RAWALPINDI, Dec 26: The unkempt grass at the site of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging lay withered on Wednesday as Rawalpindi waited for his daughter Benazir Bhutto to bring her campaign close to the seat of power she is eyeing in the Jan 8 elections.
Thursday’s will be Ms Bhutto’s first public rally at the famous Liaquat Bagh park since her return from more than eight years of self-exile in October and is expected by her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to be a boost for its election campaign not only in this important city and nearby Islamabad but also in northern Punjab.
She had tried to address a rally at the same venue on Nov 9 but was barred by authorities for reasons of the emergency imposed by President Pervez Musharraf on Nov 3, and same was the fate of her planned Nov 13 protest “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad.
The PPP is seeking to revive its political fortunes in Rawalpindi, which was one of its citadels in the Punjab province in the 1970s before losing ground to the followers of the late Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq in elections held after the military ruler hanged Mr Bhutto in 1979 inside the Rawalpindi Central Jail after a controversial conspiracy-to-murder trial.
That British-era jail was later demolished and replaced by Adiala Jail outside the city, and the authorities also recently pulled down a cell where Mr Bhutto spent the last days of his life, ignoring appeals by the PPP to let it build a memorial there and at the site of the gallows where Pakistan’s first elected prime minister was hanged.“This is where everybody says he (Bhutto) was hanged,” a worker at the site told this correspondent on Wednesday, pointing to an unmarked patch of withered grass at the centre of an under-construction covered market of what is an army-controlled Jinnah Park built on the former jail premises in the southeast of Rawalpindi.
The only sign of national importance given to the site are four columns built around it signifying the four provinces of the Punjab, Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan bearing cultural murals.
There was no reflection of election activity there, apparently because of the army control and ticketed entry to the park whose main attractions are a five-screen multiplex cinema and a McDonald’s restaurant.
The unusual calm at the site on early Wednesday evening, broken by a youth playing on a guitar with a singing partner in what they called a training session, contrasted with the hustle and bustle of election in the nearby city where Bhutto’s imposing picture was on almost every election banner or poster of PPP candidates for the city’s three National Assembly and five Punjab assembly seats to be contested on Jan 8 by all the three major parties, which include the previous ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and Pakistan Muslim-N (PML-N).
While the PPP and PML-N banners carry the pictures of their candidates along with their party leaders and election symbols of Arrow and Tiger respectively, the same is not the case with the PML-Q candidates in Rawalpindi who have preferred to be seen alone with their symbol of Bicycle.
Even the city’s main PML-Q candidate, former federal minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who once acted as top government spokesman when he held the information and broadcasting portfolio, has not printed the pictures of President Pervez Musharraf or party president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and supposed prime ministerial candidate Chaudhry Pervez Elahi on his posters.
This reluctance to associate with the president or figures of the previous government and party leaders seems to have been forced by the unpopular actions like now lifted Nov 3 emergency, the sacking of judges of the superior courts and the latest wave of inflation and flour shortages under an interim government that too is dominated by PML-Q members.
Both Rawalpindi and Islamabad — which has two National Assembly seats and no provincial assembly seat — together have much smaller parliamentary representation compared to mega cities of Karachi and Lahore. But political parties have always been keen to win seats in the twin cities because of their political importance — Islamabad as the capital and Rawalpindi as the seat of the army General Headquarters, where President Musharraf has preferred to live in his old army house even after he gave up his army uniform and took oath as civilian president on Nov 29.
On the eve of Ms Bhutto’s rally, both Arrow and Tiger seemed to dominate the campaign in Rawalpindi city but, probably because of the Election Commission’s restrictions, the scene was a far cry from what used to be election carnivals in the 1970s and under PPP and PML-N governments in the 1990s.
Nawaz Sharif, one of whose PML-N’s leading figure Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, is challenging Sheikh Rashid in one of the two constituencies from where the former minister is standing, is due to address his rally at Liaquat Bagh on Jan 4.
The PML has not yet announced the date of its main rally in Rawalpindi.