Bilawal and the future of the PPP

Published: January 31, 2014
The writer is a professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS

The writer is a professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS

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.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Haider
    Jan 31, 2014 - 11:58PM

    Couldn’t agree more! About time the PPP listened to and responded to the pulse of the Punjab’s political trends.


  • F Khan
    Feb 1, 2014 - 12:28AM

    Agree. Do not know what’s going on with PPP. The country is in the middle of its worst times. We are unable to even give polio drops to our infants, and BBZ is insisting on a ‘song and dance’ show?Recommend

  • Toticalling
    Feb 1, 2014 - 12:40AM

    I do not believe in one man changing much in a society obsessed with conservative and traditional attitudes. But it is good to hear somebody talks straight about terrorism, liberal values and bring about change. Zardari has not been good for the party and that is the reason why PPP lost ground. But he completed the term and handed over the goverrnment to opposition which is something we should give him all credit for. After all this is the first time in Pakistan.
    I say good luck Bilawal. Keep walking on the path of modern thinking. If that is the only light at the end of dark tunnel, we will watch your performance in coming years. Do not disappoint us.


  • salman
    Feb 1, 2014 - 1:20AM

    Seems like bilawal is just tweeting away and others are making decisions in PPP.


  • Mirza
    Feb 1, 2014 - 3:35AM

    This is rather critical but substantive Op Ed by a scholar. It can be a good advise for young Bilawal who at his tender age has better command of Urdu and oratory than his grandfather. This is one of the reason there is too much reaction from the rightwing.
    Not only Bilawal should go back to basics including socialist program but also party elections and brining home all the disappointed old party supporters. At every instant Bilawal and PPP should show and prove that they are not in bed with the extreme rightwing terrorists. By speaking and standing up for, minorities, smaller sect of Muslims, ethnic groups, poor masses and women PPP can get back to its roots.Recommend

  • Raees Ahmad
    Feb 1, 2014 - 7:01AM

    If you are in PPP, you will not find any indiscipline or any flaw in strategy and if you are not in it, You have nothing to do with either it is clueless or aimless. Do your business. Sell your product.


  • waqas
    Feb 1, 2014 - 10:01AM

    don’t see ppp rising in the next 10 years.


  • Tariq Bashir
    Feb 1, 2014 - 11:41AM

    ALL these scholars drumming up this privileged kid, who have no qualification except that he is a Bhutto? Shame on these scholars !


  • Ali S
    Feb 1, 2014 - 1:03PM

    Why should the rest of the country play second-fiddle to what happens in Punjab? I think PPP is a failure even in Sindh – they’re cozy with the local landlords that’s why they have guaranteed votes there, but apart from BISP (which too is marred with all sorts of allegations) they’ve done nothing in their rural Sindh – don’t take my word for it, just take a visit there. They’ve completely neglected Karachi (Sindh’s biggest asset by far) and still haven’t come to terms with the fact that they need to accept MQM as a legit partner since they’re the only ones capable of running the mess that is Karachi.


  • Parvez
    Feb 1, 2014 - 1:51PM

    What Pakistan faces is a serious leadership vacuum…….there is nothing in the pipeline.
    Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has an opportunity to do something worthwhile but the baggage he carries especially that of his father and the image his party has acquired over the last six or more years is something way beyond Bilawal’s ability to fix.


  • Muhammad
    Feb 1, 2014 - 2:49PM

    Bilawal is the only one who has clarity of vision on terrorism, talks about progressive Pakistan.
    I hope he does walk his talk. I hope dos’t disappoint us. Good luck to him.


  • Urooj Hussein
    Feb 1, 2014 - 4:01PM

    The article is obviously biased with little real substance. Whether one likes it or not PPP has weathered the storm of leadership & direction since its founding four decades ago. The same was being said about BiBi when she took over whilst in her 20’s,, No doubt PPP has work to do in southern Punjab but there is still time and in a democracy time is on the side of PPP and specially young & energetic Bilawal. Make no mistake about it, give another four years and you’ll see Bilawal B Zardari shake the earth under the feet of politicians & take the party to a new progressive level come election 2018. strong textRecommend

  • drkhataumal
    Feb 1, 2014 - 4:27PM

    congratulations express tribune on views of waseem sahibRecommend

  • Hammad Akbar
    Feb 1, 2014 - 9:14PM

    In conclusion: Bakhtawar is a good rapper; too bad she’d have to get martyred for Sindh, the only way PPP would ever get any votesRecommend

  • x
    Feb 1, 2014 - 10:40PM

    @Hammad Akbar:
    Best comment. LOL.Recommend

  • MAD
    Feb 3, 2014 - 4:54PM

    My two cents here are that there is no plan for the PPP to come into power in 2018. They just want to hold on to Sindh. However the election after that in 2023 when Bilawal will likely have achieved the required age to become PM (like his mother in 1988) will be the year PPP will plan its move. Till than do keep an eye on two parties the PTI and the MQM. I have a strong feeling both will be looking quite different from what they are now in 2018.


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