“MEET Mr Sonia Gandhi,” that’s how PPP’s Information Secretary Sherry Rehman smilingly introduced Asif Zardari to a group of journalist friends, of which I was a part, at Naudero a fortnight ago.

Sherry had obviously said this in a lighter vein but Asif grew serious about it. He explained that he wants to take a back seat (Sonia like) and let the party leadership decide things. He said he saw his role as the cementing force to keep the party together. He would simply try to keep a balance among the diverging forces and preserve Benazir’s legacy.

“I think we should have a national government after the elections as this country has become ungovernable,” he said in a statesmanlike way. “It’s not about power this time; we want to set things right first, strengthen institutions by taking everybody along, including Nawaz Sharif.”

There was hardly any parallel between Asif Zardari and Sonia Gandhi. Besides the obvious difference of gender(and complexion), the two had entirely different contexts.

We (the journalists) were not convinced having seen Asif from close quarters in the last 15 years. Asif, we thought, was not the kind of person who could keep himself aloof like Sonia did in the initial days after Rajiv’s death. Not until she made the Congress virtually come down on its knees in requesting her to take over the party.

Even today she maintains that fine balance between the party and the executive. Asif could not help staying away even when, as unelected person, he was legally not supposed to meddle in Benazir’s first government.

As we continued to wonder if Asif could accomplish that, bang came the news, “Zardari claims he’s best for PM’s job.” It was too much, too early.

The news was denied later in the day. The misstatement, if it ever was one, sent tremors all across. The party got disturbed. Makhdoom Amin Fahim might have fainted; the potential dark horses lurking in Punjab may also have had their pulse slowing down. There was jubilation in the rival camp. Overnight, columns came out about the prospect of a division in the PPP, leading to Pervaiz Elahi making it to the dreamy place cousin Shujaat Hussain relished for three months.

It’s a topsy-turvy world and so is the new PPP.

It turned out that at first Babar Awan was trying to please Asif. This is the old way in the new PPP to become closer to Caesar Zardari. That’s how he rose in the ranks so fast but now wants to rise higher. Not to be left behind, the overly ‘made-up media maidens’ (MMM) of the PPP are, in competition, getting Asif interviewed to anybody they can get hold of. And Asif, who was denied this glamour for eight years in dungeons, is now relishing the spotlight in prestigious magazines like the Newsweek. Therein lies the biggest challenge for Asif Zardari. As the new order replaced the old, the stakes going higher, people are desperate to cross party lines. Asif may have acquired lots of dubious wisdom in jail, but he remains a little extra mortal when it comes to sycophancy.

Unless Asif blunders big time, things are going smoothly for the PPP. Politically, he has covered his internal and external flanks reasonably well. He is balancing out well among the second tier that includes Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Punjab’s stalwarts like Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Yousaf Raza Gillani in the elite and Jiyala Jahangir Badr in non-elite, despite his designer clothing. Asif was smart to overly pamper Aitzaz Ahsan, who has acquired a position unrivalled in the PPP, even beyond.

The Ghanwa factor in the PPP may have been overblown. She is hardly a challenge at this stage. Even Murtaza Bhutto could not win more than a single MPA seat at the height of his popularity. Fatima Bhutto, goes the feeling in Larkana, may have gone overboard against Benazir, particularly in an interview after her death. While she stands politically discredited for a long time in what remains of Benazir’s PPP, the chances for Junior Zulfikar Bhutto remain wide open, depending on how politics shape up in the next decade.

Things are smoother on the electoral front. Rural Sindh is all for anybody who stands up for the dear departed Benazir. It seems like a complete sweep except may be a seat for Arbab Rahim, another two for PML (Functional) and a remote possibility of yet another seat in Thatta for the Shirazis.

Even if MQM performs better than expected, the PPP is likely to win at least 43 seats in Sindh.

A sympathy vote for Benazir, better candidates, the exclusion of Jamaat-i-Islami, the downslide of both MMA and Sherpao have improved PPP’s prospects in the Frontier where it can fetch as many as 15 seats. Another three might come from Balochistan.

If PPP wins 50 seats from Punjab its total comes to 110 elected seats plus its quota of women and minority seats. This means the PPP is the only party that has the chance to win a simple majority on its own. Once you have a figure like this Fata, independents, smaller parties, ANP can join in.

Even MQM, with PPP sweeping also in the Sindh assembly, might be forced to sit with the latter, something Farooq Sattar hinted at during a chance meeting on a Karachi flight.

And if the PPP and the PML-N get together the numbers game settles easily in their favour. In a triangular fight for the first time in the post-1971situation—among PPP, PML-Q and PML-N—logic dictates that any two getting together will be a sure bet.

After Benazir’s assassination the chances of PPP siding with the PML-Q are as remote as those of Benazir joining the Zia government after Bhutto’s execution. Such is the mood in Sindh that even Asif cannot dare attempt that.

It was not a coincidence that we, this time with my Islamabad Editor Zaffar Abbas, listened from Nawaz Sharif almost similar words on the need for a national government to the statement made by Asif in Naudero. It suits them in any case as none of them is a candidate in the first leg of elections.

Asif’s task is tougher than he might think. His morality about friendships, relationships and machoism is rooted in the heady days of Karachi in the 1970s. World may have a changed a lot for him since then.

There is potential for the PPP to achieve what even Benazir could not have done. Her sacrifice in life has strengthened the new media, the new judiciary and the new, whatever it means, civil society.

As a martyr Benazir is much more powerful than the living Benazir. Imagine a hypothetical situation for the PPP, though a sad thing to say, where Benazir had romped home to her third victory in elections. She would have still had those handicaps of her previous baggage and much-tainted team, Rehman Malik added. The likes of us might have been writing the same old vitriolic stories against the third PPP government.

Like it or not, one may dare say, she too was hostage to the forces of status quo that did not want too much of a revolution. The biggest example of that being Benazir’s studied aloofness from the lawyer’s movement.

Even now the PPP talks about the restoration of judges half-heartedly. It was a great revolution but it was not her revolution. There is a possibility of a new start now. The soul of Benazir, without Babar Awans of this world, may be much more effective in materialising her dream.

In the final analysis, everything boils down to Asif Zardari. If he does not stand up to the occasion, somebody else, let’s not name Aitzaz, might do it. Therein lies the silver lining.


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