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As the PPP’s troubles with the Supreme Court intensify once again, the party’s attempt to paint itself as a victim of a more powerful ‘establishment’ has found relatively few takers in interior Sindh – at least for now.

At Naudero on April 4, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari exemplified the new, aggressive approach in dealing with the Supreme Court:

“Let us pray that there will not be double standards. That shaheed Bhutto of Sindh was hanged but another prime minister from Punjab is freed … [That] a former prime minister from Punjab, a self-confessing convicted accused, is vindicated, while shaheed BB is put on trial from her grave.”

However, the impact of the PPP’s politicking has been tempered by the longevity of the government and because the government’s problems with the Supreme Court have ebbed and flowed since 2009 without ever reaching a point of no-return.“It’s just theatre. Nothing will happen, CJ will complete his term, the government will complete its term, it’s all part of a game,” according to a trader in Hyderabad who identified himself as Nadeem.

Within the PPP too there is recognition that the ‘Swiss letter’ case or ‘memogate’ are not major factors with the electorate in interior Sindh.

A senior PPP leader in Sindh speaking on the condition of anonymity suggested that the political impact of the NRO-related proceedings in the Supreme Court was minimal: “People can see this is a game of hide-and-seek. Court does something, then the government does something, the people understand that it’s all a part of politics.”

The senior party leader added that the PPP only expected to gain politically in interior Sindh “if the Supreme Court does end up taking some decisive action”.

With no seismic event to latch on to – like the coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or the ouster of Benazir Bhutto from power twice – the woes of incumbency appear to have limited sympathy for the PPP so far.

“Electricity crisis, inflation, law and order, bad governance, people can see all of this,” according to Paryal Marri, the HRCP coordinator in Shikarpur. “The rest, the Sindh factor, claiming they are victims, they’re just emotional slogans.”

Privately, PPP leaders accept this assessment. “You know, with the ineptness and the corruption, those things are a problems,” according to one party member from the south of the province.

The victim card Muted as its impact may be at the moment, the PPP’s recourse to the narrative of victimhood is rooted in a particular political history of Sindh.

The narrative of Sindh being denied its rightful place in the federation and oppressed by a Punjabi establishment began soon after Partition, but was supercharged by the ouster of Bhutto’s government in 1977 and the subsequent rule of Zia.

“Sindh made many sacrifices at Partition. It accommodated so many people from outside, gave part of its own territory to establish the federal capital,” said Zulfiqar Qadri, a former PPP activist who is now a commentator on Sindh politics.

“But then Punjabi settlers started taking over Sindhi lands with the excuse that Sindhis aren’t as hardworking and the military took huge chunks of land for itself,” Qadri said. “They were also fewer jobs for Sindhis and they were kept behind in education.”

The rise of the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave Sindh a champion of its cause at the national level for the first time in the country’s history, which is what made his ouster and execution all the more traumatic.

“Since the persecution of Bhutto and the rule of Zia, when Sindh suffered for opposing him, there’s been a strong feeling in Sindh that it cannot escape the hegemony of the establishment,” said Dr Qadir Magsi, leader of the Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party and a nationalist with no love lost for the Bhutto dynasty.

Another nationalist, Khalid Junejo, the recently elected president of the Jeay Sindh Mahaz, also admitted that the PPP is perceived to be a victim by sections of the population, “A Sindh prime minister is hanged but a Punjabi prime minister is put on a plane and sent abroad.”

Today, according to Junejo, some parts of the public in interior Sindh may be looking on at the PPP’s travails with the Supreme Court and thinking “this is happening because it’s the PPP. After all, nothing is said to the Sharifs about corruption”.

Qadri, the former PPP activist, said: “The ordinary man accepts that Zardari is corrupt. But then they are all corrupt. Nawaz Sharif came from humble origins and is now one of the richest Pakistanis. Has anyone ever asked him where he’s made his money from?”

The Sindh card In some ways, the PPP has benefited from the noisy presence of the Sindhi nationalists, who oppose the PPP but are electorally insignificant and whose claim that Sindh is oppressed often redounds to the PPP’s advantage.

“The nationalists have helped instil the message that Sindh is suffering unfairly. But when the people believe that, they also see that the PPP is talking on behalf of Sindh and is the only party that can come to power nationally. So the sympathy goes to the PPP,” according to Khadim Talpur, a social worker in Badin.

Ejaz Mahar, a BBC journalist from upper Sindh, gave the example of the uproar in Sindh after sections of the national media criticised President Zardari for wearing a traditional Sindhi cap while attending Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s swearing-in ceremony in 2009.

“The Sindhi media picked up the issue and made it about a perceived offence to Sindh. The anchors and media houses who were critical of Zardari had to retract their claims. The issue was supposed to be about Sindh but since Zardari was the one who was wearing the cap, he got a political advantage from it,” Mahar said.

A bumpy ride Even if Prime Minister Gilani is ousted from office, President Zardari is directly targeted by the Supreme Court or the PPP’s relations with the Pakistan Army-led establishment nosedive again, the PPP looks set to have a bumpy ride in interior Sindh at the next election.

“In 1988, the PPP swept Sindh. In 2008, just weeks after BB’s death, they dropped seats to some of the powerful independents,” said Mustafa Baloch of the Strengthening Participatory Organisation. “Next time will be tougher.”

Baloch, while acknowledging that PPP is certain to win the majority of seats in interior Sindh, suggested the reason for the relative decline is that the emotional appeal of the PPP has dwindled: “There’s no one to mobilise the party, the workers are disillusioned, how long can you keep arguing that Punjab won’t let you rule when you’re on the verge of completing your term?” But if the PPP’s victim card in Sindh may be losing its cachet, the Bhutto card is still a potent force.

“What issues the election will be contested on will be clearer closer to the election. But the emotional factor is there and Bilawal Bhutto will be taken around the province,” said the senior PPP leader speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In Bilawal’s hands, as the grandson of the executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the son of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, an otherwise ineffectual card – that the PPP has been and is being singled out for punishment because of its Sindhi roots – could be used more successfully.

But, Mustafa Baloch suggested, it’s too early to predict if Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will succeed: “Bilawal’s political understanding is untested, there’s a language barrier and a security bubble around him – can he be that effective?”

Zulfiqar Qadri though, suggested that a clash with the Supreme Court would still benefit the PPP: “They’ll have two cards then: the Sindh card and the Seraiki card. Two is better than one.” — Concluded