Benazir Bhutto`s PPP

Published December 26, 2008

The PPP was Benazir Bhutto's party. She was its heart and soul and her assassination left a gaping hole in the party's fabric, a hole that will not be filled in the foreseeable future. Which is why she is mourned so deeply and, without a doubt, genuinely by anyone even remotely linked to the party.

 

And which is perhaps why, even a year since her death, the torrent of punditry and analysis has focused on what BB meant to the party rather than what she did for the party.

Savage as the end was, BB's reign over the PPP lasted more than two decades — a reign book-ended by two historic returns from exile the first in April 1986; the second barely two months before her death. For the 41-year-old PPP, she was its leader for more than half its existence, and nearly two-thirds if you count the years she was at her mother's side after ZAB was jailed by Zia.

The party the young Benazir inherited was not the one the two-time prime minister left behind. It couldn't be the same, such was the span of time involved. But how did the PPP change?

In at least two important ways, Benazir broke from the core of her father's vision.

First, she rejected her father's economic platform, dragging the PPP from the pro-nationalisation, government-in-the-productive-sector camp to a more centrist position.

ZAB was no socialist, as any disillusioned diehard in the original PPP cadre will testify. Land reforms were the big issue for Pakistan's left, but Bhutto was never serious. When little headway was made in the reforms he announced in March 1972, ZAB responded by simply announcing further reforms in 1977. The latter were subsequently shelved by Zia.

ZAB's signature economic policy was nationalisation. With the Economic Reform Order of Jan 3, 1972 Bhutto set out to remake the economy. In the first round, large-scale manufacturing and the power, oil and gas sectors were scooped up. In 1974, the banking and insurance sectors were added. More nationalisation in 1976 brought flour, rice and vegetable ghee mills and cotton ginning factories into the public sector.

Nationalisation defined the ZAB era. BB turned her back on it.

In December 1988, barely three weeks after her election, Benazir assented to the first structural adjustment facility with the IMF. The facility had been negotiated by the caretaker finance minister, Mahbubul Haq, and Bhutto's endorsement was arguably only a matter of form. But from the PPP's perspective it was a decisive break from the past.

In both stints as prime minister, Benazir aggressively pushed privatisation. The first time she tried to divest the government's holdings in everything from PIA to MCB to the Sui gas corporations. In her second stint, she pushed the PPP's flagship energy policy which emphasised privately owned Independent Power Projects.

The fact is, BB wasn't the first to embrace privatisation. The Zia regime had been a proponent. And after her, Nawaz Sharif was equally committed. But by bringing her PPP on board, Benazir ended up forging a vital national consensus on the state's basic economic model. Since the economy has been botched by all governments, it's difficult to discern the benefit of continuity in economic policies since the mid-1980s. But flipping the issue around throws it into sharp relief.

Imagine if with every change of government the policy on state ownership changed. Privatisation, nationalisation, privatisation, nationalisation — more than a couple of rounds in quick succession and Pakistan would have been a certifiable basket case.

BB's rejection of her father's economics helped Pakistan. It can be argued that she didn't have a choice, that by the late 1980s the tide had already turned against nationalisation globally. But the fact remains that she not only accepted the change, she pursued it vigorously.

The younger Bhutto's second big shift was on the PPP's posture towards India. ZAB loved to play to the gallery and nothing roused the public like a dose of nationalistic chest-thumping. Bhutto senior was one of the great exponents of modern-day India-bashing, epitomised by his vow to fight a “thousand-year war” against India. But he went beyond words.

Who counselled war against India to Ayub in 1965 is still unclear. Ex-post-facto explanations are usually exculpatory (Ayub blamed Bhutto). But this much we do know then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was no shrinking violet when it came to going toe-to-toe with India.

And then there was ZAB's legendary determination to build a nuclear weapons programme to match India's. As early as 1965, Bhutto famously threatened that Pakistanis would “eat grass or leaves, even go hungry” to get the bomb if India got one. When India conducted a 'peaceful nuclear explosion' in May 1974, Bhutto swung into action. Enter A.Q. Khan.

According to Zahid Malik, a journalist and obsequious biographer of Khan, when the metallurgist agreed in December 1974 to take charge of uranium enrichment, Bhutto thumped his desk in excitement and swore, “I will see the Hindu [expletive] now.” Apocryphal or not, the story sums up Bhutto's legend on India.

Benazir softened the national rhetoric against India. Across the border, such a claim may be scoffed at, particularly by those who remember Bhutto's trip during the 1990 crisis to Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where she recounted her father's thousand-year-war boast.

But Bhutto was only prime minister for five years, and hadn't held public office for over a decade before her assassination. In office, she was embattled and surrounded by a suspicious security-state establishment. Out of office, she was an eloquent, and believable, ambassador for peace.

Again, the younger Bhutto's U-turn on a policy of her father's became a crucial part of an emerging national consensus (at least by the big civilian players) on better ties with India. In Pakistan's fiercely contested polity it is remarkable that the two largest parties, the PPP and PML-N, developed similar positions on India. BB didn't have to (neither did Nawaz for that matter), but she did firmly drag the party away from her father's hawkishness. In doing so, when — if — the time comes for a durable peace, Pakistan's electorate will be better prepared to accept it.

In one crucial area, however, Benazir stuck to her father's script, and in doing so may have terminally damaged the PPP's electoral prospects. While BB signed off on the era of liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation, she didn't prepare for its effects. She didn't update the party's message to the electorate. The politics were refined, but the party rhetoric wasn't.

Think 'PPP' and which slogan comes to mind? 'Roti kapra aur makaan', of course, the slogan filched from the East Pakistan peasant leader, Maulana Bhashani. It has little relevance to a growing urban lower-middle and middle class, especially in Punjab. On the other hand, the PML-N's business-friendly, conservative politics is tailor-made for the upwardly mobile voter.

Curiously then, as custodian of the PPP, Benazir may have helped the country more than her own party.

cyril.a@gmail.com

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