More than a year later, it has become clear that not only was the PPP right to pilot the PDM into a successful start, it was also right in defying the majority opinion within the alliance and refuse to resign from the assemblies. Today, after suffering the highs and lows of an anti-government campaign that appears running on a treadmill — breaking sweat but going nowhere — the PML-N has reached a conclusion about not to use the resignation option that the PPP had argued nearly a year ago.
If someone is smirking in Bilawal house, he has a right to. He also has the right to play his own game because, well, clearly he is playing it better than the others. And the game? Here’s where dreams and desires segue into plans and policy. The PPP knows it has Sindh and will keep it. What it wants is a piece of Punjab, a chunk of KP and the largest slice of the Centre.
Whoa! Did you just do a double take? Welcome to the club. Here’s how it is unfolding:
The PPP sensed early on that the PML-N was becoming a prisoner of its own politics. By adopting an extreme position against the establishment, and by dressing up this position in ideological terms, and by going where no politician had gone before by naming the army chief and ISI DG in rallies, Nawaz Sharif had played a gambler’s hand. The PPP also sensed that the only way for Nawaz from here on was to escalate and escalate till something snapped. On the other side of the spectrum, the PPP leadership calculated that given the dynamics of Pakistani politics — and who knows these better than the PPP — a rupture between the PTI government and the establishment was inevitable. On both counts, as it turns out, the party leadership was spot on.
Armed with this assessment, the PPP leadership started placing itself in an advantageous position much before others even knew what was happening. The subtle engagement with the establishment, the not-so-private disagreement with the PML-N over naming names of generals, and the public refusal to upset the applecart by resigning from the assemblies, all these steps were meant to showcase the PPP as a party that was willing to play ball without willing to play dead. By the time the PPP walked out of the PDM, PTI’s graph had also begun to slide down as a result of its inability to command effective governance. You could hear people asking in hushed whispers: What now? Who now?
The PPP had answers: what now? In-house change in Punjab and Centre. Who now? PPP in Islamabad and PML-N in Punjab. Did they have the numbers early in 2021 when the PPP floated this idea and pushed for it? Not really. Did it think it could conjure them from its magic hat? It absolutely did. Something was cooking. But the PML-N had no appetite. It was still on the gambling table playing for all-or-nothing: elections now or no deal. So there was no deal.
But PPP is all about the art of a deal. So while the PDM of the JUI-F and PML-N sulked in the desolation of its own dreams, the PPP rolled up its sleeves and went to work. The first target was south Punjab. This is where the party has traditionally bagged seats and retains a semblance of support. South Punjab offers a bonanza of National Assembly seats — nearly four dozen — and the politics here is driven by electables. In the heyday of PML-N most of them linked up with the Sharif bandwagon and many had bagged cabinet positions. Then suddenly, without warning and at literally the last minute prior to the 2018 elections, a large chunk of them galloped across to the PTI. The PPP knows well they can all gallop back given the right nudge, push and wink. Which is why the party started working on the nudgers, pushers and winkers before anyone knew what was happening.
Makhdum Ahmad Mahmud has guarded the PPP citadel in south Punjab alone these years. And he’s guarded it well. He retains his solid standing in the area and commands at least one National Assembly and two provincial assembly seats. He is also related to Jehangir Tareen. They were also business partners. Tareen commands significant influence in the south and is nowadays keeping his cards very close to his chest. The PPP is very interested in him because if he and Ahmad Mahmood partner up, and they have the wind from Rawalpindi in their sails, they can reap a rich harvest of seats to add to the tally that the PPP needs to weave magic in the Centre. Is something cooking? Insiders say the pot may not be on the stove but the stove has been lighted.
The KP game is also afoot and a gentle wind is helping with a kindred spirit. Look out for politically potent people joining the PPP in the coming weeks and months. A few already have. The formula therefore is slowly taking shape: Sindh + South Punjab + KP + Kindred Wind + Post-election allies + Independents-sniffing-the-wind = Bright chance for a slim majority in the Centre. Game on hai.
As Prime Minister Imran Khan is fond of saying: dream big. The PPP has rejected his politics but may have accepted his words.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2021