ISLAMABAD: Will Asif Ali Zardari take back the reins of PPP? Will he change the party’s strategy in dealing with the ruling PML-N? Will his son take the back seat? These are the questions making the rounds in political circles as Zardari returned to Karachi on Friday, ending his 18-month self-imposed exile.
The answer to all these questions is ‘no’. This is at least what The Express Tribune has learnt from top PPP officials in background interviews. They say Bilawal will remain the face of the party, while Zardari will act as a decorous ‘patriarch’.
Zardari, known for his wheeling and dealing, will use his political acumen to win over other political groups with his quintessential policy of political reconciliation. The objective will be to improve the party’s numerical strength in the legislatures of smaller provinces in the next general elections.
Bilawal, meanwhile, would continue to take on political rivals aggressively, mainly in Punjab, the province which decides who will rule in the Centre as almost half of the members of the National Assembly are elected from here.
Public perception of Zardari is not good. And the PPP, which is evolving under Bilawal, knows it full well. This was the reason PPP’s inner circles had weighed the pros and cons of Zardari’s homecoming. Since the next general elections are drawing near, the party felt now is the time for the PPP co-chairman to return.
Some political analysts, however, see Zardari’s return in the backdrop of the change in the military’s high command. Before leaving the country in June last year, Zardari had made a hard-hitting speech at a function in Islamabad. Apparently, his target was the powerful military establishment, especially the then army chief, General Raheel Sharif. Reason: he was angered by the Rangers’ actions against PPP leaders as part of the Karachi surgical operation.
Tellingly, Zardari was quick to call up the new army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, to felicitate him soon after he had received the baton of command from Gen Raheel last month.
Insiders say the PPP is in the process of defining Zardari’s new role as the ‘patriarch’ of the party to benefit from his political acumen while he stays behind the scenes.
“He would be particularly helpful in consolidating PPP’s position in the smaller provinces. The party wants to utilise his experience in traditional politics,” says a senior PPP leader. Zardari would leave Punjab to an increasingly aggressive Bilawal. He has already delegated the party’s organisational matters to his son.
Bilawal has already given the ruling party until Dec 27 to accept his four demands or else face the wrath of PPP. Bilawal’s scheduled anti-government campaign will be focused on Punjab and the Centre, where the PML-N has a firm grip.
The PPP feels Zardari’s style of politics will be of much help in the smaller provinces, especially in Sindh and Balochistan, where political scene is still dominated by feudal lords.
“We plan to add six to seven more seats to our strength in the National Assembly from Sindh and a few from Balochistan in the next general elections. Here, we would need a leader who has expertise in traditional politics of give and take. No one can rival Zardari’s skills in such matters,” says a close aide of Bilawal.
Bilawal, the scion of the Bhutto dynasty, would copy the aggressive style of politics introduced in the party by his maternal grandfather and PPP founder Zulifikar Ali Bhutto and later successfully adopted by the late Benazir Bhutto.
PPP plans to project Bilawal as the face of the party because he is aggrieved, left-leaning, and untainted by corruption allegations. Bilawal has brought in young faces in the party’s provincial cadres. And this new generation of jiyalas would adopt an aggressive approach to quash the impression of a friendly opposition the PPP has earned after the 2013 election.
Thus Bilawal & Co. would make a serious attempt to reclaim the ground the PPP has ceded to other parties in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Punjab would be the battleground of PPP’s politics. Bilawal would sit in Lahore after December 27 to lead the anti-PML-N campaign.
While Bilawal will be attacking the PML-N in its bastion of power, his father would neutralise any attempt to dent the PPP in Sindh, the party’s political powerhouse.
The PPP also plans to woo other opposition parties for an ‘alliance of progressive parties’ to deal with the PML-N in Punjab. The PPP, which is more experienced in electoral matters than its contemporaries, strongly feels that in the current political scenario the PML-N will remain invincible in Punjab, if the opposition parties fail to join hands.
Though nascent, behind the scenes efforts are on to cobble together an alliance to face the PPP in Sindh before the next general elections. Zardari would try to neutralise any such attempts. He is already in touch with some prominent political figures in the province.
PPP insiders say some ‘surprises’ are expected on Dec 27 in Garhi Khuda Bukhash when the party observes Benazir’s death anniversary. Zardari, in his Friday’s speech, foretold ‘good news’ on Dec 27, which insiders say means some prominent politicians of Sindh will join the PPP.
“Subsequently, some prominent political figures from Punjab, mainly from South Punjab, would also jump ship to join the PPP before the party kick-starts its protest campaign in the province,” claims another close aide of Bilawal.
The PPP’s planning aside, Friday’s raid by the paramilitary Rangers on the offices of Anwar Majeed, a purported close aide of Zardari, has worried the party. PPP sources say Zardari has returned with all his belongings and his helping staff, which shows he is here for a long stay. However, the party will devise its strategy taking into account the situation on ground.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2016.