Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has started his political career with a bang. He has been aggressive in his stance on Imran Khan and militants and has maintained that the 2013 elections were far from fair.
A section of the political community finds these remarks immature and unfortunate. However, many others find in them both an expression of a fresh political thinking on such issues as terrorism and a courageous move to make a dash in the political arena by attacking the currently popular leadership on top of mainstream parties. Bilawal’s rhetoric symbolises the transition from Asif Zardari — a man of few words and selective use of adversarial idiom — to his loquacious successor.
Which way does the PPP’s young and energetic leader want to take the party? Already, the PPP is on a slippery ground as far as its position as the shadow government is concerned. This is largely due to the PTI’s ascendancy to second position in terms of votes at the national level, at 17 per cent as opposed to the PPP’s 15 per cent. The May 2013 election pointed to a new bipolarity in the making, whereby the PPP could be relegated to a third position in terms of seats nationally and to irrelevance as a political force outside Sindh.
This phenomenon is reflected through the PPP’s loss of Punjab, a province that has a majority of seats in the National Assembly. At the heart of the issue lies the PPP’s misreading of the politically significant changes in Punjab. These include urbanisation — that has led to crass elitism on the one hand and exposed large sections of the population to Deobandisation proper on the other. Leadership at the cost of the party and patronage at the expense of policy hurt the PPP in terms of understanding the electoral dynamics of Punjab. Discounting the issues of party organisation and formulation of a workable strategy brought about a disconnect between the leadership and party workers.
In the brave new world of Punjab, the PPP grossly failed to give a progressive alternative to the prevalent religio-political discourse. This could be an issue-based idiom aimed at reviving the PPP’s original profile as a poor man’s party or an idiom for appeasement of religious and sectarian minorities or the issue of human rights in general. The PPP was destined to be nothing if it did not provide an ideological or policy alternative. In contrast, this alternative had emerged in Sindh in the form of Sindhi nationalism that firmly kept the initiative in the hands of the PPP.
The PPP strategy in Punjab has moved from public mobilisation along policy and ideology during its first government to reliance on master manipulators for shifting factional ties. In 2013, the party workers were unable to identify themselves with Manzoor Wattoo, who was a lateral entrant into the party. The PPP virtually outsourced its strategy of mobilisation against the PML-N to Imran Khan. It paid a heavy price for this at the polls.
The PPP, not unlike other parties, is known for discounting the energetic, articulate, strong and popular leadership at the constituency, district and provincial levels in favour of the leaders’ personal faithfuls. The party dynamics virtually operate on Gresham’s Law that favours the old and worn-out coins at the cost of new and sturdy coins. Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah is the epitome of a slow-moving, non-inspiring, indecisive and inept leadership.
The PPP suffers from an intellectual deficit that keeps it from developing sound electoral strategies, popular ideological formulations and a convincing set of policies. The large progressive intelligentsia of the party’s younger days is now almost extinct. Aitzaz Ahsan and Raza Rabbani, along with a few others, are relics of the party’s thinking days. There has been no clear and consistent policy line on militancy, the US drone attacks, opening up to India for peace and trade, and the privatisation policy at home.
The PPP’s conduct on the floor of parliament is unsatisfactory. It shies away from constructive engagement with the PML-N government for legislation and its implementation. Its abject acquiescence to the demand for peace negotiations with the militants was opposed to Bilawal Bhutto’s recent public stand on this issue. The party’s performance on the matter of pushing amendments to the local bodies law in the Sindh Assembly smacked of a lack of will to reach an understanding with the MQM.
The party’s use of such hackneyed and lifeless slogans as ‘bread, cloth and shelter’ four decades after these had electrified public imagination — but later proved to be progressively unrewarding — point to a non–inventive mindset and non-serious attitude. The party leadership seems to have lost the will to fight and regain the lost ground in popular support. While Asif Zardari was able to keep the party united after Benazir Bhutto and his successor is expected to do the same, the party itself is getting emaciated outside its safe haven in rural Sindh.
Meanwhile, millions of religious and sectarian minorities, progressive intelligentsia, trade unionists, as well as lesser tribal and factional groupings remain unrepresented in the political system. Whether the PPP will win back this huge vote bank remains an open question. Given its directionless agenda at the national level and clueless governance in Karachi, it lacks the wherewithal to bounce back to the centre stage any time soon.
Only the PPP’s agenda of bringing about the generational transition in leadership is clear. The former president has quietly receded from public glare. His heir apparent has made himself visible through various public platforms. This phenomenon would create a whole new stratum of friends and advisers for the party’s new leader and thus lead to reshuffle of some of them and alienation of others. The party would, perhaps, experience a rehash of the transition from the ‘old guard’ to Benazir Bhutto’s confidants a generation ago.
The PPP has not thrashed out a policy of reforming its internal organisation through any innovative steps, such as holding an all-Pakistan party conference and thus getting the input of its cadres and workers from various groups and communities. Nor is the party poised for devising a new strategy of reaching out to the voting public at large. Punjab continues to be a big challenge to the party leadership in terms of its shrinking political landscape.
With a weak second and third line of leadership, an opaque policy framework, hollow ideological slogans and absence of a strategy for re-establishing a support base for itself, the PPP continues to operate as a directionless and clueless party.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2014.