KARACHI: When former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed in 1996 on charges of corruption and bad governance by her erstwhile party loyalist, the late president Farooq Leghari, the establishment chose Mumtaz Ali Bhutto as caretaker chief minister of Sindh. The establishment’s plan was to manipulate the general election in a manner that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) remained out of power.
The plan was executed successfully and the PPP lost the elections. Nawaz Sharif came to power at the centre and Mumtaz Bhutto grudgingly gave way to Liaquat Ali Jatoi to form the government in Sindh.
The situation, however, is different now. Mumtaz Bhutto’s decision to merge his Sindh National Front (SNF) with the Pakistan Muslim League-N might actually propel him into the power corridors.
Had the ruling PPP’s performance not been so pathetic and downright contrary to the wishes of its voters in the province, Mumtaz Bhutto’s merger with the PML-N wouldn’t have had any major impact on the political scenario in Sindh.
But after four years of the so-called policy of reconciliation, rampant corruption, unprecedented bad governance, combined with the absence of the dynamic leadership of Benazir Bhutto, many analysts believe that this is the best chance for the Sharifs to make an impact on Sindh’s political landscape, and for Mumtaz Bhutto to make a comeback.
“This is a very bold decision,” according to analyst and writer Zulfikar Halepoto, “I think he (Mumtaz Bhutto) should be given credit for coming out and accepting the failure of his brand of politics.”
Mr Halepoto believes that Mr Bhutto, a man of big ego and even bigger grudges, put his ego aside to merge his small party with the PML-N. “Had he not realised the situation and made this decision, Mumtaz Bhutto might have ended up without doing anything worthwhile,” he said, apparently pointing to his political isolation over the past several years.
In all these years, Mr Bhutto has never missed an opportunity to attack the PPP and Punjab. In a recent interview, he said the “smaller nationalities” were under occupation by Punjab and until this occupation ended, the nationalities would not get their rights.
His decision of merging with a party that has its powerbase in Punjab has raised eyebrows in Sindh. He will have to answer many questions troubling his nationalist colleagues in Sindh and tell them what assurances he’s been given by the Sharifs to safeguard the rights and interests of Sindh.
BREAKTHROUGH FOR NAWAZ? Many analysts believe the merger is also a breakthrough for Nawaz Sharif. “Sindh has traditionally been a PPP stronghold and despite repeated attempts, Nawaz Sharif has not been able to make real gains in the province.
“But Mumtaz Bhutto, who is a veteran in striking alliances with other landlords, and also carries a ‘Bhutto’ tag, could influence and gather anti-PPP feudal lords under one roof. If he is able to do so, Nawaz Sharif will gain a lot,” says rights activist Jami Chandio.
Mr Chandio’s opinion wasn’t without reason. Indications have been coming from various districts of Sindh that some big names who have huge landholdings and a substantial vote bank are just waiting for the right time to jump onto the Sharif bandwagon.
It seems a little reluctance remains because they want to make sure that Sharifs have a final ‘muk muka’ (patch-up) with the security establishment. They also want to play a waiting game so that they can strike the best deal possible for themselves.
Sources told Dawn that an influential personality from Larkana district — Sardar Chandio, the chief of the Chandio tribe — might be the next to join the PML-N.
Another anti-PPP influential feudal from Larkana is Ghulam Hussain Unnar. He is a tough proposition for the PPP in its bastion and has close links with Mumtaz Bhutto.
Some sources suggest that the National People’s Party (NPP) and its leaders, Murtaza Jatoi and Masroor Jatoi, are also seriously considering merging their party with the PML-N. The Jatois have a sizable political support and vote bank in Dadu and Naushehro Feroze districts.
The Mahars of Khangarh, one of upper Sindh’s most powerful families and considered close to the military establishment, are going to be either in the PML-N or any anti-PPP alliance in Sindh.
On the other side of river Indus, Khairpur and Sanghar districts have been witness to a resurgence of Pir Pagaro’s Functional Muslim League. Most analysts say they wouldn’t be surprised to see anti-PPP candidates making big gains in these districts.
Thatta district is being ruled by the Shirazis for quite some time now. It is safe to believe that they will be more than happy to be part of any anti-PPP coalition in the province.
Main Nawaz Sharif’s Sindh offensive seems to be on full throttle. He has not only been trying to win over bigwigs of the province, but is also working on each and every anti-PPP entity. On his somewhat frequent trips to this land, he has met leaders of Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, Awami Tehrik, Sindh National Party and other nationalist parties.
Perhaps the idea is to create an alternative to the PPP in rural Sindh at a time when many ruling party supporters feel somewhat disillusioned.
Although it’s too early to make predictions, indications are that if more Sindhi nationalist leaders and feudals join the PML-N in coming weeks and months, it is bound to throw a new challenge for the PPP in its stronghold.